Utah woman helps group of 11 Ukrainians arrive safely in Salt Lake City

Jul 15, 2022, 9:08 PM | Updated: 9:13 pm

BOUNTIFUL, UtahFriday marks the official first week in America for a group of 11 Ukrainians.  

Last month, KSL’s Erin Cox shared the story of a Utah woman who met Ukrainian refugees in Poland and was working to bring them here to the Beehive State. 

Whitney Holcomb visited Poland in March to help Ukrainian refugees. That’s where Holcomb met Evgeny Zavoloka, who she calls “Eugene.”  

Zavoloka’s family and friends make a group of 11. They all evacuated Ukraine shortly after the Russian-Ukraine conflict began, but they never anticipated the Polish shelters they’d been staying in would become more permanent residences.  

Though grateful for the shelter, Zavoloka said they’ve been living in an office space that was never meant to be a home — with hundreds sharing a few bathrooms on each floor.  

In mid-June, Holcomb did a zoom call with Zavoloka and KSL to talk about what they were experiencing. At that time, Holcomb was hoping to sponsor Zavoloka and his group of 11 through the federal program Uniting for Ukraine 

“We submitted them seven weeks ago and we still haven’t heard back on those,” Holcomb said.

 Instead of waiting to hear back, Holcomb and her family decided to apply again. After three submissions, Holcomb got a call.  

“We got their approvals all finished,” Holcomb said.

After months of worrying and waiting, Zavoloka and his group had three days before their flight to Salt Lake City, where a large welcoming party waited, holding balloons, “welcome” signs and flowers.  

“Everyone else seemed as excited as I was, and they’ve never met them before, but they all felt like they know them,” Holcomb said. 

The first feelings for Zavoloka were safety and protection.  

“After that cool, beautiful nature, beautiful people who always smile,” Zavoloka said“I think that these people don’t pretend, they smile from the heart.” 

Even the things most would not notice through their travels, Zavoloka picked up — like how helpful airport security was with their immigration process.  

“They try to help us, and if they took a long time, they apologized every time,” Zavoloka said. “They gave us water and asked, ‘What do you need?’ After that, I relaxed.”  

For a moment, Zavoloka and his group of 11 found peace in Utah and at Holcomb’s home. 

Eleven Ukrainian guests sit with the Holcomb family, KSL News Specialist Erin Cox and KSL Photographer Josh Szymanik.

“They give us like heaven,” Zavoloka said.

Holcomb said she realized her Ukrainian friends had been without many comforts for the past five months.  

So we want to provide them with happiness,” Holcomb said.

Within their first three days in Utah, Holcomb noticed how attentive her Ukrainian guests were. 

Before their arrival, Holcomb and her husband lived in their home. Now, the couple lives in the basement while their 11 Ukrainian guests occupy the main floor and upstairs. Yet, the added 11 has not made the house chaotic or even crowded. Holcomb called their company a gift. 

“They’re very conscientious,” Holcomb said. “Every time I walked by the front door, the shoes are all straight and they’re constantly doing the dishes.”

Ukrainian guests line up shoes at front door out of courtesy to their hosts.

While their Ukrainian friends have taken care of the details around the house, Holcomb and her neighbors have planned outings to show them around the state. In the first three days, they went to the pool twice, went for a mountain bike ride and a gyroplane ride.  

“I think they would like to just relax, take a breath, but everyone’s so excited for them to be here, including myself,” Holcomb said

The excitement of their first week in the U.S. has not been diminished by the amount of paperwork and hard work to build a new life.  

“I don’t know English well, like I want,” Zavoloka said. “I want to open my work and give people my knowledge, and maybe stress about these and my future.” 

Holcomb is helping Zavoloka navigate these stresses, and they’re working with the Catholic Community Services to help Zavoloka gain U.S. citizenship.  

Holcomb also hopes to help some of her other Ukrainian friends that she met in Poland.   

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Utah woman helps group of 11 Ukrainians arrive safely in Salt Lake City