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Whatever happened to the Ukrainian refugees who found a haven in Brazil?

Ukrainian refugee Anastasiia Ivanova says her faith is what's helped her get through all of her trials. She brought her Bible with her when the family fled Kharkiv for a new home in Brazil. But a new crisis made her wonder if Brazil was the right place for her.
Gabriela Portilho
Ukrainian refugee Anastasiia Ivanova says her faith is what's helped her get through all of her trials. She brought her Bible with her when the family fled Kharkiv for a new home in Brazil. But a new crisis made her wonder if Brazil was the right place for her.

Shortly after the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, Laryssa Moskvichova and her three daughters fled the bombs falling from the sky over their Kharkiv neighborhood. By a circuitous route they wound up in an unfamiliar country: Brazil, and eventually a town in the south called Prudentópolis, known as "Little Ukraine" because of the many Ukrainians who'd settled there a century ago. Last year we brought you the story of how this family, displaced by the war in Europe, was finding community and belonging in South America.

We caught up with Laryssa and her oldest daughter a year later to find out how they were faring as the war in Ukraine grinds on.

Prudentópolis was, in many ways, the perfect landing pad for Laryssa Moskvichova and her daughters Anastasiia, Sofia and Ruslana after their winding journey through Ukraine, Poland and Germany. There, they were able to speak Ukrainian with many residents, descendants of the first Ukrainians who settled Prudentópolis 116 years before. Other elements of their culture were also still present in everyday life in the town of 52,000, including music, dance and the intricate designs of pysanka, traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs.

They made fast friends with Andreia Burko Bley, her husband, Paulo Bley, and their two young sons, one the same age as Ruslana. With their support, the refugees felt more at home than they ever expected in a place so far and so different from what they had known.

But after a year in the small town, they realized they had to go.

Despite Brazil's relatively liberal policies on accepting asylum seekers, many refugees find that there is little support from the government once they settle.

Anastasiia went through a health scare, needing surgery to correct a collapsed lung. While the public health-care system in Brazil was available to them — even non-residents can enter Brazil and use it at no charge — they worried it wouldn't be able to help her quickly enough. Private health care might offer faster treatment and better access to the latest medical technology, they were told, but it also cost far more than they could afford. Luckily, a friend stepped in and offered to pay.

The family felt they couldn't risk another health crisis in a country where they were unsure they could get the required care quickly enough.

The two younger sisters were struggling, too, studying at a Brazilian school during the day and taking online classes through a Ukrainian school at night. Sofiia, now 15, found it difficult to grasp why they couldn't go home.

The deeply religious family saw all these developments as signs from God. They decided they had to make a change.

After riding her bike to the park one day, Anastasiia, now 23, sat on a bench to read the Bible and pray, asking God for guidance. She was hoping to see another sign. When nothing came, she turned to her bike, ready to pedal home.

There, written on the metal frame, were the words "German Technology World."

"I didn't want to believe it," says Anastasiia. "Because I didn't want to go. I had heard a lot of things about Germany and a lot of them weren't good. But it was the answer. It just came to me in a different way than I expected."

In the weeks to come, Anastasiia says she saw other signs: German flags in places where they once weren't, a German family moving to Prudentópolis and friends of Laryssa's in Germany telling her to make the move. Even a Brazilian friend told the family it would be best to leave, as the country was struggling economically and government aid for refugees was inadequate.

The family began exploring a move. Anastasiia asked around to see if anybody in her circle knew of someone in Germany who could help. Three different people recommended a Ukrainian pastor at an evangelical church similar to hers. He had gone to Germany at the beginning of the war and rebuilt his church there. The pastor had helped many Ukrainian families find a place to live in their new home — something that can take months, as demand for housing in the country is high — and his church provided them with funds to make the trip there.

To Anastasiia's surprise, just three or four days after she first phoned him, the pastor found her a room in Regensburg, a Bavarian city on the Danube River, that she could share with another Ukrainian woman. She was planning to live on her own as she had before fleeing Ukraine. Her mother and siblings would go as well, but as the family departed Brazil, Laryssa, Sofiia and Ruslana were still uncertain where they would live.

The family landed at the Frankfurt airport on Easter Day and Anastasiia took a train to her new home in the southeast. Laryssa and her two youngest daughters were sent to a refugee camp, standard procedure for refugees arriving in Germany who don't already have housing. They would spend three weeks in four different camps set up in stadium-sized spaces, where showers were not always available, lights were always on and noise never dimmed. Many of the hundreds of people in the shared space were sick.

Laryssa's one friend in Germany, Tatiana, had been seeking housing for the family. When Laryssa got the news that a home had been found for her and her two younger daughters, relief washed over them. With funds supplied by government aid, they moved into a four-bedroom, 300-year-old home in the spa town of Bad-Orb, just outside of Frankfurt and a six-hour train ride from Anastasiia.

Because Laryssa isn't yet allowed to work, she spends her days studying German online, using YouTube videos and other free classes to learn as much as she can until she starts the government's integration classes early next year. When Sofiia and Ruslana aren't in school — they've decided to stop attending Ukrainian school online and only study at German school during the day — their favorite places to go are the many parks and warm salt-water pools in their new hometown and the shops that line its streets.

The funding they receive from the German government isn't much, but it's enough to get by — more than what they received in Brazil. And the health insurance that covers them all puts them at ease. Laryssa knows the move has been good for her daughters, but she struggles with not being able to work and carry on with her life. She misses her parents, who stayed behind in Poltava, and worries about their health. With just one friend in Germany, Laryssa says she often feels isolated and longs for the life she had before the war.

"Then I had freedom, I had happiness," she says. "But even if I wanted to go back to Ukraine now, there's nothing there for me anymore. Our house is more than 100 years old and it likely didn't survive the bombings. If it did, it would require so much work and money to fix it, and there are no jobs with decent salaries. And even if all that wasn't a problem, it's still not safe."

For Anastasiia, it's been an easier transition. In July, she finished her arts degree through online learning and is considering teaching singing as she did in Ukraine. Her government-provided German language classes start in September. She has become good friends with her roommate and built a supportive community through her church.

"They're wonderful people," she says. "We make plans together, laugh together, sing and play music together. It's exactly what I need."

When the owners of the apartment where Anastasiia lives gave her an old bike, she fixed its faulty brakes and started riding it through the trails in the forest she can see from her bedroom window.

She's not yet sure how long she'll stay in Germany — "after so many changes, who knows where I'll be in a year" — but for now, she's happy. She knows that being safe and settled, even temporarily, is more than what many other Ukrainians have right now as the war continues to ravage her country.

"The people here are so nice, the weather is great and there's so much nature where I can be at peace," she says. "I can see that I'm living an answered prayer."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.