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Yountville fundraiser to support local Ukrainian refugees

Natalia T., a refugee from Maripol, Ukraine now living in Napa with her husband, two daughters and a granddaughter, serves slices of honey cake to guests during a pop-up dinner last month at Shackford’s Kitchen. Honey cake, or medovik, is an authentic Ukrainian cake, considered to be one of the most popular desserts in Slavic countries. Below: Natalia’s 11-year-old daughter and three-year-old granddaughter are pictured while traveling through Europe before coming to the U.S.

While news of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has waned in America’s media spotlight, barely a second of any day passes when it’s not on the heart and mind of Kateryna T.

The 26-year-old, who goes by Kate, fled her native homeland last August with her three-year-old daughter, 11-year-old sister, and mother, eventually arriving last August in Yountville on a temporary visa sponsored by residents Andy Starr and Debbie Alter-Starr.

Kate’s is one of about 40 other Ukrainian refugee families now living in Napa and Sonoma counties who have banded together to help not only themselves, but their compatriots still living and fighting in the war-torn country.

In addition to monthly meetings where they gather to learn about American laws and resources available to them, this refugee community has hosted several events to raise awareness and money, most of which has gone to support the people and soldiers in their homeland.

On Jan. 13, in conjunction with Napa Valley to Ukraine (the non-profit co-founded by Yountville’s Alter-Starr) and Sacramento’s Ukrainian American House, the local refugee community is hosting its second annual fundraiser at Yountville Community Hall.

This year, said Alter-Starr, proceeds from the “Napa Valley Stands with Ukraine” event will help support the Ukrainian refugees living here.

“We fundraise for humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” Alter-Starr said of the Napa Valley to Ukraine non-profit, which last year raised money to support the purchase of warming huts, camera drones, and an ambulance – all for use by the soldiers on the front lines of battle. “But we're focusing on the refugees right now because they do need our help.”

From renting an apartment to buying a car, Ukrainian refugees face hurdles, she said. “They have these expiring (VISA) statuses, right? They have a lack of credit histories, right? They don't go back to a service provider if they don't feel comfortable with them. They're a really stoic people who don't like to ask for help.”

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, 6.3 million refugees have been recorded globally, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Operational Data Portal. Of that number, 5.9 million are spread throughout Europe while 403,600 Ukrainian refugees have been recorded beyond Europe.

Alter-Starr’s involvement with Ukraine and its people began in 2018 when she visited her son, Aaron, who was attending school there at the time. While living there, Aaron met and became friends with Kate T. and another young woman, Victoria Stefananko, who left Ukraine before the start of the war to attend Minerva University in San Francisco.

“She was with us for the first two weeks of the war,” Alter-Starr said of Victoria. “She just stayed at our house. She was too distraught to go back to college.”

But the then 24-year-old Stefananko, who had graduated from an elite leadership program in Ukraine, helped create a giant network of that program’s alumni to help the people in her country and fight the war from outside of it.

In addition to that, she and Alter-Starr helped get Aaron Starr and his Ukrainian girlfriend out of the country just as the war was exploding. On the second day of fighting, Alter-Starr said, she and Stefananko and others gathered at Veterans Park in Yountville to brainstorm ways to help.

Napa Valley to Ukraine was born of that conversation.

Since that time, the Starr family has sponsored several refugees. The process involves applying through U.S. Immigration Services and agreeing to accept financial responsibility for the refugee. In the first two years of the conflict, there were some monetary benefits for those seeking asylum here but those programs have begun to expire, Alter-Starr said.

The idea is for the refugees to be able to get here and then begin looking for a place to live, a job, a car. Alter-Starr said she and her husband have been co-signers on apartment leases and car purchase loans.

Kate T’s family now lives together in Napa. Her father just joined the family last month but her two elderly grandmothers have chosen to remain in Ukraine, even though both of their homes have sustained damage during the war, she said.

Kate’s mother, Natalia, an accountant for 30 years in Ukraine, can’t do that work here because she doesn’t speak English and because the rules and laws of the profession are different here.

She’s now hoping to make a business out of her other passion, cooking.

“We're not professional bakers, she's not a professional chef,” Kate T. said. “She’s just a regular woman who makes very nice dishes based on Ukrainian traditions and based on our culture.”

Her new business, Natalia’s Dacha, held a pop-up dinner last month at Shackford’s Kitchen in Napa, and has been welcomed to use the commercial kitchen there by owner Patrick Merkley.

Attendees of the Jan. 13 Yountville fundraiser can look forward to not only meeting Natalia and her family but sampling her dishes and purchasing them for take-home.