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Ukrainian couple celebrates freedom to worship and fail

Nickolay and Tatyana Chubenko came to the U.S. from what is now the Ukraine 20 years ago, fleeing religious persecution. They're now naturalized citizens who have raised three children in Spokane and run a small Russian bakery and European grocery store. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Nickolay and Tatyana Chubenko came to the U.S. from what is now the Ukraine 20 years ago, fleeing religious persecution. They're now naturalized citizens who have raised three children in Spokane and run a small Russian bakery and European grocery store. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

As a girl attending school in the Soviet Union, Tatyana Chubenko was singled out for her Christian faith.

“They would put me in front of the whole school saying, ‘Laugh at her, she believes in God,’ ” she said.

She and her husband, Nikolay, both came from religious families and had been denied education and good jobs in the communist country. So about 20 years ago, they decided to take their three sons and search for a better life in the United States.

Now, the couple run the Mariupol European Bakery & Deli, a small grocery store and deli on East Sprague Avenue specializing in European imported foods and traditional Slavic fare like cabbage rolls and cream cakes, made in-house. But their path to success in the United States was far from straightforward.

When they decided to leave the Soviet Union, applying for a refugee visa wasn’t easy. The two had to travel to Moscow with their sons for interviews: a three-day journey by train. Together, they made about $19 per month. It took about six months to save enough for the $50 train ticket and a hotel in Moscow.

The family chose Spokane because Tatyana already had relatives here, and the weather was about the same as at home: four seasons, with a long and cold winter. Relatives in Spokane helped with the visa application and provided child care during the early years while the Chubenkos were getting settled.

The couple arrived speaking three languages between them, none of which were English. Tatyana’s family was Bulgarian, so she grew up speaking that at home, and both spoke Ukranian and Russian.

After arriving, Tatyana briefly attended classes at Spokane Falls Community College, which helped her pick up the language. Nikolay was working full-time, so his wife did her best to teach him what she learned in the evenings.

“I have a few languages in my head in the morning, so I have to pray a lot before I speak,” Tatyana said, laughing.

Nikolay started working in a body shop, spending a month as an unpaid apprentice so he could learn the trade. Eventually, they started paying him the minimum wage at the time, about $7 an hour. The family managed to save some money and worked on paying back the $3,000 they borrowed from World Relief for plane tickets to the United States.

“It was a big blessing for us,” Nikolay said of the job.

Over the years, the couple worked a number of jobs. At one point, they delivered newspapers in the early morning, worked all day and then took on a third job at night cleaning offices. They got off work at 1 a.m. and slept for a few hours before getting up to do it again.

They bought the deli and store about a decade ago from a prior owner, who had bought it from the founder. The family worked there in the days and spent evenings working in real estate, refurbishing old houses to re-sell.

Their real estate holdings crashed in 2007 with the housing market, causing the couple to have to declare bankruptcy. But even that challenge, they said, has been a blessing. In the Soviet Union, defaulting on debts might get you locked in jail or killed. Here, they were able to rebuild and keep working hard in the deli.

“Praise God for America. They give us new chance,” Nikolay said.


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