First Thanksgiving meal for Ukrainian refugees in LA is filled with gratitude

Before moving to Los Angles in April, Nataliya Mikhnova had heard about Thanksgiving mostly from movies.

But this year, Mikhnova, who moved in April from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv with her husband and two young daughters, looked forward to celebrating it in person.

“My daughters are excited about the holiday,” she said. “They bring us a lot of information from their school about the American culture and holidays including Halloween and Thanksgiving, so we can learn about them, too.”

Mikhnova was on vacation in Sri Lanka in February with her husband and two daughters when Russian forces began bombing Ukrainian cities. Her flight back to Ukraine was canceled and she flew to Istanbul, Turkey. Soon, the couple realized that it was not safe to return to Ukraine with two small children.

They finally decided to move to the U.S. after finding a family in Los Angeles who offered to host them in their home for the first two months. It took the family about six days to travel to Tijuana in mid-April, then cross the border on foot to San Diego.

Setting up her new life in Los Angeles, waiting for a work permit, and taking care of two young children has been challenging. But Mikhnova said it wouldn’t be possible without the help of strangers, including a family that allowed them to live in their Santa Monica house.

Mikhnova’s daughter Vira, 7, who is fluent in Ukrainian, couldn’t read English words when she moved to Los Angeles in April. But by September she managed not to just learn the alphabet but also to start reading — all thanks to intense work and an owner of a Pacific Palisades learning center who enrolled Vira in her program for free.

She said she also wanted to teach her daughters Vira and Maria, 5, that women who arrived in the U.S. as refugees could still pursue their dreams.

“When we ran from the war, many women feel like they are refugees and often think: ‘I’m going to be quiet and hide’ because they don’t understand how things work here,” she said. “But I decided to do the opposite and be proactive.”

While she was waiting for her work permit to arrive, Mikhnova, who was a radio reporter and PR person for elected officials in Lviv, got busy helping other Ukrainian refugees find programs that would help them to settle, and also volunteered as a teacher’s assistant at her daughter’s elementary school in Santa Monica.

“We all cry a lot and worry about our parents and relatives who stayed in Ukraine,” she said. “But if we moved here, we have to adapt and live here.”

Mikhnova said staying in the U.S. wouldn’t be possible without “many people here who have helped us — Americans, the government — and we are very grateful for that.”

Olga Baker with her husband Justin Baker and 4-year-old daughter Mila Baker on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News)

‘There is no Thanksgiving in Ukraine’ 

Since she moved from Kyiv in 2015, Olga Baker has always stayed in touch with the Ukrainian diaspora, but this year when the missiles began hitting Ukrainian cities, she began volunteering for different organizations, sending medication and other aid to Ukraine and helping newly arrived refugees.

As she was preparing for Thanksgiving this year, she began thinking about inviting over fellow Ukrainians who recently arrived in the U.S.

“We all love Christmas and other holidays but Thanksgiving is so uniquely American and the best occasion to celebrate American culture,” Baker said. “You can’t experience Thanksgiving by going to a restaurant, you need to be with someone’s family and experience that atmosphere. It’s about being together and sharing that part of the culture.”

Baker, her husband Justin, and daughter Mia, are planning to host four families on Thanksgiving Day and cook turkey, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese and sweet potato casserole.

Still, Baker said she was certain her table wouldn’t lack a Ukrainian dish because “Ukrainians never show up empty-handed.”

Baker said she looked forward to sharing the festive dinner with her guests.

“Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in Ukraine and if you think about it, the nature of the holiday is somebody being in need and somebody else giving their hand. It can speak to anyone’s heart,” she said.

Despite feeling hopeless and desperate at times, Baker said she was grateful and rejoiced “for every little victory” her country has had since the beginning of the war.

“I feel thankful that everyone in my family is healthy and alive,” she said. “I feel grateful for simple things like walking outside and missiles not dropping on us, that I don’t have to send my child to a bomb shelter, for freedom that can be taken away.”

For Dina Grymak, another Ukrainian expat and Baker’s friend, who will join her on Thanksgiving, the holiday is bittersweet as her husband Alexander is fighting Russian forces in Ukraine while she and their 11-year-old son, Alexander, remain in L.A.

When the war in Ukraine broke out her husband Alexander couldn’t sleep for days at their home in Los Angeles. When he finally told Dina Grymak that he had decided to move back to Ukraine to defend it, she didn’t try to stop him.

“I didn’t want my husband to leave,” she said, “but if not people like my husband, how do we win this war?”

In mid-March, he packed a suitcase and moved to Ukraine, first volunteering for hospitals, delivering medication to soldiers, and then joining the army despite his lack of military training.

In recent months, it has become more and more challenging for her to talk to Alexander regularly, because his camp is based in a forest where he sleeps in a tent and temperatures drop to the 30s amid intense rain. On a recent day, about 200 soldiers came back injured from the battlefield.

“I was too scared to ask how many people have died,” she said.

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In the past, Alexander, a professionally trained cook, would spend a whole day roasting turkey and making cranberry sauce and stuffing from scratch.

“We are definitely going to miss him this Thanksgiving,” she said.

As she was preparing to join Baker at her Santa Monica home on Thursday, Grymak said there were many things she was grateful for, including: people who have donated to Ukraine, friends who have supported her husband Alexander, a Polish family that opened their home to host her mother Valentina after she fled Kyiv.

And she is thankful for the Uniting for Ukraine program, introduced by President Joe Biden, which allowed thousands of refugees to enter the U.S.

One of those who moved to Los Angeles in September was Valentina, Grymak’s mother. “With her being here, I have one less thing to worry about,” she said. “I’m thankful for that.”

Just like Grymak, Mikhnova was still deciding what Ukrainian dish to bring to Baker’s home. She also looked forward to learning about the new holiday.

“Thanksgiving has a big message about being thankful,” she said. “I would love for Ukraine to start this holiday one day.”

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