A Ukrainian family displaced by war is adopted by Laguna Beach moms

Ukrainian refugee Nadiia and her son Gregory share a tender moment Wednesday at a Temple Hills home they have stayed at since March 1. They moved into another short-term residence on Thursday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Nadiia knew it was time to get her eight-year-old son out of Kyiv amid news reports of 90,000 Russian troops staged along the Ukrainian border in late January.

As a 40-year-old, single mother, she felt enormous pressure to leave Ukraine before an invasion. But the tuition for her son Gregory to attend an English-based international school had depleted what savings she had from selling her home and car. In January, she also grew ill after getting infected by COVID-19.

“I was burned out from all sides,” Nadiia said.

The Independent is withholding the family’s surname to protect their safety.

Through a Ukrainian friend already living in Los Angeles, Nadiia was referred to a short-term host in another Orange County city. Airline tickets were booked for Nadiia and Gregory and they arrived in California in early February, she said.

Through a mutual friend, Nadiia virtually met Laguna Beach resident Amy Turner, 47, who offered to help resettle the Ukrainian family. Turner said she sought volunteers from her book club of fellow Laguna Beach moms—the positive responses rolled in immediately.
With news from Eastern Europe dominating the headlines and social media, Turner said she felt called to help.

“It’s nice to make a more personal impact in any way that we can,” she said. “Once you get us moms involved, they’re part of the family.”

Kirsten Rogers, a Laguna Beach resident and Scottish ex-pat, offered to drive with Turner in separate cars, partly to better accommodate their luggage, for their fateful meeting on March 1.

Within 10 minutes of learning a Ukrainian family needed a room, Melissa Harris and Ron Harris welcomed them to the Temple Hills home they share with two teenage sons.

“The first day I was in a fog mind,” Nadiia said. “I can’t even find the words to express my gratitude.”

On Wednesday, pieces of a Titanic LEGO model were spread out on a coffee table as Gregory eagerly shared videos of science experiments while lounging on a sectional couch in the Harris’ living room. His mother says he’s captivated by the ill-fated ship and has watched every related documentary they have found.

“Gregory is in a safe place for the first time in his life. He’s treated as a member of the family,” Nadiia said. As she strained to hold back tears, the Harris family’s dog, Mara, bounded over to lay her head on Nadiia’s lap and receive head scratches.

Harris said she was eager to share her home with two Ukrainian refugees as a mother to five children including an adopted adult daughter from Colombia.

“I was taught that the whole world is my family so how could I not? It’s just a beautiful reminder you can have so much grief and love in one place. It’s also been fun with my kids. They love Gregory,” Harris said.

On Thursday, Nadiia and Gregory left the Harris’ home after being invited to stay for one month in a larger space offered by a philanthropic Laguna Beach family.

Nadiia wants to continue living in Laguna Beach so she can remain close to her new support network. Gregory has already enjoyed his first trip to see the Pacific Ocean.

“This place in Laguna is very different than anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. It’s beautiful inside and out,” she said.

Laguna Beach Democrats president Gwen McNallan on Sunday comforted Nadia who has resettled in Laguna Beach with her son Gregory after fleeing the Russian invasion. Photo by Steve Zepezauer

After earning her U.S. citizenship in November following a years-long process, Rogers said watching Nadiia and Gregory resettle in a generous community like Laguna Beach has made her very happy but also instilled a sense of responsibility for their future.

“It has a huge emotional impact because I’m fortunate to be born in a country that doesn’t see nearly as much strife,” Rogers said. “My concern is to get her to the point where she can be successful.”

Nadiia came to the U.S. on a visitor visa but plans to file for asylum. She is looking for an immigration attorney to ideally take her case pro bono.

Originally from Eastern Ukraine—a region where the Ukrainian military has fought Russian-backed separatists since 2014—Nadiia moved to Kyiv in 1999. She earned her bachelor’s in Economics from the National Aviation University in Kyiv in 2006.

Like many young Ukrainians, Nadiia was drawn to live in London for higher-paying jobs. She met her ex-husband there in 2011, they separated in 2013 after a short marriage, and she eventually brought Gregory to Kyiv to make a fresh start.

In 2018, Nadiia worked as an event coordinator for a crisis communications training company based in Kyiv. She also pursued a master’s in business administration from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The following year she started as a marketing consultant for a European pharmaceutical company.

When the pandemic forced her son’s school to shift classes online Nadiia found it difficult to concentrate while working from home. The government offered paltry social benefits for single Ukrainian mothers, she said.

Reading news reports of civilians volunteering to fight and die to defend Kyiv has been heart-breaking, Nadiia said, especially after years of Ukrainians seeking closer ties with Europe.

“They say Ukrainians are so brave. We’ve always been that way. We will always fight for our land,” she said.

She hopes people of all nationalities don’t look away from the violence destroying her country. Ordinary people must stand for restoring justice and human dignity for all, she said.

“My story is just not my story. It’s the story of millions of people,” Nadiia said.

A Spotfund campaign supporting Nadiia and Gregory launched on March 16. For more details email Amy Turner at [email protected].

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