Ukrainians 'live in hope' in Grand Forks after escaping war-torn country
Ukrainian couple resettle, with their young son, in Grand Forks after harrowing experience in war-torn country
GRAND FORKS – Whenever there’s a sudden loud noise, Hanna Dickinson can’t help but notice her 19-month-old grandson flinches and cowers for a moment.
It’s understandable, given what he’s already experienced in his native Ukraine.
Dickinson is hoping that because he’s so young, Anton will not remember the terror of the bombing in his home country in the months since the Russian invasion began in February.
Hanna Dickinson’s daughter and son-in-law, Anastasia and Artem Bazhina, and Anton fled their apartment in Kharkiv the day the Russians began bombing that city. They moved into Hanna and John Dickinson's home in south Grand Forks last month.
Anastasia remembers vividly Feb. 24, the day their world shook – she lets out a “zzzzz” sound and shivers as she describes the noise.
“Artem said, ‘Maybe it’s fireworks,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, it’s not fireworks.”
The couple gathered what they could in short order and took refuge with Hanna’s sister, Katya, in Merchik, 40 miles west of Kharkiv, where conditions were somewhat better. Kharkiv is about 20 miles from the Russian border.
In all, eight family members crowded into Katya’s home. But there, at least, they had electricity, heat and basic necessities, and access to the internet. Anastasia, Artem and Anton later moved into a rented two-room flat in Old Merchik, where they spent nights; they spent daytimes with Katya.
With the bombing of Kharkiv, their flat – where Anastasia lived from the age of 6 until this past February – was in shambles, as evidenced by video the family received. Windows were broken out and the door was blown off. A neighbor re-secured it.
“What the bombs didn’t hit, the blast concussion blew out,” John Dickinson said.
The school where she started her education, only five minutes from her home, is destroyed, she said, along with other schools in the country.
“A building near us – 16 floors high – was bombed and destroyed,” Anastasia said.
Artem’s place of business – an auto body repair and paint shop he built 10 years ago – was destroyed in the first week of the war.
Artem is very knowledgeable and skilled in auto repair, including transmission and undercarriage repairs, John said.
After the loss of his business, he fixed vehicles for the Ukraine military. He chose to do the work without compensation to support the war effort, Anastasia said.
Ukrainian men who are between the ages of 18 and 60 have been required to stay in the country, but are not drafted into the military, John Dickinson, Hanna’s husband, said in an interview with the Herald this past spring. He retired from military service in the U.S. Air Force.
The family waited “a long time” to obtain permission to leave Ukraine, Anastasia said. “It’s really hard.”
She, Artem and Anton were granted the status of humanitarian parole and received travel authorization under President Biden’s “Uniting For Ukraine” plan to bring 100,000 Ukraine refugees to the U.S., John said.
Anastasia’s travel authorization was set to expire Aug. 6; Artem’s on Aug. 20.
On July 20, the family left Merchik, heading for Warsaw, Poland. They left most of their belongings behind. The journey took more than a week; Anastasia and Anton left Ukraine on July 28 and Artem left a couple days later.
Hanna met them in Poland, to help with their travels, their baby and belongings. They stayed about a week in Warsaw before leaving for the U.S.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Anastasia says, is doing a “good job” leading the country and its military efforts against Russia. He has not fled Ukraine, she said. “He tries to support our people.”
Citizens who must leave their homes because of the war receive funds from the government, she said. “For some, it’s their only source of income.”
Coming to America as refugees, Artem left behind his own business and Anastasia, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian and English, relinquished a good job working for a company that sells automobile parts for all kinds of cars, including those manufactured in Germany and Japan. She worked in a supplies department.
Executives of that company have told her that she can return to the job, if she ever wishes to. About the possibility of working remotely, she said, given the eight-hour time difference, it would be impractical.
Also, Anastasia believes, “it would be dangerous to go to Kharkiv” for more than two years, she said, noting that it “will take a long time (to win the war).”
As of Aug. 28, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified that 5,663 civilians, or unarmed individuals, have died during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; of those, 365 were children. The OHCHR further states that 8,055 people, including 625 children, were reported to have been injured.
The trauma of war is not easily shed.
Oh the first day in America, when Anastasia heard aircraft overhead, she said, “I was afraid.”
Transition to new home
In Grand Forks, she and her family are adjusting to a new, peaceful life — one free of fear and turmoil.
After several weeks living here, she has been surprised to find such wide open spaces, and the large stores spread out over a massive property footprint. In Ukraine, buildings are erected in a “compact” fashion and built many stories high.
The multitude of public parks here provides lots of space for Anton to run and play; and in his grandparents’ yard, he has a swing and scooter to enjoy.
“He runs,” said Anastasia, 28. “This is a good place for him.”
Her husband, 36, is learning English in an adult education program, she said. “When Anton sleeps, he opens a book (to study).”
They will need to obtain special permits to work here.
In his efforts to help the Bazhinas’ transition to life here, John Dickinson is deeply impressed with how Grand Forks County Social Services employees have assisted with providing access to SNAP benefits; EBT cards and Medicaid coverage.
“I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done; they are absolute angels,” he said. “I filed an application on a Saturday night, and by (the next) Tuesday I was talking with someone at Social Services.”
He marveled at “how professional and compassionate” the employees are, he said, “and how much they did and how quickly.”
Hope to stay
Anastasia and Artem Bazhina, who celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary Saturday, Sept. 3, are unsure how long they will live with the Dickinsons. Many questions have yet to be answered.
“We want to stay here (in Grand Forks),” Anastasia said. If they cannot, they may consider moving to Canada or a European country.
Ultimately, the couple may apply and – they hope – be approved for asylum to remain in the U.S., John said.
“We live in hope.”