Ukrainian Refugees Find a Temporary Home in Cowlitz County


The Ishchuk family’s Kelso home is 5,500 miles and a continent away from where their year began.

Natalia and Anatolii Ishchuk and their seven children are from a small village outside Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine. The town is about the same size as Kelso. The soil is black and rich. The weather is mild. The family didn’t have a lot but were happy to occasionally travel to Vinnytsia for events or to see relatives.

Then Russia invaded their country on Feb. 24. The Ishchuks are one of a handful of Ukrainian families and individual refugees who landed in Cowlitz County this year as millions fled the country.

Some came to be with relatives who were already in the region. Others, like the Ishchuks, only knew there would be a Kelso church, where members spoke their language, and a place to sleep.

“I was thankful for the fact that my kids were able to sleep in safety, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the things that were uncomfortable,” Natalia said, speaking through an interpreter at Living Word Church in Kelso.

The family spent months living in an apartment in the church basement.

The family only lived in Ukraine for 10 days after Russia invaded, but the war immediately changed their lives. Anatolii helped make roadblocks to slow down Russian troops, while Natalia made camouflage for Ukrainian military vehicles. Missiles flew overhead, aimed at airports and power stations, and traumatized the kids below.

“Even now, as much time that has passed, when airplanes are flying overhead they still duck down,” Natalia said.

Their trip to the U.S. took about three months and four countries. The family initially fled to Poland, where they lived for about two months. After a false start in April, they were able to enter the U.S. government refugee system heading to the large Eastern European community in Sacramento.

They lived in California for a few weeks, but Natalia said they couldn’t find a place where they could afford to live. Another relative connected them with Kelso’s Living Word Church, in a state they knew little about, but which had room in a basement apartment for them.

“Right now they’re in crisis mode,” said Cindy Lopez Werth, board president of the Ethnic Support Council in Longview. “They’re still figuring out their basic day-to-day needs.”


A Call From the Warzone

Late on Feb. 23, Viktoria Ross got a call from her daughter Anna Boiko. Ross married an American and moved to northern Oregon in 2019. It was evening when she got the call but morning for her 25-year-old daughter in Dnipro, one of Ukraine’s largest cities.

Boiko worked at a bank and lived in an apartment near the Dnipro River. In her free time, she designed tattoos, like the one on the back of her mother’s neck. But what mattered that day was the war.

Her boyfriend was out of the country on a business trip but left his car behind. With her mother still on the phone, Boiko jumped in the car and fled the city toward her grandmother in a smaller village. She slept in the car when she hit a three-hour line at a gas station.

After a few days with her grandmother, Boiko was able to pack onto a refugee train and flee to live with friends she had in the Czech Republic.

“She can’t go the first day because there’s so many people. She can’t get any luggage, only a little purse with her documents,” Ross said. “There was no light, no windows in the train, no heating.”

In October Boiko was finally able to enter the U.S. through the Uniting for Ukraine visa program. Boiko moved into the spare bedroom of an Ethnic Support Council employee and commuted to Lower Columbia College to begin learning English.

Earlier this week, Ross and Boiko told the support council they plan to move in together in the Portland area. Lopez Werth said a move out of Longview was common for new immigrants to the area.

“The people who have to come here tend not to stay very long. They want to go to the bigger cities where there are communities of people like them,” Lopez Werth said.

Ross was happy the two of them had reunited in the U.S. but it had not been an easy transition for her daughter. Her grandmother and other relatives remain in Ukraine. It is unclear what her life would become if and when she does return to Dnipro.

“She wants to start a new life because nobody knows how much this will continue,” Ross said. “Even when the war stops, it will be very hard to find a job because of all the infrastructure destroyed.”



The Support Network in Longview

It was around 30 years ago that the first major wave of eastern European immigrants arrived in Cowlitz County. They left as the Soviet Union dissolved into more than a dozen newly independent nations.

Slavik Gerega translated for Natalia during The Daily News’ interview with her. The Geregas arrived in Longview in 1991 from the area now known as Moldova. Before that the family had lived in Ukraine and Gerega grew up speaking a mix of Russian and a local Ukrainian dialect.

Gerega moved throughout the Pacific Northwest as an adult but is now heavily involved with the Living Word Church. The church provides services in English and Russian for a community with family roots in Ukraine and Belarus and Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

“We want to help those that are in need but try not to make a nationalistic stance. It’s more about the evil and the people who are responsible for the war, not condemning a whole nation,” Gerega said.

The church has provided the most help to the Ishchuks but has also worked with other Ukrainian families fleeing the war. During the initial stages of the war, the church hosted three generations of a family while they waited for their husbands to arrive. There were other bursts of help for families who drove down from Castle Rock or north from Vancouver to attend church events.

Gerega’s Ukrainian language skills have rusted over the years in Washington. He said it is a common change for children of immigrants like himself, which in some ways makes it tougher for new arrivals.

“The new immigrants are trying, but it seems like they have to adapt must faster because the early immigrants have assimilated and have become more American than Slavs in some ways,” Gerega said.



‘She Actually Feels Like She’s Living’

The Ishchuks feel settled after months of uncertainty. Anatolii started a new job which makes just enough to cover the monthly rent at their new home. Their kids are enrolled in the Kelso School District, where they have Ukrainian keyboards to help communicate with teachers and are beginning to make friends.

Natalia still struggles with the language barrier. A handful of volunteer translators speak Ukrainian but others translate for her through Russian.

Natalia has a brother in the Ukrainian military, a sister in Kiev, and her mother in their small hometown. In October, a thermal power plant near Vinnytsia was hit with a drone strike, contributing to the widespread power shortages and blackouts that are covering Ukraine as the winter begins.

It’s hard to watch from afar. Natalia said she is frightened for Ukraine, but also sure the country will win the war, and happy for her family’s safety.

“My eldest daughter once said that now she actually feels like she’s living,” Natalia said, “instead of going through the motions of life since the war.”