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A family's journey took them from Ukraine, to Poland, and now to Washington, Illinois

Viktor and Tatiana Vakhutko left their home in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, now live and work in Washington, IL.
Ron Johnson/Photo by Ron Johnson
Viktor and Tatiana Vakhutko left their home in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, now live and work in Washington, IL.

At first glance, they look like a typical Washington family.

There's Viktor Vakhutko and his wife, Tatiana. And their sons Vitaly, who will be 13 on Monday, and Evgeny, 6. Vitaly will be a seventh-grader this fall at Washington Middle School. Evgeny will be a first-grader at Lincoln Grade School.

Then there's Tatiana's mother, Natalia Levitskaya, and sister, Olga Ukhabotova.

But they're not typical Washington residents.

Viktor, Tatiana and their sons left their birthplace and home in Zaporozhye, Ukraine because of their country's war with Russia and went to Poland for a year and a half, where life was difficult "because some Polish people believe that Ukraine started the war," Viktor said.

The Vakhutko family left Poland and arrived in Washington in November through the U.S. government's Uniting for Ukraine refugee program.

Tatiana's mother and sister came to Washington in May directly from Zaporozhye, also through the Uniting for Ukraine program.

Calvary Community Church in Washington is the family's required sponsor.

Longtime church members Candace and Sebastian Whiting of Washington, who learned about the Uniting for Ukraine program through close friends while they were living in New York, brought the idea of being a Uniting for Ukraine sponsor to Calvary Community Church.

"We were blessed with surpluses in our budget in 2022 and 2023," said Clayton Tinervin, senior pastor at Calvary Community Church. "So we asked, 'How would Jesus spend that money? We got our answer."

Each Ukrainian who comes to the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine has refugee status here for two years. Their future after that time is uncertain.

"Hopefully, a path for citizenship for these refugees after their two years here will be created, or there will be opportunity to apply for refugee status again," Tinervin said. "Either way, we'll help Viktor and Tatiana and their family with whatever they need."

Calvary Community Church is the family's ethical sponsor, Tinervin said.

That means while the church has no legal responsibilities, it has a multitude of humanitarian responsibilities.

Vitalik Vakhutko, 13, and his 6-year old brother Evgeny enjoy a trampoline in their family’s backyard.
Ron Johnson/Photo by Ron Johnson
Vitalik Vakhutko, 13, and his 6-year old brother Evgeny enjoy a trampoline in their family’s backyard.

Thanks to the church, the family is living in a rental home after living in a home for free, purchased a car with a car loan, and Viktor and Tanya have found employment.

All while they're learning to understand and speak English, and adjust to living in a new country thousands of miles away from their homeland.

Viktor, a railroad technician in Ukraine, was hired in December as a maintenance worker at Washington Community High School. Tatiana, a real estate agent in Ukraine, has been a custodian at Morton High School since April.

Each is an excellent employee, according to school officials.

"Anything we ask Viktor to do, he gets it done," said WCHS Superintendent Kyle Freeman.

The Vakhutkos love their jobs and appreciate being hired.

"We were hired despite the fact that we did not have a knowledge of English. It did not scare them and vice versa," Viktor said in an interview using a Google translation program.

"There are very good teams there and the school principals are kind, nice and friendly," he said. "The teams continue to help us in our adaption to a new country and in the workplace."

In addition to providing income for their family, Viktor and Tatiana's jobs have given them the opportunity to accelerate their learning of English through frequent interactions with co-workers, supervisors and students. They communicate at work and with Tinervin and church members by using a translation app on their phone.

"Speaking as an educator, I know the best way to learn a language is to become emersed in it. There's English all around Viktor at our school," Freeman said. "Viktor is a quick learner. He's picked up a lot of English words and phrases."

Tinervin said Viktor and Tatiana are beginning to react to something said to them in English before they see a translation, "but they're not conversational or fluent in English yet."

Joe Sander, Morton School District assistant superintendent, said he was impressed with the translation technology that made the job interview and on-boarding requirements easier for Tatiana.

Viktor and Tanya Vakhutko and their sons, Vitalik, 13, left, and Evgeny, 6, left their home in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, now live in Washington, IL.
Ron Johnson/Photo by Ron Johnson
Viktor and Tanya Vakhutko and their sons, Vitalik, 13, left, and Evgeny, 6, left their home in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, now live in Washington, IL.

"It was beautiful to see how the technology allowed us to connect all the dots so we could hire Tatiana," he said.

Viktor was effusive in his praise for the Whitings and Tinervin. Sebastian Whiting is a U.S. Navy veteran.

"Candace and Sebastian met us at the airport when we came here," he said. "From the minute we met them, they surrounded us with warmth and affection.

"They brought us to a home in Washington where there was food and all the necessities. People from the church came there the next day to get acquainted, and brought us gifts and food. They have been very kind to support us. We love them very much.

"We are very grateful to the Lord that he introduced us to these wonderful people, and that God helped us get to America. The Lord works through people. The Lord is good. He is the best."

As for Tinervin, "I don't know where so much patience, kindness and love comes from," Viktor said. "We've had a lot of questions, requests, and asked for advice lately and he always responds and comes to the rescue. He brings something positive to our family every time."

Viktor said the Americans he's met here are good-natured, like to hug, and most importantly, treat everyone the same, regardless of nationality.

"That's why America is a dream for us at the moment," he said.

He said his family likes Washington "very, very much."

"It's a beautiful city, although we have not yet visited many places, with quiet, calm and kind people who are always ready to help. Our sons like their schools. Their relationships with students and teachers are wonderful. Vitaly has a lot of friends."

Tinervin said the Vakhutko family is the third of six families Calvary Community Church has brought here from Ukraine through the Uniting for Ukraine program.

"Sixteen individuals altogether," he said. "One was born here.."

Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.