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Photo: With their youngest son, Habriel, 1, by their side, Mykhailo Kurilova comforts ...
With their youngest son, Habriel, 1, by their side, Mykhailo Kurilova comforts his wife, Anna, as she describes the harrowing experience of fleeing their home in Ukraine during the Russian invasion. They are now living at the Thrive Center, a formerly vacant hotel used to house Ukrainian refugees, shown July 11 in Spokane.

Special Series

Ukraine Hits Home

A year of fear and longing for Spokane's Ukrainian community

Published: Dec. 27, 2022


Although Mykhailo Kurilova wasn't rich when he built his new bride, Anna, a home just blocks from the sea in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol the family “had everything," according to Anna. Two healthy children, a home and a workshop for Mykhailo — a stone mason who planned to open his own business.

But when Russia invaded in February 2022, it reignited a long-simmering conflict, upending the Kurilovas’ existence and sending geopolitical tremors throughout the world. As bombs battered Mariupol the family of four fled, joining millions of other Ukrainians in a diaspora not seen in Europe since World War II.

More than 5,000 miles later, they arrived in Spokane, settling into a hastily converted hotel room, four people out of more than 10,000 Ukrainian refugees to come to Washington state in 2022 fleeing the violence of the world’s newest war.

And while Spokane has long been a haven for Russian and Ukrainian refugees and immigrants, a legacy of religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, the fact remained: The Kurilovas were far from home. As the Russian invasion stagnated throughout 2022, the family watched their homeland ripped apart and hoped they might someday return to a home they missed desperately.

“It doesn’t matter for us,” Anna said. “Russia or Ukraine, if it has stopped war, we go back.”

Read the Kurilovas' story

An explosion is seen in an apartment building after Russian's army tank fires in Mariupol, Ukraine, Friday, March 11, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka)

Spokane in Action

The Kurilovas’ story is just one among millions, yet it shows that bombs dropped half a world away have local repercussions. Which is why as Russian forces swept into eastern Ukraine in late February, some Washington state residents packed their bags and went toward the conflict. Spotting the local angles in the international story, The Spokesman-Review sent reporter Eli Francovich to the Ukraine-Poland border in March.

There he interviewed people like Jared Malone, a counselor and former Marine from Idaho. Malone, who is a combat veteran, brought a unique skillset and traveled extensively throughout Ukraine in the early months of the war, even shepherding Ukrainian families from the front lines to the relative safety of western Ukraine. He has since started a nonprofit focused on Ukrainian aid.

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The newspaper also followed Dr. Kyle Varner, a Spokane physician with emergency and internal medicine knowledge. He flew to Poland and drove into western Ukraine in mid-March with some $40,000 worth of medical supplies, including gowns, tourniquets, bandages and two portable ultrasound devices.

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Others from the Inland Northwest picked up guns.

In Poland, Francovich met with Chris Warren, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who had been stationed in Spokane and worked at Fairchild Air Force Base’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school. He and another Spokane-area man, Jeremy Smith, were among more than 20,000 fighters from 52 countries who traveled to the war-torn country with motivations as mixed as their nationalities.

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Still others arrived in Eastern Europe to help ease one of the overlooked secondary problems arising from the flood of people leaving Ukraine: Of the more than 4 million people who fled that month, many brought along pets.

Dr. Marty Becker, a Bonners Ferry veterinarian whose nearly two-decade tenure on "Good Morning America" earned him the nickname "America's Veterinarian," arrived at the Romanian-Ukrainian border in April to raise money for animal rescue and shelter efforts.

"If I help a pet, I'm also helping people," Becker said. "I'm also helping the whole family."

Mixed Motives

This flood of help brought its own problems. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, Ukrainian officials started turning away some volunteers. After initially asking for any and all to join the Foreign Legion, Ukraine started to only accept those with combat experience.

“If there are volunteers that are coming from Australia or New Zealand, which makes the coming very expensive and long and you are also taking space in the hotels or hostels which are very much needed, then it doesn’t make much sense because there are people in Poland who can do these jobs,” one Polish volunteer told the Spokesman-Review.

As for humanitarian aid, experts noted a broader shift in how – and who – delivers aid. While large nonprofits, like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, still dominate international aid work, experts say some of the most effective work in Ukraine and throughout the world is done by smaller, more nimble groups that prioritize providing money or goods directly to those in need. And while many praise that shift, noting that smaller groups are often better integrated into the communities they serve, the change does raise questions about oversight and, in the case of war, neutrality and motivation.


Case in point? Former Washington state representative Matt Shea, a Spokane pastor and former Washington state legislator.

Shea said he traveled to Ukraine to rescue 62 Ukrainian orphans, and with the help of a Polish church, Shea helped bring the children into Poland. However, controversies he sparked in Washington raised alarms among Polish volunteers, who were shocked to learn that Shea had been kicked out of the Washington state House Republican caucus after investigators determined that his role in the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 amounted to “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States.” Shea had also authored a “Biblical Basis for War” manifesto which described the Christian god as a “warrior” and detailed the composition and strategies of a “Holy Army.”

And while the orphans ultimately remained under the custody of a Ukrainian legal guardian, and Polish authorities opted not to investigate Shea, the episode raised larger questions about oversight in time of war, particularly for the most vulnerable: children.

For the Children

The future is always a motivating force for refugees fleeing upheaval, who ask themselves “What sort of life will my children have?” It’s no different for the thousands of Slavs who have settled in Spokane since the fall of the Soviet Union. And while the city’s Slavic residents represent all Eastern European countries, Ukrainians make up the majority of the 50,000 or so living in Spokane.

Between 1989 and 1991, millions of Christians seized the opportunity to flee the crumbling Soviet Union and its legacy of religious repression. And when the Russian economy collapsed a few years later, the region experienced a period of upheaval that sent millions more in search of a new home. The newest conflict promises to only increase the number of Ukrainians in Spokane; officials estimate about 2,500 Ukrainians have arrived in Spokane since the war began. Those Spokane transplants all have unique stories, but there is one common thread: They fled.

In hopes of easing that transition, the Slavic community in Spokane has welcomed those refugees with open arms, providing them housing, translation and helping them settle into the local school system.

Meanwhile the United States has continued to pour money and weapons into Ukraine, with President Zelenskyy addressing the U.S. Congress, including Washington’s delegation, in a historic December speech.

All of which would make Spokane a logical place for the Kurilovas to settle, permanently.

Except for one, undeniable fact: Spokane wasn’t their home.

Photo courtesy the Kurilova family

"We felt so alone," Anna said of their temporary residence in a hastily converted Spokane Quality Inn.

And so, in early November, riddled with anxiety about their home in Russian-occupied Mariupol, they packed their bags yet again and headed back to Europe, traveling through Russia with the help of sympathetic Christians. Eventually they returned to Mariupol.

There was hardly anything left.

“We say goodbye our house,” Anna said. “It’s very big pain. I don’t want come back.”

The Kurilovas have since relocated to Germany, where they hope to start anew — this time knowing there is nothing to return to.

Meanwhile, their small room in Spokane has been filled by a new family forced to flee the war.

Journalism in Action

Why a small-town newspaper across the world sent a reporter to the war in Ukraine

With one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the nation located in Spokane, The Spokesman-Review newsroom knew its reporting of the Russian attack on Ukraine needed to be much different than what other news organizations might produce. Coincidentally, the readers of the small daily newspaper felt the same way.

Behind one of the most unique community-funded local reporting projects in the nation, journalism funds in foundations across Eastern Washington worked together with the newsroom’s popular events series, as well as community members, newspaper subscribers and even local businesses to help send a Spokesman-Review reporter halfway across the world to cover what was an incredibly important local story back in Spokane.

The result was the kind of reporting focused on people from across Eastern Washington and North Idaho who found their way to Ukraine to help their new neighbors as doctors, veterinarians, therapists, interpreters and even as mercenaries. These were human stories that not only mattered, but made a difference in how the region viewed the war.

Once The Spokesman-Review’s reporter was back in Spokane, the stories didn’t stop. Not only was there more reporting to be done about the new Ukrainian refugees, but also the returning volunteers. Multiple community events were held by the newspaper, and reporters and editors spoke with teachers, students and community groups.

Because the community had funded all of this coverage, the newspaper made sure the community “owned” it by releasing all of these stories via a Creative Commons license, instead of the newspaper’s traditional copyright.