Last Christmas, the Ziniak family left their home in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, and headed on a fun trip across the Carpathian Mountains.
When the Russian invasion of their country began in February, Vasyl stayed behind while his wife fled to Poland—and then to the San Lorenzo Valley—with their three children.
But as personal and national tragedies unfold, a remarkable gift: the Ziniaks are once again together at Christmas, this time at their new home in Scotts Valley.
“This is my dad’s first time coming to the United States,” said 26-year-old Natalia. “It’s wonderful to be here.”
As Vladimir Putin’s military launched attacks on their West Ukraine hometown in February, March and October—including on a civilian airport—and with nearly all men prevented from leaving the country, it wasn’t at all clear that a reunion would be possible.
Vasyl, 53, says despite a challenging upbringing under Soviet rule, there were moments of joy that stand out to him.
His father was killed in a factory accident while he was still in his mother’s womb.
And he recalls the lack of food available in the grocery store.
But he also remembers the time his mom was able to organize a school field trip to Belarus to visit a Soviet fort.
There was the excitement of piling onto the train, and the novel boredom of getting stuck on the third level usually reserved for luggage, because of how many people had crammed onto the carriage. To pass the time on the journey he counted the number of ventilation holes—54.
Last December, Natalia left California, where she’d been living, to return in time for Eastern Orthodox Christmas, Jan 7.
“We went on a little family getaway,” Natalia said. “We lived before in the Carpathian Mountains. We went to visit our friends.”
“We have a good time,” Vasyl added. “All family. Short trip.”
Natalia was planning to stay into March.
On the evening of Feb. 23, Vasyl was working on a project outside their home.
“My wife called me from inside house and say, ‘Do you know what Putin say in this moment?’” he said. “Putin had big speech.”
They understood that with his words Putin had essentially planted the Russian flag on multiple sections of Ukrainian territory.
At the time, Kyiv had been downplaying the threat of a Russian incursion.
But Natalia, who’d been Western news sources, knew intelligence reports had claimed Putin was planning a big chess move—and soon.
“When we understand maybe something start, first step I’m go to gas station and full tank,” Vasyl said, noting others had also the danger of the Russian bear on their doorstep, leading to a long line at the pump. “It’s like panic.”
Around 5am, when Russian rockets slammed into the city, they knew they had to escape.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” Natalia said. “It was crazy, like in a movie.”
They drove to the border with Poland and said their goodbyes. They didn’t know when they might see each other again.
“I left my family and one last huge hug,” he said. “We understood about my mission was come back to home and help people—refugees.”
At the time, he was also serving as foster father. They’d sought permission to take the kids abroad with them, but were denied.
Meanwhile, Natalia, her little brother and sister and their mom spent three days at the border before being processed for entry into Poland.
They clung to optimism—that the conflict would be resolved in a matter of days or weeks. Of course, these hopes were soon dashed.
Their new reality came into focus for Natalia: “We are on our own. And where do you go?”
SEPARATED FOR MONTHS
Back in Ivano-Frankivsk, Vasyl dedicated himself to work, helping more than 60 people facing crisis pregnancies or stopping over on their way to places like Romania or the Netherlands.
“First of all, it’s silent, because people who came—under bomb,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
The refugees would often bring their pets, too.
“Our cat is very confused,” he said. “First family who came to me, and after that, leave me and move to Netherlands. They left me their cat from Bucha.”
This feline had been a spoiled, indoor cat. But after a month with Vasyl, it grew accustomed to drinking out of puddles.
“All people in Ukraine, their life changed dramatically,” Natalia said. “Even for cat, it changed dramatically.”
In some ways, the duties were familiar. After all, the Ziniak family has been helping women facing crisis pregnancies for a decade.
They established a national help line to assist people across the country through these challenges. Even now, they continue this work remotely from Scotts Valley.
Vasyl set about building a shed in the back yard with a wood stove, to provide shelter to more refugees.
It hurt him to be apart from his wife and three children, who had moved to Santa Cruz County after being invited to stay temporarily in a house in Mt. Hermon. The two youngest, Yeva, 11, and Sava, 7, enrolled in the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District (and later, Twin Lakes Christian School).
“Every day I had connect with my family,” Vasyl said, with sadness in his eyes. “And I looked how my children grow up and change.”
Ironically, it was getting called up to serve in military that was his ticket to America. But it also sent him down another difficult path.
While undergoing medical testing, Vasyl learned he had cancerous cells in his blood.
“The doctor said, ‘If you have ability to go abroad for the treatment this would be the best thing to do.’ It was really bad,” Natalia said. “Of course, my mom was very happy that he’s not going to war first, second it looked like the cancer is treatable.”
Vasyl had to wait for the paperwork to make its way through the military bureaucracy, and to complete the final two months of his foster parent term, before he could leave.
Natalia struggled to find someone Stateside who could help bring him over. There were a couple false starts, as willing sponsors ultimately didn’t meet the rigorous government requirements. Finally, she successfully made it through the hoop when an Aptos family stepped up to the plate to pledge their help.
For Natalia, it was a dream come true. Her father was on his way.
“Our family, we are believers,” she said. “We believe in God, and his love and his grace. And everything that happened with us, we just see God’s hand and his mercy on our family.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy journey—or that the pain is over.
“So many of my friends got killed,” she said. “Every time, somebody else—no arms no legs. It’s horrible…Younger than me…When it’s your close friend’s son. It’s so hard.”
She wipes the tears streaming down her face, and quickly begins counting her blessings, once again.
“We’re so happy to be here,” she said, “—celebrating with our friends here in Santa Cruz.”
She was referring to plans to spend Christmas with a family that escaped Luhansk, when Putin invaded their country in 2014.
Seva proudly shows off the wood pieces he’s karate-chopped in half during martial arts classes and says he’s already made a few friends.
“I’m happy,” he said, explaining he also takes lessons of a different kind just a little ways down their windy dirt road. “I get to go to pony school.”
Yeva enjoyed performing in the Agape Dance Academy’s production of the Nutcracker.
Natalia continues to sell her art (available at nataliaaandewiel.com), noting local residents who purchased pieces helped sustain the family through hard times.
“We are very thankful to the community here,” she said. “It’s really hard not to be home. It’s really hard to make your life without preparation, without money, without support. For me, everything that happened was a miracle. That we can be safe and together.”