Ukrainian Refugees Celebrate 1st Christmas Away From Home

  • Ukrainian refugees across the US are planning for their first Christmas away from home.
  • Mariia Valova, who relocated to Illinois, told Insider her husband still remains in Ukraine.
  • Christmas will feel different, but she’ll do her best to recreate the Ukrainian Christmas spirit.

Many Ukrainian families who fled the Russian invasion of their country will for the first time celebrate the holidays away from home this year, bringing old traditions to communities they are just getting to know.

“I will not be sad about those things, that our family is not here and my husband is not here,” said Mariia Valova, who relocated to Indian Head Park, Illinois, on September 22. “I thought I might do it, but I don’t want to do it. I hope that everything will end and God will help us in this. So I will not be sad about that. And I will try to keep all the Christmas traditions here.”

The small town where she now lives is about 20 miles southwest of Chicago and about 5,000 miles away from her hometown of Berezhany in western Ukraine.

Despite the distance, she’s adamant about celebrating Christmas the way she would at home — with some modifications.

Normally, her family would commemorate the holiday on January 7 to follow the Julian calendar, she told Insider. But this year, the Ukrainian church near where she lives follows the Gregorian calendar.

“So we will celebrate on the 25th of December, with the rest of the world,” Valova said, speaking through a translator.

The Russian invasion, which began on February 24, has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homeland. Since the beginning of the invasion, more than 7.8 million Ukrainians have escaped to different parts of Europe, according to data from the United Nations Refugee Agency. In the first week of the war alone, more than 1 million Ukrainians left the country.

Ukrainians who spoke to Insider about the course of the ongoing invasion have painted a grim picture of the devastation. They’ve described hearing missiles fire through the sky in the dead of night, having to share a single bulletproof vest as Russian soldiers tear through their towns, and troops shooting at homes and hospitals.

Valova said being in Ukraine during the war felt “overwhelming and dangerous.”

In July, her uncle Yuriy Serembytsky told her she and her two daughters could live with him in Illinois until the end of the war. As soon as the paperwork was in order and with the help of RefugeeOne, a Chicago-based immigration and naturalization services organization, the three relocated to the US.

“When I stepped onto American land for the first time, I felt that my kids are safe here,” she said.

A bowl of kutia, a ceremonial Ukrainian grain dish.

A bowl of kutia, a ceremonial Ukrainian grain dish.

Courtesy of Mariia Serembytsky.

Although Valova has her uncle and daughters with her, Christmas this year will feel radically different. Her husband, for example, remains in Ukraine. And so does her grandmother, who every year for the holidays made pampushkies, a traditional Ukrainian donut.

Valova said she’ll make other traditional Ukrainian food for the holiday, like a stuffed cabbage dish called holubtsi and potato dumplings.

But she won’t make the pampushkies.

“It was made by my grandmother, so I will not do it,” Valova said. “But I ordered them from [a] Ukrainian lady.”

Dmytro and Ludmila Yelenets are also planning to make adjustments to their holiday celebrations this year. The couple, originally from Odesa, Ukraine, moved to a neighborhood outside Seattle in September with their 6-year-old daughter.

In an interview with Insider, Dmytro recalled celebrating Christmas with neighbors in Odesa. He and his family would walk from one house to another singing Christmas carols and wishing neighbors a happy holiday. They also attended events at their neighborhood church.

Ludmila and Dmytro Yelenets embracing in front of a stream.

Ludmila and Dmytro Yelenets.

Courtesy of Ludmila and Dmytro Yelenets.

Since relocating to Washington, they’ve had to find another church, and he and his wife miss their friends and neighbors dearly, he said, especially as the holidays approach.

“But we attend the church and we meet new people,” he said through a translator. “We are trying to make new friends.”

Valova recognizes that this year will feel different. But her plan is to recreate the elements she can and “transfer” the Ukrainian spirit of Christmas to her new home in the US.

Already, her kids have started making Christmas ornaments, she said, and plan to set up a booth at their newfound church to sell them and collect money to send to the Ukrainian army at the front lines of the war.

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