Four families: Two stories of faith and friendship in uncertain times

Above, left to right: Steve Dudzinski and Ann Dudzinski hosted the Fisina family (David, Viktoriia and Jenya) when they arrived in the United States from Ukraine.

Ann Dudzinski didn’t need a sugar bowl. She had one. But it sat on a top shelf in the kitchen. It was one of those things she kept around for guests.

Last year she had a visitor who took sugar in hot tea, usually jasmine flavored. For five months, the bowl that spent years in a cabinet was more useful than Ann ever imagined. And it was for a guest she probably never imagined either. Ann and her husband Steve opened their home to a Ukrainian family in September.

It happened through Uniting for Ukraine, a federal pathway for Ukrainian citizens to flee Russia’s invasion and come to the United States. It also happened through the Dudzinskis’ parish, St. Mary Magdalene in Apex. Part of the Uniting for Ukraine program is that people coming to the U.S. must have a support person here to assist with needs such as housing, food, paperwork and transportation.

That’s why the Dudzinskis and the Fisinas found themselves together, but the how is more interesting. It began with Jenya’s sister, Veronika Kapustinska, who has lived in the U.S. for four years. When she hoped for her family to escape the Ukraine, she and her husband Kiril visited St. Mary Magdalene Church to speak with Father Chris Koehn. They weren’t parishioners, but they needed help and found a church nearby.

Father Chris didn’t have to think long because just two weeks earlier Steve had mentioned to him that he and Ann felt called to help someone in need because of the war.    Things were settled. Steve and Ann would officially sponsor Viktoriia and David. Veronika and Kiril would sponsor Jenya; friends of Veronika would sponsor Sasha and Nadia.

And the Fisinas, from grandparents to parents and child, would all live at Steve and Ann’s house.   The early days, they said, were workable thanks to good nature and Microsoft’s translator mobile app.

Viktoriia, Nadia, and Ann cooked and shopped together, especially at Golden Hex, a European grocery store in Cary. Ann still remembers how Viktoriia became emotional when she entered the store and saw familiar things from home, such as sunflower oil. Jenya said he felt comfortable when they all met and Steve offered David handmade wooden pieces, similar to Lincoln Logs, to play with.“I knew immediately that these were kind people,” said Jenya, who lived with his wife and son in village outside of Kherson before coming to the United States.

As Jenya recounted the first time they all met, Steve smiled to David and said, “We just started building castles and up we went, right? Pretty soon we had cars in the castle.” David’s love for Hot Wheels cars, swimming, ice cream, scooters, oatmeal cookies and Legos is well known and encouraged by both his family and the Dudzinskis.

As they sit together and talk to NC Catholics, they have a natural ease. The Fisinas’ shoes are off; it’s a custom for them. They all remember details to help each other answer questions. Ann and Steve laugh about their 10 p.m. bedtime, which seemed funny at first to Viktoriia, who stays up later.

“I thought, ‘Steve and Ann are retired, but they wake up every day at 6, why?’” she laughed.

During their time living together, they prayed “Bless us, oh Lord” before their nightly dinners. Sometimes the meal was lasagna or chili, which Viktoriia, Jenya and David had never had before. And sometimes it was something from the Ukraine, such as borscht - made of carrots, cabbage and beets. 

Food, toys and tea were the easy parts. Tougher tasks included paperwork, which Kiril and Veronika assisted with, for medical care and employment. Also important were English lessons and working toward independent housing and transportation.

Jenya and Sasha were skilled at masonry and carpentry, Steve said, and were able to begin working immediately. David began school at St. Mary Magdalene. And it wasn’t long before the family of three had a used car. By February of 2023, they had moved into their own apartment. Sasha and Nadia did, too. 

They said it was possible because of money earned, money borrowed and generosity.

Ann recounted how friends, neighbors, family members and the St. Mary Magdalene community were eager to serve. Assistance came from as far as Rhode Island, Virginia, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, where Steve and Ann are from.

Gifts ranged from furniture and dishes for the new apartments, to gift cards, toys and clothing.

“That’s the fun part of this story. None of this could have happened without the community at hand,” Steve said. “It just wouldn’t have happened.”

People, he added, felt good about giving because they could see exactly where it was going.

Viktoriia can remember a time when she wasn’t sure if she wanted to leave the village where she’d lived her whole life. She’d never flown on an airplane before. The choice, she said, was difficult but so was hearing bombs, seeing children afraid and spending time in the basement unsure of what was happening outside. 

“This is lucky,” she said of her friendship with the Dudzinskis. “I don’t know how to say. For us, this is big lucky.”


Mother-daughter pair move for peace and safety

When bombings began happening in Kyiv in 2022, Aleksandra Bagrina and her daughter Vlada fled to another city in their home country of Ukraine. But explosions carried on there, too. They weren’t sure what to expect from the next day or even the next 30 minutes, they said. 

They went to Poland and Sweden, where they had family. Their thought was to wait a few weeks and then go home if the situation improved.

A friend told them of a U.S. connection she knew of. An Apex, North Carolina man was gathering airline miles to donate to people wishing to flee Ukraine.

It happened that man lived in the same town as Eileen and Jim Herbst, parishioners at St. Mary Magdalene.

It wasn’t long before an introductory video conference was arranged for the Bagrinas and the Herbsts. It would be 20 minutes, and then each party could see how they felt about the idea of hosting.   

“Yes” was the answer from each side.

“After making this decision, it became easier on my soul,” said Aleksandra, whose adult son remained in Ukraine.

When they arrived at the Herbsts’ home in August 2022, they found a comfortable apartment inside the home and a collection of Post-it notes.

The stickies, which labeled things in English, were on everyday items such as the refrigerator and fireplace. The Bagrinas wrote the names of the items in their first language on the notes, too. And soon they were learning the basics from each other.

They went to Mass together. The Herbsts and Bagrinas enjoyed meals out, and at home, together. They began the paperwork to get social security cards and benefits available through the Uniting for Ukraine program. Aleksandra learned to drive and got a license. 

“I tried really hard to get Vlada into school ... we missed the first day of school,” said Eileen. “And the second day I just brought her to the school, explained the situation and said, ‘This child is entitled to an education’ ... and she went to school on day three. We all cried that day. We just felt like it was such a hurdle.”  

Jim contacted his parish’s Knights of Columbus council, which helped arrange an English tutor, parishioner Lori Agusta, for Aleksandra and Vlada. (Lori also tutored the Fisinias.)

“She was God-sent, really. She’s part of the family now,” said Jim. 

Today the main goals for the family are to get a car and expedite esthetician and massage therapy licenses for Aleksandra so she can work in her chosen profession. It’s a unique situation, said Jim, who has been working to learn more about how to help Aleksandra show documentation about the education she received in Ukraine, training hours and exams. 

“She wants to be independent like she was. She wants to be able to work ... and live the life she was living in Kyiv,” said Eileen. “Just like all of us, when you’re starting out … you need support.”

Aleksandra works part time in a hair salon and takes classes at a community college. Vlada is in school and learning to play the guitar and ukulele. She’s been to the movies and a skate park, and sports new Converse high-top sneakers she picked out to wear to a dance. 

When asked about their hopes for what comes next in their lives and in the world, Aleksandra said she wants the war to end in Ukraine and to be able to return to her work, which she loves.

“It is difficult for me to look far in the future. [But] I want to maximize my full potential. Everything I know how to do, I want to apply. I want to be able to purchase a car and take the load off Eileen,” she said, smiling toward her host who drives her and Vlada to school each day. “I am so grateful for Jim and Eileen ... and friends with nice words of support.”

For her part, Vlada also wants the war to end. She’s 12, but already thinking about college.

Looking back on the journey, Eileen and Jim said they are thankful for the ways God has connected them to people and resources, as well as the fact that it was the right time in their lives to be able to host a family.  

“All we know is someone is knocking at the door, and they have a major need,” said Jim. “There are lots of things, and you can’t do them all. But when the calling comes, sometimes you have to say ‘yes.’”