Since war struck Ukraine earlier this year, millions have fled the country to find safety. But one Sacramento-area family has thrown themselves right into the conflict.
Just two days after the Russian invasion, Dina Samodarov and her father, Volodymyr Androshchuk, went to a prayer breakfast at Spring of Life Church, an evangelical Baptist church in Orangevale. It was February 26, and the church was packed with Ukrainians, gathered to find solace from leaders and friends.
“My two brothers are still there with my little nephew. … We're trying to reunite with him,” said Samodarov, after fighting back tears.
The mother of Samodarov’s three year-old nephew in Ukraine had died of COVID, and the boy’s father — her brother — was paralyzed. Dina Samodarov was arranging for her father, a 65 year-old man with a prosthetic right leg and a jolly demeanor, to fly back into the conflict zone to retrieve his grandson, Ben Androshchuk.
“I’m trying to be calm,” Dina explained in those first days of war in Ukraine.
“But it's really hard to believe that it's happening to my land and to people that I love.”
Refugees helping refugees
The first week after the invasion, Dina Samodarov was on her phone nonstop, funneling donations to missionaries helping Ukrainians under siege.
“People have been calling me all morning today,” Samodarov said while babysitting her nephews at her home in Auburn.
Samodarov is one of many Ukrainians in the Sacramento area who has been supporting the war response through churches. The region is home to one of the largest communities of recently arrived Ukrainians outside Seattle, Chicago and New York, according to a University of Michigan analysis, and many of them are Christian.
People of any faith tradition, including Christianity and Judaism, were persecuted under the USSR, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and many were prevented from higher education and jobs. Some worshiped underground to escape fines and punishment.
In 1990, the United States gave a pathway to those persecuted under the USSR through the Lautenberg Amendment, after which many Christians, like Dina Samodarov and her family, came as refugees to the United States.
On March 1, the Tuesday after the invasion, Samodarov was out of breath because of the sheer number of things she was juggling. In just a few hours, she would drive her parents to the airport so they could fly to Poland and embark on a journey to rescue their grandson.
“My friend will be picking them up from airport ... giving them shelter for the night,” she said. “And then in the morning they will leave to cross the border to Ukraine.”
Volodymyr Androshchuk, 65, with his daughter, Dina Samodarov, right before he took a plane to Poland to try to enter war-torn Ukraine to rescue his grandson and help with humanitarian efforts.Pauline Bartolone / CapRadio
Volodomyr walks up from another part of the hillside property in Auburn. You wouldn’t guess he’s about to fly to a war zone across the world. He moves slowly, like a 65 year old man with a potbelly on a hot day. Volodymyr has a prosthetic right leg. He was disabled from an accident working in a factory in Ukraine. I ask him, through Dina, how he’s feeling about his upcoming mission.
“I have to be there, where it's very bad for people because that's where the need is,” Volodymyr said.
Volodymyr Androshchuk wasn’t just planning to retrieve his grandson. He also planned to stay in Ukraine to help people stuck amid a humanitarian crisis. As a disabled person, he says he has connections that can help other disabled people passing through Rivne, his hometown in Western Ukraine.
“Wherever there's a need, or [it’s] hard to breathe for people as Christian, I want to be there,” he said.
A California family separated by war in Ukraine
On March 11, two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dina Samodarov went back to her office for the first time since the start of the war. She co-runs a financial advising business with her husband, Denis Samodarov. But she said it was hard to focus on work.
“[I’m] trying to keep my emotions under control,” she said. “It's really hard to think about something else other than what really is the most important for me at this moment.”
Denis Samodarov is also a pastor at a Slavic Baptist church in the area. Also, he’s Russian.
“Russians are crazy,” Denis Samodarov said with a laugh.
His ancestors fled Russia generations ago. He grew up in the Republic of Georgia, and then his family moved to Russia again when he was a teenager, after the fall of the Soviet Union. He says people there are brainwashed by the Russian media, he says.
“They will say, ‘Hey, we are protecting our borders and we don't want the United States to get closer to us,” Denis Samodarov said. “It’s all politics, but media playing a huge role.”
Dina and Denis Samodarov at the financial advising business they run in Roseville, California.Pauline Bartolone / CapRadio
Dina Samodarov wasn’t thinking so much about politicians on March 11; she was thinking about her family. She had good news: Her parents rescued their grandson from Western Ukraine, and brought him to Poland.
“Our concern right now is [that] we have this three year-old. We’re planning to bring him to the United States somehow, and nobody's giving the visas any more,” she said.
“So we're stuck. We're a little bit stuck now.”
Her mom, Valentina Androshchuk, was in Poland, waiting for her grandson to receive refugee status so that she could fly him back to California.
As for her dad, Androshchuk, he had thrown himself fully into the humanitarian effort in war-torn Ukraine.
Three weeks into the war in Ukraine, Dina Samodarov was still glued to her phone at her home in Auburn. She was watching videos her dad sent of his work in the conflict zone, driving food and hygiene products from Poland into Western Ukraine. On his way back to Poland, he was bussing refugees out.
Footage shows him loading boxes into a white van, speaking calmly into the camera. He’s wearing a heavy winter coat and hat.
“It's very organized,” she said.
On the night of March 18, she connected with her dad via video. He was staying in a Polish shelter: a couple of rooms in a modest apartment, with wooden bunk beds for fewer than a dozen people.
She explained that he’s living with other refugees in that building, but only temporarily. Androshchuk changes location every couple days.
His grandson is excited about coming to the United States. And Dina Samodarov says the grandchild will fit right in with their big extended family in California.
Volodymyr Androshchuk (far left) and his grandson (second from left) stand in front of a van filled with supplies for Ukraine.Courtesy of Dina Samodarov
“He wants to meet with his cousins. We never met yet,” she said. “We have a four year-old too, and he’s three. So they will play together really well.”
Rescuing their grandchild
In April, Dina Samodarov’s plan to bring her nephew to safety in the U.S. came to fruition.
The family made a stop at Disneyland.Courtesy Dina Samodarov
Ben Androshchuk and his grandma, Valentina Androshchuk, flew to Tijuana on April 3, and Dina Samodarov met them there to help them across the border.
She says they spent just three-and-a-half hours at the border, and her grandchild got a one-year visa to live in the U.S.
“God gave us miracle and we crossed in the shortest time,” Dina texted on April 4. “We are so thankful!!!”
Before embarking on their final leg home to the Sacramento area, she says they made an important stop for this three year old refugee: a full-day adventure in Disneyland.
As for Volodymyr Androshchuk, he returned to Northern California on April 15. But he’s not staying away from the war zone for long. He’s currently fundraising, with the help of Dina and Denis Samodarov’s church, so he can return to Ukraine as soon as possible to continue to help with the humanitarian crisis.
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