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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Ukrainian immigrants, refugees, relatives bring local visibility to the war 

Davis Slavic community shows support for Ukranians both in Sacramento area and overseas 


By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org 


When President Joe Biden told NBC in February that Americans living in Ukraine should leave immediately, James Alderson and his family packed up small backpacks of their belongings and left Lviv, eventually winding up in Davis, CA. 

They drove over 500 miles to Romania, where they awaited news of the conflict. Just days later, Russia began firing missiles at major cities in Ukraine. Alderson and his wife made plans to re-enter the U.S. with their three young daughters — a task that was easier for them than many people displaced by the war in Ukraine since they are American citizens, so they were able to come back to family and friends in the Sacramento area.

With them was Jane Mokhava, a young Ukrainian woman who also hoped to escape the violence. Mokhava, who is not an American citizen, had to take a different path to the U.S. but also ended up in the Sacramento area. After traveling to Spain from Romania, she flew from Barcelona to Mexico City, then to Tijuana. At the border to the U.S., she waited for eight hours before she could show her documentation. She had identification, an address of her final destination and three letters that vouched for her care. 

This granted her status of humanitarian parole, which allows temporary entry into the U.S. without a visa for those with an “urgent humanitarian reason,” like fleeing a war. 

By coming to the U.S., Mokhava had to leave family and friends, some of whom are still in Ukraine. She said that some of her friends and family either couldn’t, or chose not to, leave their homes.

Mokhava’s brother stayed in Ukraine, where he is driving people from the eastern to the western part of the country, out of the areas of severe conflict and to the border where they can escape to neighboring countries. 

Her older sister is in Russia spreading anti-war sentiment — an act that Moklava said could get her arrested. Another sister is in Germany. Mokhava’s parents and youngest sister found refuge in Poland, where they have said they were accepted with open arms.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, of the more than five million people believed to have fled Ukraine, Poland has accepted 2.8 million as refugees. Romania has accepted the second largest number, totalling 750,000 as of April 19. Moldova, a small country that shares 759 miles of border with Ukraine, has taken in 427,000 refugees, which is nearly one-fifth of the size of its entire population.

Biden said that the U.S. would accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, though Dr. Josephine Andrews, a UC Davis associate professor in the Department of Political Science, said that there’s little infrastructure to allow many people in. Andrews, whose research and studies have been focused on Eastern European politics for many years, said that few refugees have been accepted into the U.S. other than through dire or indirect methods like that of Mokhava. 

Many of the refugees that enter the U.S. through Tijuana go to the Sacramento area because Sacramento is home to one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the country, according to an article by the Sacramento Bee. Alderson and his family came to neighboring Davis. 

Alderson and his wife met in Davis, working for the Christian group Intervarsity. They moved to Ukraine seven years ago, where their three daughters were born and where they lived up until a few months ago. Alderson said that the months leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine felt surreal. 

“It’s one of those things where you’re living in stress, you feel it every day, you hear it on the news, but then it’s like, it’s just politics, right?” Alderson said. “It doesn’t affect real life.” 

Then, he said, he heard Biden’s call for Americans to return to the U.S. and the whole situation suddenly felt more real. Though Ukraine and Russia have had a history of conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union, Alderson said that until the first invasion, a war seemed impossible. Andrews explained that though the countries have a history of conflict, they are also quite interconnected. 

“Ukrainians and Russians are very close, historically and culturally,” Andrews said. “Hundreds of Ukrainian families live in Russia and vice versa. You meet so many Russians whose grandmother or aunt or parent is Ukrainian. It’s crazy that this war is happening.”

For now, Alderson and Mokhava are staying in Davis. They have joined a group that meets every Wednesday in Davis’s Central Park for a vigil where they light candles, share stories and pray for the people of Ukraine. 

The group, which plans to raise funds and help find housing in Davis for Ukrainian refugees, is led by Irina Okhremtchouk, a resident of Davis and a professor at San Francisco State University. Many who are volunteering their time for the efforts are Slavic, and some also have family who are either still in Ukraine or who have fled to nearby countries. They shared their worry and sadness at one of the Wednesday night vigils. 

Dmitri Iacovlev, a first-year undeclared major and member of the Student Slavic Association at UC Davis, was born in Moldova and has a brother who lived in Ukraine for almost 20 years before recently leaving during an invasion. Iacovlev expressed his concern for his brother and also his anger at the lack of conversation and action by people in the U.S. — especially his feeling of isolation when trying to discuss the events with friends in Davis who aren’t part of the international community. 

Alderson said that it’s difficult for him when people tell him that they’re happy he’s back in the U.S. because it reminds him of his friends in Ukraine and the danger they’re facing. Mokhava said that she is also struggling thinking about the events she saw before leaving Ukraine and the stories she’s heard from people still there. Iacovlev said that he, and many with connections overseas, are overcome with worry and a longing to be with their family and friends again.

“I have family in Moldova and Ukraine, but physically I’m here,” Iacovlev said. “It’s a sort of isolation because in my mind I’m with them. And when people are not thinking or talking about this [war], it feels very much like the barrier between people grows.”

Alderson and Okhremtchouk said that one of the most impactful ways to show support is by “showing up.” Whether this is by donating money, volunteering at fundraisers, having conversations about the conflict, providing housing for refugees or going to these weekly vigils, they said that showing up for those affected means a lot for the Slavic community in Davis and abroad. 

“At the end of the day, we’re glad that people know where Ukraine is on the map,” Alderson said, “but we want them to continue to care.”


Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org



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