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Ukrainians find warm welcome in Sedalia after fleeing their war-torn country • Missouri Independent


Before Russia invaded her country, Yuliana Bezlysiuk was making plans.

She had studied business and accounting in Ukraine, earned three degrees and found a job as a clerk at a Ukrainian university.

Early one morning in February 2022, all of her plans and dreams disappeared.

“In one day, all of my plans go,” she said.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Bezlysiuk was sleeping in an apartment in Dubno where she lived with her mother and younger sister. At 7 a.m., she was awakened by an unexpected text from a friend.

It announced that Russia had just invaded Ukraine and advised her to watch the news and decide what to do next.

“I just opened my phone, my legs and my hands shaking,” Bezlysiuk said. “I yelled, ‘Mama!’”

That text ignited two weeks of fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Worried about the family’s supply of groceries and cash, Bezlysiuk rushed to secure water, medical supplies and cash from an ATM. Instead of sleeping, she scrolled through the news.

Finally, she told her family they needed to go: “We can’t live like that,’” she said. “’I don’t want to lose you.’”

Bezlysiuk’s story is just one of thousands about Ukrainians who fled after the Russian invasion. She and her family ended up in Sedalia, which has become a magnet for Ukrainian refugees, as well as those from Russia, Moldova and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

By the time Bezlysiuk and her family arrived in Sedalia in May 2022, it already had a thriving population from their home country. At least 6.2 million Ukrainian refugees had been recorded globally as of July, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

More than 250,000 of them ended up in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with hundreds coming to the Midwest.

According to Census data, 137 foreign-born Ukrainians were living in Sedalia in 2021 before the Russian invasion. Dozens more have arrived since then, although exact numbers haven’t been recorded.

Sedalia has several Slavic churches and Slavic-owned businesses, including Coffee Port Cafe, First Choice Auto Co., and Maksim’s Market. In April, Sedalia celebrated its second annual Ukrainian Festival.

The mayor, Andrew Dawson, said Sedalia is a friendly and welcoming community where diversity and multiculturalism are valued.

“It brings new perspectives and different ways of looking at things and I think that’s important,” Dawson said.

Aleksander Surguy came to Sedalia from the Kyiv region of Ukraine in 1999 after spending seven years in Los Angeles where he said it was too crowded and expensive.

Surguy’s uncle, a long-haul truck driver told him about Sedalia’s Slavic community. Eventually, the family decided in 2006 to relocate where they could find a Slavic church, affordable land, and a temperate climate — the way it was in Ukraine.

“You don’t feel as alone because if you move into a new place you feel very lonely for a bit, I would guess,” he said. “We had friends right away.”

Since the Russian invasion, Surguy said he has seen the community respond with kindness and compassion to the recent influx of refugees.

After leaving Ukraine in early 2022, the Bezlysiuk family headed to the Poland-Ukraine border, where shelters were restricted to women. Soon afterward, the family moved in with Polish volunteers who lived 20 hours from the border.

“They give you food, they give you medicine, they give you a ride if you need to go somewhere …” said Bezlysiuk, now 28. “They help you like you’re best friend.”

Her family was determined to seek asylum in the United States, but there was nearly a year-long wait to apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy. When the U.S. opened its borders to Ukrainians in the spring of 2022, Bezlyiuk and her family traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, where officials could exempt Ukrainians from the public health restrictions the U.S. imposed during the pandemic.

The family spent two months in Denver before deciding to settle in Sedalia where an aunt was already living. Bezlysiuk said the town and the landscape are quite similar to that of Ukraine.

“This city is the same as mine in Ukraine, just the same,” she said. “Once I posted a video to Instagram, and one of my friends asked me, “Are you back home?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not in Ukraine.’”

The family has been living in Sedalia for more than a year now. Bezlysiuk has worked at a department store and for a local trucking company. She also teaches local children to speak Ukrainian, and her family belongs to one of Sedalia’s Slavic churches.

The town has been very welcoming, she said. “People (are) so good there,” she said. “They are smiling, they (are) glad to help you. I love the community.”

The Oshurko family found community in the same Slavic church. Valentyna Oshurko and seven of her children fled from Ukraine to Sedalia in May 2022, following two sons who already lived there.

With a war still disrupting their lives back home, Oshurko and her family are trying to assimilate into American life and customs.

“We get used to the food and people,” Oshurko said. “It’s a different culture.”

Back in Ukraine, Oshurko lived on a farm with acres of land and a greenhouse. It was where she raised 15 children. Now she works as a caregiver and a housecleaner in Sedalia and takes English classes at State Fair Community College.

Still, she said she hopes the war will end so she and her family can return to Ukraine.

“We miss Ukraine,” Oshurko said.

As for Bezlysiuk, she hopes to one day attend school again and earn an American degree, but for now, her priority is family.

“I hope they have life, they have jobs, they have health, and that’s all,” she said. “That they be happy. That is what I need.”

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online. 



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