February 21, 2024

Creston native helps Ukraine family settle in California

From left to right, Lesia, Eliza and Roman Nikitienko, in front of their rental house at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in North Redondo Beach. The family’s hometown is where the “Bucha massacre” occurred in the first weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Editor’s Note: Tory Blazek, noted in this story, is the oldest daughter of Louis and Darlene Blazek. Tory graduated Creston High School in 1979 and SWCC in 1981. She took a position at the Iowa Braille & Sight Saving School in Vinton before moving with her sister Julie (Blazek) Chandler to Southern California in 1986. Like many Creston kids, she grew up delivering papers for the Creston News Advertiser. She also worked at The Bookworm Bookstore, Lambley’s Grocery store when it was owned by the Goodrich family, volunteered as town tour guide for Railroad Heritage Days, and, of course, detasseled corn and walked beans.

by Garth Meyer

Easy Reader and Peninsula

NORTH REDONDO BEACH, CALIFORNIA - “Very nice city, used to be, 2005, it was village, it grow into city. Bucha. It’s a very nice place to live. Was.”

Lesia is her name. She came to America Nov. 11 – to Redondo Beach – with her husband, young daughter and the family dog, byway of a program called United for Ukraine.

“Russian military was in our town. Absolutely occupied. Helicopters shooting. Everything explosion. So many fire in the city.

“We stay underground for 12 days. In very small place. Three by three and a half meters. Three kids. Five adults.

“A place for vegetables for winter,” she said.

They had electricity for nine of the days.

“After that we were wet, everything get wet (from outside),” she said. “You cannot stay on wet mattress, you just feel so cold.”

Deciding they had little choice, the group left the basement.

“Big line of cars, went through Russian post, it wasn’t first try. Day 14 did not allow.”

The next day, they got to leave, and drove to another part of Ukraine, 350 kilometers away, a village, where Lesia’s neighbors’ had family members. Lesia and her husband, Roman, were trying to send their daughter, Eliza, to Lesia’s sister in Malta. They went to the border of Moldova and Lesia’s sister picked up the 8-year-old girl in Romania.

Roman and Lesia later returned to Bucha.

“In our house, Russian soldiers spoil it. Very good quality door. They couldn’t get inside the doors. They opened the kitchen window,” she said. “They stay for three nights.”

She knows this by the testimony of her neighbor, a man who stayed in place through the invasion with his elderly mother.

“He say everything; no light for a long time. No gas. This guy had generator. Soldiers going to him for water. Only generator can get the water.

“At our house; mattresses, couch. Russians bring all this stuff from second floor. Nine soldiers was living. Of course they search over house. They took whatever they want to take.”

They found pictures of Roman – who had trained with the Ukrainian military as a younger man.

“They put them on the couch, one by one. They leave it like this,” Lesia said. “I don’t know why.”

Leaving

“Underground, it was so terrifying, we couldn’t eat. We couldn’t see. We got messages (on phones). They shooting cars with families. It was field of war. Terrible. It was not something you can ever expect.

“Attack of Ukraine. All the time. So many people left to Europe. So many people emigrate.”

She and Roman considered what may come next.

“I realize the Russians will be attacking our energy system,” Lesia said.

In summer, thinking about winter and how to survive, Lesia went to Malta with Eliza for the academic year, nine months. Roman stayed in the house in Bucha.

“He was waiting. War would be over. It’s not over,” Lesia said.

“It was hard decision for my husband to go to America. We (design) the house, we live in the house. We was very happy.”

She eventually posted on her Facebook group, looking for a U.S sponsor for the family, through United for Ukraine.

They found a man in New York, he would be their sponsor, and in two weeks, they had the documents they needed to go.

“Absolutely the man we don’t know. We find out later he’s Ukrainian.”

He had worked in Moscow before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, at which point the man went to the U.S. to work as an I.T. engineer.

“After 90 days (Visa) will expire,” Lesia said. “We sold whatever we could sold. We could not sell the house, because now it cost nothing since the war.”

To get to the U.S., they flew out of Warsaw, Poland.

“Sausage dog,” she said. “In America, you call dachshund. She come with us. She was with us underground. She was as scared as we are.”

They flew to Los Angeles.

“Because we have friend here, and this friend have moving company,” Lesia said. “First we were thinking about Oregon. My husband really want to go to Oregon. Talking with friends, everyone laughing, what are you going to do in Oregon?”

The friend had been in Torrance for four years, a couple, with a son born here.

They made arrangements and Roman, Lesia and Eliza Nikitienko stepped off the plane for their first day in the U.S.

“This friend booked hotel: Hotel 6,” Lesia said. “We stayed there, totally, nine days.”

They looked for a place to live in Torrance.

“We have no American documents. Nothing. Not high possibility they are to rent to us anything,” she said. “Then we found this house of the church is renting.”

It was on the lot of St. Paul’s United Methodist in North Redondo Beach.

Tory Blazek

As part of her volunteer work for the church on Nelson Avenue, Tory Blazek gathered prospects for the two-bedroom rental.

“I’m a member of the church, but also a real estate agent,” said Blazek, who works in estate properties for ReMax.

The Ukrainian family responded to the listing and Blazek explained the parameters.

“No drinking, no smoking, it’s a church property,” she said. “That was a dealbreaker for a lot of people, but they had no problem with that and I went and showed them the house.”

“First we was checking, if school was OK, then we can take,” Lesia said. “School was rated very high.”

Once Pastor John Stephenson approved the family to move in, Blazek helped them get set up.

She sent a message through ReMax Estate Properties Southern California asking if anyone knew of leftover furniture from other listings.

“That’s one of the things that made this such a beautiful story,” Blazek said.

She got a quick response from a fellow agent, who had a tenant eviction in Hawthorne. It was an apartment, left fully-furnished, with a note requesting the items be sold or donated as necessary.

“He even left a Prius in the garage,” Blazek said. “All of the kitchen, the pots and pans were very expensive. Everything was clean, pristine, top notch.”

“Tory’s a superstar when it comes to this type of stuff,” Stephenson said.

Two days later – four days before Thanksgiving – the family, their Ukrainian mover friend and Blazek spent a day clearing out the Hawthorne apartment and loading the truck, including a telescope still in the box.

“It all fit perfectly in the new house,” Blazek said.

When she handed Lecia the keys, the new renter told Blazek it was her 40th birthday.

“The house, very small, tiny house, but we have yard, dog loves it,” Lesia said.

Incidentally, St. Paul’s had helped another Ukrainian family earlier in the year, before the family went to Minnesota where they found a connection to housing.

American start

Roman got a U.S. driver’s license.

“I have a driving test in one week.,” Lesia said.

“We are looking for a job,” she said. “My husband was working with moving company.”

Then he got another job, too.

“My boss. I went to interview yesterday, and I think I have a job,” Lesia said last Friday.

What kind of job?

“It’s vendor in Costco,” she said.

Vendor?

“Give samples to eat. If they want to try. Not something big, But we need a job to pay our bills. We need to start something.”

When she went to the interview and said she was from Ukraine, the interviewer said, “Oh yeah, we have a guy from Ukraine who works here.”

“Yes, it’s my husband,” she said.

He is a sample vendor too. He worked in the electronics business in Ukraine.

The church

St. Paul’s United Methodist has run a Tuesday night hot meal program since 1989, from its beginning as an AIDS support ministry. The church also hosts a food pantry that serves about 200 people once per month.

Pastor Stephenson is in his second year in ministry, after 35 years running a wholesale auto parts business in Cerritos.

“All the circumstances (for the Nikitienkos), they really wanted to live here on the campus. It’s been a great deal,” Stephenson said. “Makes us feel good. Makes them feel good.”

At the church’s candlelight service Christmas Eve, the family lit the Christ candle and did the initial reading. Eliza led the congregation outside with Stephenson to sing “Silent Night.” The pastor later played a video of a Ukrainian Methodist congregation singing “Joy to the World.”

“Like a lot of things in life, things get placed in front of you that you don’t expect,” Stephenson said.

“Bucha massacre”

In February 2022, while the Nikitienkos were in the basement, Russian forces took Bucha as they advanced on Kyiv.

In what the New York Times described as a “deliberate and systematic effort to ruthlessly secure a route to the capital” they allegedly killed more than 400 civilians; men, women and children, in an almost-monthlong occupation.

The International Criminal Court is investigating for war crimes.

Russian troops were “identifying potential threats,” according to the AP, in their strategy to “terrorize locals into submission.”

“Russia doesn’t want to stop and doesn’t want to talk. Nothing. We was shocked,” Lesia said. “Ukraine was never part of Russia. It was part of the U.S.S.R., which was many countries.”

She remembers her grandmother telling her about the 1930s during the rule of Joseph Stalin.

“They take their animals, they take their food (of Ukraine). They rape. Then (World War II), the Germans, she say, never did the atrocities that Russians did in the 1930s.”

Lesia said she did not expect what happened two years ago, and never to civilians.

“In 2014, they take Crimea and two regions in Ukraine. Russia military training on our borders. For eight years, you get used to it,” she said.

Is there a chance the family will return to Ukraine?

“I want my daughter to get to settle down and have normal life, already so many friends, I can see how happy she became and joy again,” Lesia said.

She did artificial eyelashes’ work in Ukraine.

She does not see a coming end to the war.

“I don’t think Russia will stop. I don’t know, for what reason. It’s just madness. They don’t want to talk, they just want to destroy and kill. That’s all.”

The man who built their house in Bucha was tortured and killed, his body found a year after soldiers took him away.

One of the neighbors who was in the basement with the Nikitienkos, her daughter’s godmother was killed, a 31-year-old woman, found naked but for a jacket.

“The daughter of this lady now live with grandma,” Lesia said.

Family members of the Nikitienkos still live in Ukraine, spread across the country.

Did Lesia or Roman know anything of America before they came here? Anything of California?

“Great songs about California,” Lesia said. “1993-94 (after Soviet Union broke up), finally we see movies, music from the other world. I learned English mostly this way.”

“I still can’t believe (we are here), because I don’t know how it happened,” she said. “It’s amazing, though. We’re shocked, in good way. People are so nice and smiling. We are impressed. And church and Tory help so much.” ER

Easy Reader and Peninsula is in Hermosa Beach, California