Classically-trained artist Natalia Ziniak, 26, had been living in Los Angeles, but was visiting her family in western Ukraine when Russia invaded the country in February.
“Unfortunately, after the first day of the war our city was bombed too,” she said. “It’s terrifying. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. You can’t just think straight. You can’t understand what’s happening. It’s horrible, especially if you have kids.”
Three days after Vladimir Putin’s campaign began, she fled with her 11-year-old sister Yeva, her 7-year-old brother Sava and her 50-year-old mother Olga.
They left their 52-year-old father, Vasyl, behind, and made it to Poland.
Luckily, Ziniak had recently reconnected—after half a decade—with some old friends she’d met at a Christian student conference in Germany.
A couple months before the war, out of the blue, one of them had reached out to share that her granddaughter had asked about a watercolor she’d given as a present.
When the war broke out, they asked what they could do to help.
Turns out, they were living in the Mt. Hermon area of the San Lorenzo Valley, and were planning to be away on a mission trip for a month. They said the Ukrainian refugees could use their place while they were gone.
After the Ziniak family rapidly secured tourist visas, they were on their way to their new temporary home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Natalia said obtaining the visas and finding refuge in the Valley was a “miracle.”
“It was like a breath of fresh air after all this craziness,” Ziniak said. “Amazing place.”
Because school was still in session, Yeva and Sava enrolled in San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District.
“It was such an amazing environment because it’s a very different environment,” he said. “It was all about children expressing themselves and finding their interests, and exploring. It was an amazing experience.”
Santa Cruz resident Marie Grace Brook, 67, says while the Ziniak family loved the chance to live in San Lorenzo Valley, they still struggled with the fact that Olga is not currently allowed to work.
“The mother is an obstetrician,” she said. “I just befriended them.”
Brook says they want to return to Ukraine as soon as they can, but can’t for obvious reasons.
“They’re just amazing people,” she said. “They’re devoted to helping Ukraine.”
Ziniak says that because the federal government doesn’t want to officially consider the refugees as refugees, that has prevented her siblings and mother from accessing benefits traditionally afforded to those fleeing persecution or war.
So, they’ve been reliant on the generosity of others.
Thankfully, they were able to find their second Santa Cruz County residence in the Scotts Valley area.
Despite the housing instability, it was another blessing in disguise.
“In Glenwood, where we lived, we could see deer,” Ziniak said. “My sister, it was her dream to do horse-riding—which was not possible to do in Ukraine because people don’t really have horses.”
Their neighbor even gave Yeva riding lessons.
She also began taking ballet classes at Agape Dance Academy.
“It’s been amazing because the teacher embraced her,” Ziniak said. “It was her dream, also, to dance—and do ballet. She did some gymnastics in Ukraine. But here she was so much embraced, and they let her participate in the Nutcracker performance.”
Meanwhile, her little brother Sava joined Innovative Martial Arts.
This was a godsend for the boy, who, as an introvert, had struggled more than his older sister to pick up English.
“But in karate—amazing,” Ziniak said. “He feels so good there; without understanding the language, he understands everything. I think it’s just the amazing environment that the teachers create.”
Sava truly felt accepted at the dojo, she remarked.
Their stay in Scotts Valley was only temporary, but thanks to working her newfound networks at Santa Cruz Bible Church, Felton Bible Church, Vintage Faith Church and Twin Lakes Church, they were not only able to stay afloat, but they also landed a new home in Capitola.
The religious environment in Santa Cruz is much different than what they’re used to, Ziniak opined.
“It’s an amazing community—and amazing churches that are friendly with each other, and that connect with each other,” she said. “In Ukraine, because of the history of Soviet Union and all these kinds of things, the churches have resentment towards each other. Here for me it was amazing to see, like, pastors being friends with each other.”
Twin Lakes Christian School offered her siblings a scholarship.
After the first week of classes, her sister Yeva told her about all the new challenges.
“She started middle school—sixth grade,” she said. “It’s different for everybody, but especially for her. So far, it’s been going well.”
Meanwhile, Ziniak’s been finding solace along the coastline.
“In my free time I love painting the ocean,” she said. “It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive, free and peaceful—to go to the ocean and paint.”
Peace United Church of Christ is organizing an art reception and fundraiser for Natalia—who also goes by the name Aandewiel—at their 900 High St. location in Santa Cruz, at noon on Sept. 25.
The family is again seeking a new place to live, as their two-month term at the condo where they’ve been staying in Capitola is coming to an end.
Wherever they end up, they will never forget the warm embrace they felt when they first arrived in the San Lorenzo Valley.
The children’s friends were scattered across different countries. But through the San Lorenzo Valley school they were able to meet a couple kids their age who spoke Russian—which is similar enough to Ukrainian that they could understand each other.
They still have their return flights to Ukraine, which were originally booked for Sept. 20. And while it’s clear the Ziniaks won’t be making use of these tickets—despite how much Olga misses her husband—their future remains clouded in uncertainty.
But Natalia says they’re thankful for the welcome they’ve received.