Like many in the United States and the world, Humboldt native Ryan Knight spent much of early 2022 watching Russian forces gather on the western border with Ukraine with a sense of disbelief. But Knight knows the country far better than most, having spent a couple of years in the country — witnessing the birth of its current government in what's known as its "Revolution of Dignity" in 2014 — first with the Peace Corps and then as a student, before working stateside with organizations dedicated to supporting and strengthening the burgeoning democracy. He knows its cities, its culture and, most importantly, its people.
While spending more than a year in a small village in Western Ukraine, Knight lived with a host family — the Shetalias — that became like extended family to him, so much so that when he returned home, he kept in touch with regular calls, making sure not to miss holidays and birthdays. And when he came back to Ukraine as a student, he'd travel to weekends with them.
Knight knew enough of the instability of global politics — and the unpredictability of Russian President Vladimir Putin — that he'd taken the threat serious enough to ask his host mom Ildika Shetalia if she had a plan. Did the family have a go-bag ready? Had it withdrawn cash from the bank? But things still felt surreal, even by mid February, when Russian troops were stacked at Ukrainian border and his host father, Vasiya, who he'd grown close to drinking home-distilled vodka and talking through the world's problems and was a reservist in the army, had been mobilized, it didn't seem real.
"We just didn't believe it was going to happen," he said. "It just seemed so stupid. It just seemed like the most ridiculous thing."
Then, on Feb. 23, one of Knight's colleagues said they felt the invasion would start that night. Knight stayed up glued to Twitter, and watched the war start in real time from thousands of miles away, first with a sense of loss, then sadness, then fear.
"That first video came out of the border guard in Crimea with his back turned, running," Knight said. "The live feed that had been at the border then went dead and it was sort of then that we knew the war had started. Then, the bombing began."
Knight called Ildika at about 5 a.m. local time to see if everything was OK.
"Of course everything is OK," she answered sleepily, unaware the war had begun and that her life would never be the same.
- A mural in Kyiv, Ukraine, painted after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
As the following days turned to weeks and months, Ildika Shetalia watched as her "friendly" village was transformed and 80 men at the factory where she worked as an analyst supervisor and Vasiya had served as the "master of instruments," a kind of technical millwright, went to join the war effort. The factory itself then turned into a clearinghouse of support, taking donations to send to soldiers on the front lines, while school campuses readied to serve as bomb shelters and neighborhood groups pivoted to doing what they could to help the war effort.
By late March, Ildika Shetalia had rethought an offer long on the table from Ryan and his parents, retired longtime Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Lt. Steve Knight and his wife, Dianne, who works for the state: If any of the Shetalias wanted to leave Ukraine, they would do everything they could to help them get out and welcome them into the Knight family home in Eureka. Ildika wasn't ready to leave or be apart from her young son but felt she couldn't pass on the chance to get her 16-year-old daughter Kristina out of the country.
"We started to think, 'There needs to be something better, where her education can be normal and she can be safe,'" Ildika told the Journal recently, sitting at a Eureka coffee shop while dropping Kristina off with the Knights, speaking in Ukrainian with Ryan translating.
Ildika Shetalia says before the war, life was good in Sasovo, the small village in Western Ukraine where she and Vasiya had settled to start a family. The couple had met when he was 16 and she 13, and been friends for years before they started dating and, nine years later, married.
"It's a village of friendly people who really help one another," she said.
In 2013, wanting to do their part to support development of the local school — which at that point still didn't have indoor plumbing, relegating students to using outhouses even in the deep freeze of winter — the Shetalias signed up to host a Peace Corps volunteer, paving the way for Ryan to enter their lives.
- Ryan Knight, gathers at the dinner table with the Shetalia family.
Ildika also spoke glowingly of the changes that had come to all of Ukraine in recent years, especially since the 2019 election of Vladimir Zelenskyy as the country's sixth president. She said the federal government had begun to rebuild long-neglected roads, introduced electronic passports that made it easier for Ukrainians to travel, improved medical care and schools, stopped clear cutting forests and was making real progress in rooting out corruption. Just about every aspect of life, she said, was improving.
When Putin began saber rattling and making absurd claims about the needed "deNazification" of Ukraine in December of 2021, she said nobody thought war could be a reality — a state of denial she says continued in her village until that morning Ryan Knight called.
"It was a big shock," she said. "Nobody expected what happened. Everyday people were not ready."
Once word of the invasion spread through the village, she said panic ensued. Families held their kids home from school and worried desperately about relatives in eastern parts of the country closer to the front lines, as the local government started planning for air raid warnings.
Within weeks, she said neighborhood groups had learned to make bullet proof vests and where to procure supplies. Families, she said, donated old clothes in shades of green and brown, and the grade school where Ryan volunteered morphed into a kind of assembly line in which boys ripped the fabrics into strips that girls weaved into camouflage netting. There was hardly a piece of life the war didn't touch, even as it was being fought on the other side of the country.
As Russian forces advanced, more and more families in Sasovo took in the displaced — sometimes their family members, sometime strangers — in an effort to help. The Shetalias took in family from Kyiv for several months until it was safe for them to return home.
And all the while, Vasiya was away, having joined the war effort. A reservist, Vasiya had not signed a contract with the military, but he went anyway.
"Ildika was a bit upset because when the war started, he did not have to go," Ryan Knight said. "He was not required to but he volunteered because he couldn't just stand by."
Ildika said she bought her husband — a bit of a luddite — a smart phone so they could stay in touch. They talked regularly by video chat, she said, but he couldn't say where he was or what he was doing.
"He calls when he has free time," she said. "We talk about family and things at home — that's all."
Soon, the Ildika and Vasiya started reconsidering the Knight's offer of place of refuge, which they hadn't considered seriously and turned down weeks before the war began. Amid a new reality, things looked different in March and the family decided to accept the offer and see if they could get Kristina to the United States. At first, Kristina didn't want to go.
Ildika recalled the conversation: "I told her, 'You need to think about the future and be strong. Don't be afraid, just go and and do it. It's like this in life.' We have a saying, People who are afraid won't drink champagne."
With that, Ildika told Ryan she wanted her daughter to come live with his parents, if they could get her there.
- Ildika Shetalia takes a selfie with Ryan Knight in front of the Carson Mansion.
Growing up in Humboldt County, Ryan Knight said he learned to have an interest in public service from an early age, through his family, his school and his church. By the time he graduated from college, he already had been bitten by the travel bug — having studied for a year in Chungdew, China, where he learned to speak Mandarin, and six months in Tanzania, where he learned Swahili — so the Peace Corps seemed a natural fit. But he wasn't ready to be sent to Ukraine.
"At the time, I said, 'What a boring country. Nothing interesting ever happens there,'" Ryan Knight said with a laugh.
But he went anyway, in the fall of 2013. After several months of orientation and language school in Kyiv, he arrived in Sasovo in November to live with the Shetalias.
Ildika said the family took to him immediately, though cultural differences stood out.
"Americans are very open people, Ukrainians are very closed off," she said with a laugh, recalling how Ryan seemingly wouldn't stop smiling, which was weird.
The first day, Ryan said Ildika walked her through town, introducing her to everyone, including the mayor. Everyone, he said, was friendly and welcoming. But his time there was cut short.
In November, then president Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, decided not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, sparking fierce protests that built steadily and — in February — erupted into a revolution that saw Yanukovych step down and flee the country, with protesters taking over Kyiv. Tracking the instability, the Peace Corps had already increased security protocols for Ryan and his cohort — first telling them couldn't visit neighboring towns or cities, then telling them they couldn't leave home except to go to their volunteer placements. And as the prospects of a full-blown revolution increased, the Peace Corps told them to consolidate — to leave their host families and meet in a designated location. From there, the organization pulled them out of the country.
"We were evacuated the same day the president fled," Ryan recalled, saying he wasn't able to break the news to the Shetalias until he was back in the United States.
He and the family had clicked and gotten very close very quickly, he said, so they kept in close touch. He worried from afar as Russia "annexed" Crimea but was reassured when the new government gained its footing. As soon as things stabilized, he knew he wanted to return.
As life went on in Humboldt County, Ryan Knight said he made sure to send the Shetalia kids presents on their birthdays and call Ildika regularly. He applied for graduate school and was accepted to Georgetown University, but just as that happened he heard from the Peace Corps that they would be sending another group to Ukraine. He jumped at the chance to return to the Shetalia's home and finish what he'd started, deferring grad school for a year.
He wound up doing everything he'd envisioned doing the first time — living there for a year, teaching English and doing a variety of civic projects, from raising money for soccer nets and balls to helping organize the cleaning of a Jewish cemetery. And all the time, he sensed a change in the country with a renewed civic energy, describing it as an exciting time brimming with newfound potential.
When he left, he wept.
"I just started to tear up," he recalled. "I knew it had just been such an amazing, special year that I'd had and that things were changing."
When the Shetalias decided they wanted Kristina to come to the United States, focus quickly turned to make it a reality.
Ildika recalled that when she told people about the plan, they were quick to dismiss it as impossible.
"They thought it was a fairy tale," she said. "Even my parents didn't think she would be able to come."
Steve Knight, meanwhile, said the decision to take in Kristina — or even the entire Shetalia family, had they accepted — was an easy one.
"We felt, whatever it took to save their lives," he said. "We didn't know what was going to happen but we wanted to give them options."
As soon as he got word the family wanted to send Kristina to live with them, Steve Knight began making calls, and reached out to North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman's office for help. The office relayed that the Biden administration was working on a sponsorship program to help Ukrainian refugees and said to sit tight. Soon, Huffman's office called back to report that Congress had passed the Uniting for Ukraine act to allow U.S. citizens to sponsor Ukrainians to enter the country — streamlining the immigration process to allow them to come to the United States for two years. The Knights said the application process was pretty seamless, and soon plans were in place for Ildika to bring Kristina to the United States, with Ildika returning to Ukraine after about a week of helping her daughter get settled.
Kristina is now starting her junior year at Eureka High School, where she's befriended a Finish exchange student here through the Eureka Rotary exchange program. Steve Knight said everyone is getting used to the new setup, noting he and Dianne haven't had kids in the house for more than a decade. (He said Ryan warned him not to smile too much or Kristina might find it off-putting.) But things are going well and it feels good to help, he said.
- Kristina (left) and Ildika Shetalia pose for a photo on the Eureka waterfront.
He encouraged people to look at the program, saying it will help them identify Ukrainians looking to be sponsored and noting that sponsors don't have to host the Ukrainians in their homes, they just have to pledge to support them and help them integrate into the community by finding them housing and jobs, connecting them to social services and schools.
"People should look at it," said Steve Knight, who will be speaking at a local informational meeting on the program Sept. 17 at 10 a.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Eureka (819 15th St.)
Kristina said, though she'll miss her parents, she was grateful for the opportunity.
It'll be better because I won't have to hear and worry about the war," she told the Journal in Ukrainian, with Ryan Knight translating. "It was really hard to study and understand that at the same time people are fighting so you can just be."
Ildika, for her part, said she'll miss her daughter but takes solace in the fact "it's not like the old days, when all you had was letters," adding she'll video chat with Kristina regularly. She said she's grateful for what the Knights have done, saying it will give her daughter a chance to get a real education and, hopefully, return to help rebuild Ukraine. It's an opportunity she hopes will be extended to other families, too, urging Americans to do what they can.
"Everyone needs to help," she said. "Ukraine was not ready for this. Our country needs support."
Just this week, after Kristina started school safely at Eureka High School, it was reported that the start of the school year had been delayed throughout much of Ukraine to allow the military to check school buildings for land mines before children returned.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.