Elderly Ukrainian couple ‘carry the pain’ of war as they resettle in Palo Alto

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When the retired doctor and his wife fled their home in Ukraine, they took with them only the most precious things – a white linen tablecloth with pink edges hand-sewn by his great-great-grand- mother and a spoonful of soil from her garden which she keeps in a heart-shaped box.

Anatolii and Mariia Maslianchuk are over 70 and cling to the hope of returning to the home they shared for 50 years, the one they opened for days and weeks to refugees from the east of the country who needed shelter from the worst of the war.

Now they, too, are refugees, resettling in Palo Alto as guests of the Moldaw Family Residences, a retirement community with Jewish roots that sponsors them with free housing and meals.

Mariia Maslianchuk packed this heart-shaped box with holy water, bread and a spoonful of soil from her garden before she and her husband, Anatolli, fled their home in a Ukrainian village in April 2022. The Moldaw Retirement Community of Palo Alto gives them free housing for one year. (Photo courtesy of the Maslianchuk family)

“Most of us were affected by war,” said Elyse Gerson, whose grandparents fled Nazi Germany. “There are people here who are Holocaust survivors. My grandparents – me – wouldn’t be here if not for the kindness of strangers.

Since the couple arrived in Moldova three weeks ago, after a circuitous trip that took them through Turkey and Mexico, separated them for a time and hospitalized them for stress, neighbors have welcomed them with cards and greetings. The Maslianchuks greet guests with the traditional loaf of bread and salt and gently place it on the crisp linen tablecloth to share. They don’t speak English, so what they can’t express in words, they show in hugs and smiles.

But, as Mariia says, “I carry the pain with me”.

In an interview this week to the upscale retirement community, translated by their daughter, Oksana, who has lived in the United States for eight years, Mariia and Anatolii opened up about what they’ve been through.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, they and their neighbors opened their homes in western Ukraine to those fleeing the war-torn east. Some stayed only one night, during their stay to take refuge in the neighboring countries of Poland, Romania and Hungary. Others stayed for weeks or months.

It’s the image of an 11-year-old boy named Artem that haunts Mariia the most. His grandparents said they dodged bombs and saw soldiers die as they fled their home in Donetsk. The children and the elderly were encouraged to leave first, so the boy’s parents stayed. When Artem arrived at their doorstep, he was so traumatized that he couldn’t speak. He lived with the Maslianchuks and their neighbors for nearly three months, and his eyes were still filled with fear.

“I gave him some candy and tried to introduce him to my neighbors’ kids and get them to play together to take that stress off,” said Mariia, 70. “I would say these boys want to play with you, but it was difficult. Still, the boy was scared.

Anatolii, 73, had seen this kind of fear before. As a young doctor, he rode in an ambulance to evacuate terrified families from villages around Chernobyl after the nuclear reactor explosion in northern Ukraine in 1986. Most of his colleagues who were exposed to radiation like him died, he said. Anatolii is being treated for throat cancer.

After his exposure, he and his wife, whose daughter is their only child, decided not to have any more children. He didn’t know how long he would live to raise them.

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - JULY 27: Maslianchuk Mariia cries as she shares the story of the Ukrainian War in their new apartment at Moldaw Residences on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)
PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Maslianchuk Mariia cries as she shares the story of the Ukrainian War in their new apartment at Moldaw Residences on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

From the start of the war, Oksana begged her parents to come to the United States. A cousin had nearly died in eastern Ukraine, but had survived for two weeks in an underground shelter. Although the fighting was mostly centered miles along the eastern borders, sirens often sounded in the village of the Maslianchuks to the west, terrifying the boy each time. Danger always seemed close.

Oksana, a licensed radiologist in Ukraine, moved here in 2014, the last time the Russians invaded Ukraine, taking the Crimea region. While trying to re-establish her medical credentials, she worked as a live-in caregiver. She had no house of her own to welcome her parents. But she promised she would find something for them.

Oksana’s friends took them to their homes in Redwood City and San Francisco when they first arrived in April, and sometimes could only accommodate one relative or another. At different times, each was hospitalized, for Mariia’s heart problems and Anatolii’s cancer and other ailments exacerbated by stress.

Oksana eventually contacted Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a Bay Area human service charity that has been in business since the gold rush, when it first helped widows and orphans. . The organization’s core values ​​of welcoming strangers and “repairing the world” have led it to offer many services, including helping displaced families like the Maslianchuks. He has helped settle and seek benefits for 200 Ukrainians since the start of the war.

When the manager of the Moldaw Retirement Community offered to offer a one-bedroom apartment to an elderly Ukrainian couple in need, he recommended the Maslianchuks, who are Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.

  • Anatolli and Mariia Maslianchuk, who fled their home during the war...

    Anatolli and Mariia Maslianchuk, who fled their home in war-torn Ukraine in April 2022, wait at an unnamed airport en route to the United States, where their daughter was waiting for them and a retirement community in Palo Alto welcomed them with one year of free housing. (Photo courtesy of the Maslianchuk family)

  • PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - JULY 27: A table is adorned...

    PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: A table is adorned with a tablecloth brought from Ukraine in the Moldaw Residences apartment where Ukrainian refugees Anatolii and Mariia Maslianchuk now live Wednesday, July 27, 2022. The Maslianchuks fled their homeland in Ukraine and traveled to Palo Alto, where a Jewish community of senior citizens welcomed them and sponsored them with free housing and meals for the next year. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

  • PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Anatolii, left, and Mariia...

    PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Anatolii, left, and Mariia Maslianchuk talk about their home country of Ukraine with their daughter Oksana Maslyanchuk at their Moldaw Residences apartment on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 in Palo Alto, Calif. ( Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

  • PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Mariia Maslianchuk sits...

    PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Mariia Maslianchuk sits down to eat in her Moldaw Residences apartment on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Anatolii and Mariia Maslianchuk fled their homeland in Ukraine and traveled to Palo Alto, where a person Jewish Elder Life Community has taken them in and is sponsoring them with free housing and meals for the next year. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

  • PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Anatolii, left, and Mariia...

    PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 27: Anatolii, left, and Mariia Maslianchuk recount their experiences in their home country of Ukraine before fleeing to the United States at their Moldaw Residences apartment on Wednesday, July 27 2022 in Palo Alto, Calif. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

Betty and Neil Adler, who live in the retirement community, were among the first to welcome them. Neil is of Ukrainian descent; his grandparents were from Odessa and Kyiv. Betty’s parents fled Nazi Germany in 1938, when her older brother was three months old, just before “Crystal Night”, the night of broken glass when organized groups of Nazis ransacked Jewish neighborhoods.

“Most of my mother’s family members were murdered. All his uncles and aunts, cousins ​​and relatives. I never had these grandparents,” said American-born Betty. “My parents were refugees and they lived on a farm in Missouri where they didn’t have anyone around who spoke German. They were very isolated. My mother said the neighbors were very nice to them.

Helping the Maslianchuks is “pay it forward or pay it back,” she said. “We must help those in need.”

The retirement community promised to take care of them for at least a year. By then, the Maslianchuks hope to be back home. The 11-year-old boy has been reunited with his parents, giving them hope that they too will join their loved ones one day soon.

In the meantime, they will try to settle down and greet the neighbors with bread and salt.

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