In Sacramento, refugees are helping refugees.
Dina Samodarov is one of them. For the past week, she’s been on her phone nonstop, taking calls from fellow church members who want to assist Ukrainians under siege, and funneling donations to missionaries on the ground.
“I have been emotionally kind of crying inside,” Samodarov said while watching her nephews at her home in Auburn, “because the whole country and friends there [are] innocent people dying for no reason.”
Samodarov and her family came to the United States as refugees in 1999, because of the religious persecution her family experienced under the Soviet Union.
Now, she and many other Christians in the Sacramento area are at the forefront of the war support effort — raising money, organizing political and religious events, even flying back to the war zone.
Sacramento has one of the largest communities of recently arrived Ukrainian immigrants in the United States, according to a 2020 census analysis by the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.
More than 16,000 Ukrainian-born immigrants came to the Sacramento metro area since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, according to their analysis, more than to any area outside New York, Chicago and Seattle.
But members of the Ukrainian community in Sacramento say the number of people in their diaspora is much larger — up to 100,000 — and many attend Slavic churches in the area, such as Spring of Life in Orangevale, or the First Ukrainian Baptist Church in Roseville.
This past week, Vadim Dashkevych, a pastor at Spring of Life Church, co-organized a large rally near Sacramento’s Capitol, and a prayer breakfast for dozens of Ukrainains, religious leaders and politicians. Then he flew to Poland’s border with Ukraine to connect with humanitarian missionaries.
“God did a big work inside very tough situations,” said Dashkevych.“Prayer, that's [the] most powerful weapon that we can have in the world.”
Why Sacramento’s Ukrainian community is one of the United States’ largest
There were three waves of immigration from Ukraine, according to Vlad Skots, the third one starting around 1990. The most recent was when most of the Ukrainians started coming to Sacramento, he said.
“United States opened some special program for them,” Skots said. “In this case, it was a lot of Christian families because they were persecuted there by communism regime.”
Indeed, according to the Migration Policy Institute many Ukrainians were able to emigrate to the U.S. through the Lautenberg Amendment, which starting in 1990 created a pathway for people persecuted under the U.S.S.R.
Under Soviet Russia, people of any faith tradition, including Christianity and Judaism, could be taken to prison for practicing their beliefs.
“Especially during the Stalin years, many churches and synagogues were destroyed,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst with the Institute. “So people who wanted to practice their religion, they did it on the underground.”
The Lautenberg Amendment was available to any persecuted religious person, but evangelical Christians in particular took advantage of it to come to the United States, said Batalova.
California was a destination for Ukrainian immigrants, said Skots, because it’s “beautiful” and Sacramento is not as expensive as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Lubow Jowa, president of the Ukrainian Heritage Club of Northern California, said there was another force that drew Ukrainians to the area: a Christian pastor.
“He had an outreach to these people who were trying to emigrate,” said Jowa. “He invited them to come to his church here in Sacramento … [and] they gravitated to a man who was offering them some help.”
Jowa says because most of the Ukrainians who came to the Sacramento area were religious, they have “very strong beliefs,” which lean toward traditional values and may align with the Republican party. But the younger or less religious in the Ukrainian diaspora may no longer hold conservative values, according to Jowa.
Sacramento’s immigrants helping the war effort
Sixty-seven-year-old Nadia Vavrynyuk also emigrated as a refugee from the Ukraine because of the religious persecution she experienced under Soviet rule.
Her son is now a minister at the First Ukrainian Baptist Church of Sacramento, which is also raising money for the humanitarian effort in Ukraine.
Growing up in Ukraine, Vavrynyuk says fellow Christians had to worship in inconspicuous places like “the woods” or in a private home to avoid fines or prosecution. Her father, who was also a pastor, was imprisoned for 10 years as a youth for being a Christian and refusing to fight for the Russians, she said.
“They would not allow me to get any further in work or school because I would not put my beliefs aside,” Vavrynyuk said through an interpreter. Because higher education or work opportunities weren’t available to her, she worked in a factory and did a lot of night shifts.
Although she came to the U.S. in 2002, more than 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Vavrynyuk says she wanted to leave behind a legacy of Soviet-era political leadership in Ukraine.
“The Communists never really left, and we were not sure whether or not the country will follow them or whether it's going to change,” Vavrynyuk said.
Her late husband’s family and close friends are still in Ukraine, and she said she has constantly been on the phone with them since the Russian invasion.
“I hear them crying, I cry with them,” Vavrynyuk said, fighting back tears. “The situation just absolutely does not leave my mind.”
Back to the homeland
Dina Samodarov didn’t just have the stress of being a translator, a fundraiser, a mother and a babysitter of her nephews this week. She also was helping coordinate her parents’ trip to Poland, where they flew on Tuesday in hopes of crossing the border into Ukraine to rescue their two year-old grandson.
“My nephew, we're planning to get him out of the war zone into Poland. And then we're going to ask for refugee status, maybe so that we can bring him here,” Samodarov said.
Her father, Volodymyr Androshchuk, is 65 and has a prosthetic right leg. Despite the extreme risk, he plans to stay in Ukraine after rescuing his grandson to help other disabled people in the humanitarian crisis.
“I have to be there, where it's very bad for people,” Androshchuk said.
“Wherever there's a need, or [it’s] hard to breathe for people, as [a] Christian, I want to be there.”
Samodarov will be watching the war unfolding in her homeland in the coming weeks, and will be keeping tabs on the welfare of her parents, nephew, and two brothers there.
She said she’s worried about her parents, who left their safety behind in the U.S. But as she put it:
“It has to be done.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of Slavic churches in the Sacramento area. It has been corrected.
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