Mother, baby daughter fled city of Kharkiv when Russians attacked it

Morgan Hill Rotary Club members with Ganna Schcherbatykn and her daughter, Diana. Photo courtesy Rotary Club of Morgan Hill.

By Calvin Nuttall

Photo courtesy Morgan Hill Rotary Club
Ukrainian refugees Ganna Schcherbatykn and two-year-old daughter, Diana.

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, refugees like Ganna Schcherbatykn and her two-year-old daughter, Diana, face an uncertain future. However, when a community bands together to welcome these displaced Ukrainians, an unfamiliar place can become a new home.

Last Christmas, the Schcherbatykns received such a welcome. Through a partnership with Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, members of the Rotary Club of Morgan Hill made arrangements to supply the young, displaced family with everything from basic household essentials to toys and learning tools for the girl. They live in Milpitas.

“It was very unexpected,” Schcherbatykn said. “My English teacher, Aura, one day called me and said, ‘There are some very good people who want to give a little Christmas miracle for you and your daughter.’”

This “miracle” was arranged by JFS after Schcherbatykn signed up for their program, called “Embrace-A-Family,” which connects co-sponsors with a family in need to provide assistance during the holidays. Despite the fact Ganna and her daughter arrived in the U.S. too late to apply to be a part of the program, the Rotary Club arranged with JFS to adopt the two after the deadline.

“We are so excited we could come together and Morgan Hill Rotary was able to make this happen,” said Michelle Lee, senior director of programs at JFS. “To see the sparkles on Ganna and her daughter’s faces was great.”

On very short notice, Rotary members gathered donations of clothing, laundry detergent, books, toys, food gift cards, and other supplies to help the Schcherbatykns settle in and feel at home in their new apartment.

“We take for granted the smallest things as American citizens,” Lee said. “Just being able to go to the store and shop for our own groceries, or being able to buy a winter coat, or a book for our children. Ganna was just so overjoyed that the Rotary Club would go out of their way to get them these things.”

As the gifts piled up around them, Schcherbatykn said she felt like a child again on Christmas.

“It was a very pleasant and unusual moment for me,” she said. “I was happy and it was like a little miracle for me and my daughter. I see that there are many kind and attentive people here.”

Schcherbatykn and her daughter hail from the city of Kharkiv, which Russian forces attempted to capture near the start of their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022. The early days of the war, Schcherbatykn said, were the most horrible days of her life.

“I was alone with my daughter who was just three months old,” she said. “I had to leave Kharkiv and go to my parents, who live in the middle of Ukraine. It seemed to be safer, at that time, but later I understood that there is no safe place in Ukraine.”

Though Ukrainian forces eventually rebuffed the initial Russian thrust toward Kharkiv, missiles continued to rain down on cities across the country, even those far from the front line.

“Some days were so terrible,” Schcherbatykn said. “I worried about my daughter’s life, and, of course, my life. I had to find another place. My parents stayed behind, and they live always in fear. It is a pity they have not had the opportunity to come with me. Now I have been here for about half a year, and the main thing is I am safe, and my daughter is safe. The other problems we are solving step by step.”

An experienced video game designer, Schcherbatykn is now looking for employment while also taking classes to improve her English, all while raising her young daughter.

She greatly misses the family she was forced to leave behind. In order for them to visit, they would also need a sponsor in order to come to the U.S. through the Uniting For Ukraine (U4U) program that brought Schcherbatykn here.

“I would like very much to see my parents here,” she said. “Maybe somebody can help with this. They miss me very much, and I miss them, and they miss their granddaughter. They tell me this every day. It would be great if they could come, maybe for a month, not forever. They are not ready to leave Ukraine forever right now. I just need somebody who could be a sponsor.”

Like many refugees living in the United States, Schcherbatykn lives in a state of uncertainty about her future. She has been allowed to stay here under a “temporary protected status” from the U.S. Immigration Services. She will have to reapply at the end of two years to retain the status.

“As I see it, I don’t know when the war will end,” she said. “I think it may last for many years. So I’d like to stay here long-term, because I think it would be better for my daughter. But it is very difficult to make any plans for the future, being in our situation. We are just trying to build our lives here now.”

Jewish Family Services is one of a handful of organizations that assist clients like Schcherbatykn in adjusting to life as refugees in the U.S. and work with them to maintain their protected status as long as possible, either until it is safe for them to return home, or until the government comes up with a pathway for families like the  Schcherbatykns to more long-term residency.

“Unfortunately, war alone does not qualify you to apply for asylum in the U.S.,” Lee said. “Which is a horrible feeling. What our legal team here at JFS does is work on behalf of our clients to ensure their status as parolees is not stripped away from them. We are fighting on behalf of our clients to ensure they can have the comfort to sleep at night, knowing their parolee status will continue on.”

The Rotary Club of Morgan Hill members views their collaboration with JFS as a template for a longer-term relationship, said Arlene Noodleman, a physician and Rotarian. The partnership began after members became committed to the idea of sponsoring a refugee family but found they needed help in executing it.

“These are things we couldn’t do on our own,” she said. “The whole idea of helping by sponsoring a refugee family was something we became very committed to, but we had no idea what to do or how to do it. We reached out to some resettlement agencies when we realized we couldn’t do it alone, and ultimately partnered with JFS, and we have been so pleased with them.”

Continuing with their collaboration, Morgan Hill Rotary is now hosting a new Ukrainian family, the Barchuks, on a more long-term basis. These refugees arrived in late January and will be supported by Rotary through their entire resettlement process.

“We anticipate they will be with them beyond the 90-day resettlement period, maybe six months or all the way up to a year,” Lee said. “Knowing the hearts of the Morgan Hill Rotary Club, we know they will be with them for a lifetime, just as they will be with JFS for a lifetime.”

Calvin Nuttall is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter and columnist.