CHEYENNE – Last month, Oleksandr Ageyev and his family celebrated Halloween for the first time.
Oleksandr’s daughter, 6-year-old Viktoriia, got to dress up, and they attended the Cheyenne Police Department’s trunk-or-treat event.
“It was very funny,” Oleksandr said.
Earlier this year, Oleksandr, his wife and daughter – both named Viktoriia Ageyeva – and their cat, Malish, fled Ukraine as the conflict instigated by Russia threatened their safety.
The family was living in Kherson in southern Ukraine when, around 5 a.m. one day in late February, they heard sirens signaling that Russia was invading the country. “We just heard the sirens, and we just packed our bags (and got) in the car,” Oleksandr told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle this week.
The drive to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, was a long one – there were a lot of people trying to drive to the region at the same time, Oleksandr said, away from Russian invasions from the north, south and east.
The family lived in Lviv for a few weeks, until Russia began bombing western parts of the country, too. At one point, an oil tanker exploded about 300 meters from Oleksandr’s young daughter.
“It was real scary, because I was not with her – her grandmother was with her at that time. So, it was a big stress,” Oleksandr said.
Then came another long drive to Austria, where the family was put in contact with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian aid organization. Through Samaritan’s Purse, the family was connected with Meadowbrooke Church in Cheyenne.
“From this, everything started,” Oleksandr said.
Michaela McKay, the church’s office administrator, is one of a group of Meadowbrooke congregants who have been closely involved with the Ukrainian family’s new start in Wyoming. After working to raise money for Ukraine, the church volunteered earlier this year to help resettle a refugee family. They were eventually matched with Oleksandr and his family.
The family stayed with Steve Burgess, a parishioner and local physician, for their first three weeks in Cheyenne in late July and early August.
Burgess helps with missions for the church and has done “quite a bit” of work with Doctors Without Borders, McKay said.
A group of about 10 parishioners did a bulk of the organizing to support the family, McKay said.
“When people first get here, there’s a need to just provide community – so, making sure they had a house visit, a meal with different people and just kind of being able to socialize in that aspect,” and getting rides to and from all of the places they needed to go, she said.
An even larger group from the church, she said, has donated items like bedding, personal care products and toys for little Viktoriia.
The church has provided for the family financially, and found them an Airbnb to stay in so they could have their own space until they find permanent housing.
“They help us to fly to Denver, they meet us there, they bring us here, they give us a place to stay,” Oleksandr said. “They help us a lot, the community of Meadowbrooke Church.”
The family recently moved into a different Airbnb closer to little Viktoriia’s school.
A new start
McKay’s children have become playmates for little Viktoriia, who says McKay’s 5-year-old son, Brayden, is her best friend. McKay and Viktoriia, Oleksandr’s wife, often take the children swimming at the rec center or YMCA. The elder Viktoriia worked as a swim instructor for young children in Ukraine.
Support from the church won’t end when the family finds a permanent place to live, McKay said. Oleksandr’s new job as a truck driver will likely keep him away from his family for several days in a row, so his wife and daughter may need some help when he’s gone.
Both Viktoriias are currently learning English, which just adds another layer to the challenge of starting over in a new country. But even with language barriers and some cultural differences, McKay said she was struck by how similar their families are.
“My dad was in the military, and we traveled a lot, and this just was kind of a reminder about how everyone’s the same,” McKay said. “Like, you see Viktoriia having to handle the same difficulties of having a kiddo going through new situations, and all the big emotions that come with that, and they’re just a fun family with similar interests.”
Oleksandr recently completed the Commercial Driver License Certification program through Laramie County Community College. The program’s coordinator, Michael Geissler, said Meadowbrooke connected Oleksandr with the CDL program after he indicated he wanted a change from his previous career as a web developer.
A pre-hire grant allowed Oleksandr to go through the program free of charge, Geissler told the WTE.
“You could totally tell he was committed,” Geissler said. “Being in the United States, I think that’s a lot of people’s dreams is to come over here (to the) ‘land of opportunity,’ and he was just totally excited about getting in the program. He’s a survivor, obviously.”
Oleksandr was “an amazing student,” Geissler added.
Industry leaders help new graduates of the CDL program find jobs. Geissler said Oleksandr indicated he’s interested in regional trucking, where he wouldn’t be away from home for too long, but he would still get to see new parts of the U.S.
Because of Oleksandr’s refugee status, finding a job has been a bit more complicated for him than a typical CDL program graduate. He said some of the trucking companies he’s applied to have rejected him because they can’t check his driving history, which exists only in Ukraine. Right now, he’s waiting on a company to finish a criminal background check. Oleksandr said he’s been delivering food for DoorDash in the meantime.
Ukrainian troops retook Kherson on Nov. 11, after Russia announced it was withdrawing from the city and surrounding areas. Oleksandr said he and his family were “very happy,” and he called almost everyone he knew about it. Most of these people also fled Ukraine, he said.
Even without occupying forces in the city, though, residents are still at risk of bombings and other threats in the region.
“So, it’s still not peaceful,” Oleksandr said.
As for what’s next, Oleksandr said he’s not sure. His family’s visas allow them to stay in the U.S. for two years. Right now, he’s focused on getting settled here for the time being, and on making enough money to support his family.
The people in Cheyenne are “very friendly,” he said, and he’s excited to start his new career as a truck driver. One of his greatest excitements, he said, is when he picks up his daughter from school and she tells him the new English words she’s learned.
“After what I experienced, I’m just happy that me and my family is alive, is healthy,” Oleksandr said. “A lot of documents, a lot of paperwork, but it’s still not a problem – I think we just need to do this, start a new life. … So, I’m just trying to stay positive and to work, to be grateful (for) my family, and we’ll see what happens next.”