Kindness beyond Mississippi lines: Ukrainian family journeys to Starkville

Anna Shevchenko, right, and her family fled to Starkville, Mississippi from Ukraine in February due to the Russian invasion.

Off Louisville Street, a town has united to provide a family with a new home. Inside is a mother chasing around her children, a kitchen smelling of pancakes and colorful furniture.

The apartment is mismatched yet coherent, playful yet peaceful. As they grieve a life left behind, gratitude runs deep in the family’s heart. They are thankful for the generosity shown to them by the Starkville, Mississippi, community.

After Anna Shevchenko and her family were forced to flee Ukraine after the Russian invasion, they were warmly embraced by the people of Starkville. Community members showed Southern hospitality by providing the family an apartment and everything they needed to build a home, from the furniture to the dishes and the paintings on the wall.

Shevchenko’s Cedar Cove apartment displays works of art reflective of their journey from Rubizhne, Ukraine, to Starkville. The bright colors and distinctive themes serve as visuals for what they have endured and what may be to come.

Above the kitchen table hangs a print of “Van Gogh’s Chair” by acclaimed 19th-century expressionist Vincent Van Gogh. The work symbolizes modesty and simplicity, much like Shevchenko’s life in Ukraine and how she found pieces of her home country in Starkville.

Shevchenko recounted her city fondly and discussed her love of hosting friends and family for dinner. Her favorite dish to make for guests was a beetroot soup called borscht, which she has also made for her Starkville friends. 

“It is a small city, not very big at all,” Shevchenko said. “We would spend time together and cook something special for our guests. We try to do this here (in Starkville), too.”

In Rubizhne, Shevchenko worked as a masseuse with her mother while her father was a manager at a post company. They were content with their quiet life, but the Russian invasion in February 2022 forced them to uproot their lives and leave their home for America. 

Leaving Ukraine was heartbreaking for Shevchenko and her family as the impending threat of war loomed. The toughest part was leaving five male family members who stayed to fight. She said that her strong faith helped her trust in what was to come.

“For each country and each person, it’s not easy,” Shevchenko said. “We are a Christian family. We were told this would happen, but we didn’t know when. We were prepared to move wherever God would have us, and I could see he was leading us here.”

Also in the kitchen of Shevchenko’s Starkville apartment hangs “Sunflowers” by Van Gogh. The work depicts gratitude and light, which is what Shevchenko felt toward the town that took her family in without hesitation.

Shevchenko turned to Facebook groups hoping to find someone who could help relocate her family. She contacted Rodney Mast, a farmer from Crawford, Mississippi, with a passion for assisting Ukrainian refugee families relocating across the globe. He answered her two days later, eager to help.

Mast said he spent countless hours not only relocating these families but helping them transition into their new normal.

“I have become somewhat of a liaison for the process. I look for strengths of the Ukrainian families and find opportunities in the U.S.A. that seem to fit their abilities and desires,”  Mast said. “Currently, I have helped over 40 families come to the USA.”

Mast credited Starkville residents for giving Shevchenko’s family a smooth transition to the South. 

“Starkville and the Golden Triangle region have shown their heart, and it is lovely to see,” Mast said. “The cultural differences and the language differences are completely overlooked with laughter and hugs.” 

Vika Jones, a community member originally from Kazakhstan, assisted Rodney Mast in bringing the family to Starkville. Jones understood the family’s struggles being from a European country herself and served as a source of comfort by speaking Russian, their native language, with them. She described other ways the community supported Shevchenko’s family. 

“We showed them how to use public transportation to get around, mainly to go to their ESL classes. We created a gift registry with some essentials,” Jones said. “Some people took them clothes-shopping, and some donated some clothes for them.”

Shevchenko said their lives in Starkville reflect their lives in Ukraine. They have formed friendships by getting involved in local churches and hosting their famous dinner parties.

“They opened their hearts for us. We get invited to church and are always willing to go,” Shevchenko said. “They would provide meals to us when we first arrived, and insisted they come to us for dinner, too.”

Shevchenko’s favorite painting hangs in the living room, where the family spends most of their time together. It is the work of an unknown local artist depicting two houses on a yellow field under a dark blue sky, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. 

The painting reminds her of a peaceful life in Rubizhne, which she said she hopes to return to someday.

“It’s hard to say what’s next for us, but we’d like to go back to Ukraine someday,” Shevchenko said. “The people who live here (in Starkville) care so much for us, and we’ve made relationships with good people.”

Wherever she and her family may go, Anna Shevchenko will always carry the kindness of Starkville with her.

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