JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — Ivanna and Serhii Pryhoda are very grateful they are safe and housed in the U.S., but safety and security are still bittersweet for the couple from one of the first Ukrainian regions occupied by Russian troops in February.

After all, their town of Beryslav just north of the embattled city of Kherson is still occupied, Serhii’s parents and brother remain there holed up with little food and Ivanna’s brother is fighting with the Ukrainian army in the eastern Donbas region. They know both a soldier and civilians who’ve been killed.

So even with the sun shining brightly on a house where they and their five children live, Wednesday was not the kind of Ukrainian Independence Day that left Ivanna — a radiology nurse back home — in much of a mood for celebrating.

Ivanna Pryhoda and her children back in Ukraine.

Despite it all, though, she and her friend Yevjeniia Hrebenkova, who has lived in Johnson City for six years, could laugh about Ivanna’s brother on the front lines and determined to get back his beloved pair of Skechers.

“It was in the house of my brother, and they stole cell phone, cream for shaving and Skechers,” Ivanna said, sitting in a new home that a local builder has donated for the family’s use.

“In every video (call) in which we see my brother, he always look at his shoes,” she said, laughing. “He says I just want to find who is stolen my shoes.”

That’s the kind of grim humor the congregation of Jonesborough United Methodist Church is learning the Pryhodas are using to cope with such tremendous loss. Serhii also worked at Beryslav’s local hospital, and in addition to a teenage son and twin 3-year-olds, they adopted Ivanna’s two teenage nephews before the war.

Their harrowing journey included about a month inside their home, where Russian soldiers regularly harassed them, and a flight to the Ivano-Frankisvsk region near the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. There they found lodging in a resort cabin, but had to pay the owner and ran through most of their savings.

It was better than home, even though that’s where the family still longs to be. And Jonesborough, where they arrived early this month, is even more secure and safer — but a world away in distance and culture.

“The first time it was three soldiers with machine guns,” Ivanna remembers of the Russian troops who came to their home.

“They checked our house, they checked our phones, our papers, passports, (driver’s) licenses, they checked our car. Then they asked my husband ‘why you have so many tools?'”

Those types of questions and visits continued until the family left, with many friends, family and loved ones still there.

HIMARS and hospitality

As they watch the war unfold from afar, Ivanna said she’s grateful for the support the U.S. and western governments have given the Ukrainian military. She said the HIMARS weapons systems have allowed for precise bombing of Russian positions even near their home and for the destruction of bridges over the Dnipro River that the Russian army needs to maintain its stranglehold on the region, which isn’t far south of the Zaporhizia nuclear plant.

“The HIMARS gave us hope for quickly finish this,” she said.

While they wait and hope with the war now six months in as of Wednesday, Ivanna said the family is overwhelmed by the church’s support.

“All these people is so kind, so friendly, and we are so grateful for all of these people.”

The Pryhodas at Wetlands Water Park with Jonesborough UMC Pastor Michael Lester, right. (Courtesy Michael Lester)

Jonesborough UMC’s pastor, Michael Lester, said the gratitude goes both ways.

“We intended to help them but we’ve discovered that they are helping us and they are changing us in very powerful and positive ways,” Lester said Wednesday as a Ukrainian flag shone in the sunlight where it hung from the second story of the Pryhodas’ temporary home.

“We are actively involved in many area mission projects, and this gave us a chance to do something that stretched us, that brought us out of our comfort zone,” he added.

Members have downloaded translation apps and happily provided rides, gift cards and other support as the family gets the kids enrolled in school and signs up for benefits, with work permits in the future. The family attended a church picnic last weekend, entering to applause that Ivanna found heartwarming if a bit embarrassing.

“When I first met them and talked with them, I asked them ‘what is the greatest challenge or difficulty about relocating to America and to Jonesborough,’ and they had this strange look on their face and they said ‘we’re just so thankful to be safe and to be together. That’s all that matters.’

“And that really spoke to me and that’s another way that they have impacted my life, because it’s helping me and our church focus on what’s most important and not take our freedoms for granted and the blessings that we have — everyday life, our relationships, our freedom, just the opportunity to work and to play and to be with friends and family. And the Jonesborough community is embracing them.”

A proud people

Ivanna said Ukraine’s struggle to maintain its independence from Russia has been consistent throughout her adult life. When she was in nursing school, the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05 was occurring. A Russian-backed presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, had been declared the winner of a runoff election despite Ukrainians believing those results were rigged against the other candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.

People took to the streets or, in Ivanna’s case, wore orange armbands in protest. Yushchenko was eventually declared the winner, but Russia’s influence was clear.

“Some of the teachers saw me with this stripe and he said I needed to remove this and if I’m not doing this he will take me to the principal,” she said. “They made some list.”

She said some corruption still plagued Ukraine prior to the war, but that the country was continuing to move toward becoming more free and democratic, with respect for the rule of law. That’s all she, Serhii, and their friends the Hrebenkovs hope for their country.

“I hope war is finished in Ukraine and we can come back to our home,” Ivanna said. “The U.S. is so great a country, like my favorite book Great Gatsby, and people so kind and so careful and so friendly — it’s a country where the law is highest, law works.”

Nonetheless, she knows she wants to return to Ukraine.

“Who will rebuild Ukraine? It’s so awesome to live here, but I love my country so much and I know it will be some moment when you need to change something in your country. It will be a moment after our win, we will be the people who will be changing this, rebuild the system in our country and I want to be part of that.”