A New Home

Displaced Ukrainian family recounts journey to Marshalltown

From left to right, Roman, Marina, and their son Nikita Stenkins alongside translator Marina Gromov, at their home in Marshalltown. Photo by T-R Nick Baur.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on and continues to draw global attention, Marshall County has become an unlikely home for families displaced by the devastating and far-reaching conflict occupying Eastern Europe.

One Ukrainian family in particular, now living in Marshalltown, is hoping to start anew and lay down fresh roots in the Hawkeye State after losing their home and fleeing countless miles halfway across the globe to settle in the United States.

The Stenkins family, Marina, Roman, and their son Nikita hail from the embattled city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the war’s worst destruction and ruin at the hands of the Russian Army.

Before the war, the Stenkins family enjoyed a relatively typical and successful existence. A trained engineer, Roman owned his own business, which used self-built machines to drill water wells and complete other excavating enterprises. Marina worked as a quality assurance technician, and the pair raised their son along the way, similar to many other working parents.

Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, they said, speaking together through a translator, “we had everything that we actually really wanted” in regard to their life in Mariupol.

Yet Mariupol, and by extension, the Stenkins were located in the “buffer zone” between Ukraine and neighboring Russia, with their home roughly 20 miles from the hotly contested border.

As such, when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February of 2022, Mariupol bore the brunt of the havoc wreaked by the invasion. On-the-ground fighting, large-scale bombardments, and missile strikes have pounded the city since the invasion began, with estimates as high as 95% of the city being destroyed by the fighting.

At the beginning of the war, the Stenkins would travel back and forth from their residence to a local bomb shelter nearly every day as the missiles and bombs descended upon their home. Eventually, the city no longer had access to electricity, heating, or other necessities as a result of the destruction.

But on one fateful day, the Stenkins returned from a trip to the shelter to find that their apartment building, where they had been living and raising their son, had been directly hit by a Russian ballistic missile, destroying many of their belongings and presumably burning alive their friends and neighbors nearby.

It was then that the Stenkins set about finding a way out of the active warzone.

“We were fearing for our life, and we didn’t have any place to live anymore,” they said.

So they packed what little they had left, piled into the car, and headed west, leaving behind hard drives full of family photos and other personal belongings for fear they would be stopped and searched by Russians as possible spies.

“You risk your life in your apartment, or you risk your life in the car on the way,” the Stenkins said. “We were hoping that maybe, any day, this war will be done, and everything will just go back to normal.”

The family arrived in Poland, taking refuge there with their parents, who also fled the country, before eventually traveling to Germany to place their parents in the care of close friends.

“We understood only one important thing,” they said about their journey. “In every single moment, everything can change, and you can lose everything, material things, what you have, but if your family and your people are close to you, it’s the biggest treasure that you can have.”

It was in Germany that Marina Stenkins learned there was a possibility to leave Europe for the United States, information passed along by her cousin, Maria Myroshnikov, who is also a newly settled Ukrainian in Marshall County.

The Stenkins applied for and were granted “humanitarian parole” in the United States, which allows an individual who may be otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States to be in the United States for a temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons.

They were granted a stay of up to two years in the country, but the family of three hopes to stay longer. The place they used to call home practically no longer exists, dashed to pieces by Russian bombs, missiles, and bullets.

While the family may miss the life they used to have in Mariupol, they don’t foresee being able to come back to what little is left of their hometown. They said that they hope to find jobs in the area, and they want to contribute to American society in any way they can. In addition, they hope to place their son in a local preschool and allow him to grow up in Iowa.

So far, Marina and Roman indicated their biggest challenge faced in the United States is overcoming the language barrier, a familiar obstacle for many who have found their way to the country.

But as the two attest, despite this communicative hurdle, the family has found a warm, embracing community where they can’t wait to restart their lives.

“[We] are extremely thankful for the help from people here. They’re extremely welcoming, and it’s just heartwarming how people are welcoming,” the Stenkins said. “It would be much harder for us if we came to a different country, and nobody would be willing to help, and nobody would want to help.”