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BOUNTIFUL — Friday marks the first official week in America for a group of 11 Ukrainians.
Last month, KSL-TV shared the story of a Utah woman who met Ukrainian refugees in Poland and worked to bring them here to Beehive State.
Whitney Holcomb traveled to Poland in March to help Ukrainian refugees. It was there that Holcomb met Evgeny Zavoloka, whom she calls “Eugene”.
Zavoloka’s family and friends are a group of 11. They all evacuated from Ukraine shortly after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but they never anticipated that the Polish shelters they were staying in would become more permanent residences.
Although grateful for the shelter, Zavoloka said they live in an office space that was never meant to be a home – with hundreds sharing a few bathrooms on each floor.
In mid-June, Holcomb went on a zoom call with Zavoloka and KSL to talk about what they were going through. At this time, Holcomb hoped to sponsor Zavoloka and his band of 11 through the federal Uniting for Ukraine program.
“We submitted them seven weeks ago and still haven’t heard back,” Holcomb said.
Instead of waiting for an answer, Holcomb and her family decided to apply again. After three submissions, Holcomb received a call.
“We’ve completed their endorsements,” Holcomb said.
After months of worrying and waiting, Zavoloka and her group had three days until their flight to Salt Lake City, where a large welcome party was waiting, holding balloons, welcome signs and flowers.
“Everyone seemed as excited as me, and they had never met them before, but they all felt like they knew them,” Holcomb said.
The first feelings for Zavoloka were security and protection.
“After that beautiful cool nature, beautiful people always smiling,” Zavoloka said. “I think these people aren’t pretending, they’re smiling from the bottom of their hearts.”
I think they would just like to relax, breathe, but everyone is so excited for them to be here, including me.
Even things most wouldn’t notice on their travels, Zavoloka understood — like how useful airport security is with their immigration process.
“They try to help us, and if they were late, they apologized every time,” Zavoloka said. “They gave us water and asked us, ‘What do you need?’ After that, I relaxed.”
For a while, Zavoloka and his group of 11 found peace in Utah and at Holcomb.
“They give us like heaven,” Zavoloka said.
Holcomb said she realized her Ukrainian friends had been deprived of a lot of comforts over the past five months.
“So we want to give them happiness,” Holcomb said.
During their first three days in Utah, Holcomb noticed how attentive her Ukrainian guests were.
Prior to their arrival, Holcomb and her husband lived in their home. The couple now live in the basement while their 11 Ukrainian guests occupy the ground floor and the first floor. Still, the added 11 didn’t make the house chaotic or even crowded. Holcomb called their business a giveaway.
“They’re very conscientious,” Holcomb said. “Every time I walked past the front door, the shoes were all right and they were constantly doing the dishes.”
Ukrainian guests line up shoes in front of the front door as a courtesy to their hosts.
While their Ukrainian friends took care of the details around the house, Holcomb and his neighbors planned outings to show them around the state. The first three days, they went to the swimming pool twice, went on an ATV ride and a ride in a gyroplane.
“I think they would like to just relax, breathe, but everyone is so excited for them to be here, including myself,” Holcomb said.
The excitement of their first week in the United States was not diminished by the amount of paperwork and hard work to build a new life.
“I don’t know English well, as I would like,” Zavoloka said. “I want to open up my work and give people my knowledge, and maybe stress about it, about the future.”
Holcomb helps Zavoloka overcome these constraints and works with Catholic Community Services to help Zavoloka obtain American citizenship.
Holcomb also hopes to help some of her other Ukrainian friends she met in Poland.