First Ukrainian family displaced by war settles in Marshall County
GILMAN — Maria and Philip Myroshnikov, their three children Anhelina, Damir and Karim and Maria’s mother Katerina are still doing plenty of adjusting to their new surroundings. They’ve only been settled at the farmhouse on the Swift Greenhouses property between Laurel, Gilman and Ferguson for about a week, but despite all of the trials and tribulations they’ve faced in the seven months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine upended their old lives in Mariupol, they couldn’t be happier to finally be chasing their version of the American Dream.
A group effort
The Myroshnikovs have been granted “humanitarian parole,” which differs slightly from refugee status, and they are the first Ukrainian family displaced by the war to settle in Marshall County.
The push to bring them here involved a strong collaboration among members of the local faith community from various churches, and Marshalltown City Councilor Mike Ladehoff and his former colleague Bill Martin were among the most active in organizing “United for Ukraine” meetings. As Ladehoff explained in a previous T-R story, seeing the Holocaust exhibit at the Marshalltown Public Library led him to realize that many Americans wanted little or nothing to do with assisting Jewish refugees attempting to escape Europe, and he could not bear to stand by idly as another humanitarian crisis unfolded before his eyes. In a similar vein, Dani Musselman, the pastor at Hope United Methodist Church, recalled German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem “First They Came” about the price of inaction as the Nazi party rose to power in the 1930s.
“It kind of makes you think about how America, to a certain extent, failed when the Holocaust happened and how, if the unthinkable would happen here, what would it mean to you if someone from another country called and said ‘Hey, we’ve got your back. Come here,’ and knowing the people from Marshalltown… Watch what happens. This is what happens,” Ladehoff said in a living room filled with volunteers and advocates alongside the Myroshnikov family. “Everyone does their thing, kind of. That’s kind of the way this group works. We all work together, but different people do different things. They all jump in to help each other.”
Still, the general urge to help others facing an unthinkable situation and the follow through required to make it a reality are two very different things, and it was going to take more than a wing and a prayer to bring the families to the area. Laura McIntosh, another member of the local faith community, connected with Philip on a website called Welcome.US, and the search for a suitable home began.
“I think that was one of the first needs that we recognized in the community (was) that we have to have a place for these people to stay, and we didn’t know how big of a place we would have,” McIntosh said. “And that needed to guide how big of a family we would bring over.”
As it turned out, Mary and Scott Swift had just the place tucked in rural southeastern Marshall County a few miles off of Highway 14, and Mary and their son Jordan attended one of the early United for Ukraine meetings.
“It felt like, just, the perfect storm because we’ve had this house, and it’s been empty for two years. It had just been sitting empty, and when this came up, it just felt right,” Jordan said. “It made it a lot easier of a decision when there were so many other people willing to help out and tons and tons of volunteers that really made it happen.”
Although he did consult with his siblings before signing off (the house belonged to their late parents), Scott said it wasn’t a hard decision at all, and he knew it was something his family could handle. Another community member, Sandy Bennett, had a vehicle she was willing to lend. Jasmin Banderas with Child Abuse Prevention Services jumped in to assist with paperwork and connecting the Myroshnikovs with services and programs to make the transition easier. Simply put, it took a community, but the community came through.
“I can’t imagine a better place to bring people if you look at how everyone jumps in doing what they can do,” Ladehoff said.
The list of individuals who played a role in getting Philip, Maria, Katerina, Anhelina, Damir and Karim to Marshall County is too long to print in its entirety, but everyone involved — people like Bennett, McIntosh, Banderas, Ladehoff, the Swifts, Musselman and Elly Mack were all on hand for the interview Thursday — can take pride in a job well done.
Welcome to America
The Myroshnikovs, who spoke in Russian through translator and Ukrainian native Roman Gromov of Tama, spent five days stranded in the staircase of their apartment building after the initial invasion, and their children slept on a concrete floor that wasn’t heated. Before long, they were without electricity, gas or cellular service, and they finally fled for the downtown area to seek shelter elsewhere.
Mariupol, which sits about 40 miles from the Russian border to the east, was hit almost immediately. Once the Russian shelling of the city intensified and bombs completely destroyed the local university, Philip and Maria knew it was time to make a change.
“We could not believe that something like this could happen because we were always in a buffer zone so close to Russia, and many people are Russian speaking people,” Philip said.
Katerina’s husband — Maria’s stepfather — was one of the thousands of civilians killed in the siege, and it still chokes her up to discuss the matter. It still shocks her that death and destruction on the scale seen in Ukraine can occur in the 21st century, and those who left their shelters often had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on corpses.
“It was very hard living 55 years and leaving everything behind, but there was nothing left to go back to,” Katerina said. “(But) I was always close with the children. We were one group, so there was no other option… I always wanted to get to the U.S. It’s a beautiful country, but the people are even more beautiful here.”
They were frantically scrambling for necessities as basic as water and food, and they ended up finding refuge in the basement of a nightclub whose owner became somewhat famous for driving across the country to find supplies and helping individuals and families evacuate.
Eventually, the family made their escape attempt, driving west through Crimea and north to eventually get to Germany. Through their indirect route, they traveled about 10,000 kilometers (just over 6,200 miles), but their long-term goal was still to get to the U.S. if they could.
Coming from Mariupol, a port city about twice the size of Des Moines, a house several miles from the nearest town was a bit of a culture shock, and Philip and Maria admitted they had never heard of Marshalltown or Marshall County before they came here. They joked that they wanted “something warm” when they were searching for a new home, but the warmth of the welcome they received in central Iowa was more than enough to make up for it. Of their three children, only nine-year-old Angelina is old enough to have any grasp of what has happened in Ukraine, but they have all adjusted well.
Compared to Ukraine, where a large gap exists between wealthy and poor citizens, Philip said he appreciates being in a place with more economic balance, or as he put it, where “everyone is kind of in the middle.” He hopes to plant roots in the U.S. and start some sort of a food business because at this point, he feels there is nothing to return to in Mariupol.
“My ultimate goal is to be on the front page of some magazine of rich people,” he said.
Keeping tabs from a distance
Although they’ve settled in the U.S. and hope to stay here, Maria, Philip and Katerina still watch news reports, read updates and do their best to keep tabs on friends and family in Kyiv and Odesa — Philip’s mom is the lone relative left in Mariupol — who are caught in the middle of a bloody conflict halfway across the world. Although they count themselves as firm supporters and admirers of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who they feel is there for the people, their primary concern remains a simple one. People are dying, and they could care less about “who’s laundering money or who gets what.”
Witnessing the war and the atrocities committed in Mariupol firsthand may have exposed the Myroshnikovs to the worst of humanity, but over 5,500 miles away in the middle of Iowa, they’ve gotten a glimpse of the best.
“Sometimes, it was to the point of tears to see how welcoming people are and how caring they are that they put so much effort and time into a family that they don’t know,” Philip said.
United for Ukraine is planning to host several more families in the Marshalltown area in the future, and donations can be sent through St. Francis Parish or Hope UMC. Everyday items and gift cards are also accepted.
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or