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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ukraine families find long, tough road to Spokane: ‘It’s your life that’s at stake’

Ukrainian Iryna Sapielkna, with husband Artyem Ryzhhov, displays the clothing she wore when she was shot in a car, apparently by Russian military, as they fled from Kharkiv on March 1. The couple, with their four kids, arrived Monday in Spokane as refugees.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It took Artyem Ryzhkov’s family three weeks, several thousand miles and a bullet wound to leave war-torn Ukraine for the safer confines of Spokane.

Ryzhkov said through a translator Tuesday at Roller Valley skate center in Spokane Valley that he, his wife and their four children wanted to flee their home country when they first heard explosions late last month.

The family was one of six Ukrainian refugee families that met at the skate center Tuesday to have their questions answered and talk about their next steps.

Ryzhkov said they heard stories that vehicles were being shot at, so they decided to stay in Ukraine initially. After spending a week in a shelter and cut off from food, water and access to their city of Kharkiv, they eventually left.

They had to take backroads, as they saw burned and damaged Russian military vehicles along the way. He and one of his daughters traveled in one vehicle and his wife, Iryna Sapielkna, and their other three children traveled behind in a different vehicle.

At one point, he said they heard gunfire and, when he realized the bullets were coming their direction, he opened his door and jumped out while it was still moving. His daughter did the same.

Ryzhkov said the shooting stopped after they started screaming that they were civilians and they had children with them. But it was too late for Sapielkna.

Ryzhkov said she felt a “burning sensation” in in her back. It turned out one of the bullets went through the car door and a car seat before striking her upper body. The bullet had lost momentum and did not enter her body, Ryzhkov said.

Sapielkna pulled out the shirt she was wearing and to show the bullet hole. Rhyzkov said it was most likely Russian military forces that shot his wife, who said she is feeling much better.

“I would love to honor my wife because she is so brave for just completely shaking this off and continue to travel on the way,” Ryzhkov said.

The family of six traveled about 2,500 miles through seven countries in the bullet-riddled vehicle. It took six planes to arrive in Spokane, touching down in Cuba and then Mexico before reaching the U.S. They arrived in Spokane on Monday night.

Kyzhkov said their Kharkiv apartment, which was damaged by a bomb, is occupied by Russian troops, and they have nothing to return to.

“When you actually understand and grasp the idea, the fact that it’s your life that’s at stake, you really stop caring about anything that’s physical,” he said.

Zhanna Oberemok, who owns and operates the Spokane Valley roller rink and left Ukraine as a refugee for the U.S. in 1991, said the families are experiencing an “emotional roller coaster.”

“It’s almost like deja vu,” she said. “It’s almost like being thrown back 30 years, but now we’re on the other side of the spectrum.”

Oberemok said some of the refugees say they want to return to Ukraine, but they’re told there is no home to go back to, something that is difficult for them to process. Others are disoriented by the change in culture.

Most of them are from Kharkiv and are somehow connected to each of the six families. The families are staying with other Spokane-area families like Oberemok’s.

To help the six Ukrainian families, visit

Oberemok said helping the families is an opportunity to “pay it forward” for the help she received more than three decades ago.

“It feels like now it’s our chance to give back to how we were treated 30 years ago,” she said.