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Ukrainian refugees celebrate their first Fourth of July in East Tennessee

Grant Ceffalo helped eight Ukrainians make it to America as the war with Russia unfolded in their home country.

LENOIR CITY, Tenn. — Tania Alfimova is grateful to be in the United States. She and her two daughters escaped to Poland just days after the war in Ukraine began.

"The Polish people gave us all kinds of things — clothes, food and an apartment where we could live," she said. "They were very kind and polite."

Still, it didn't quite feel like home. Tania said they were afraid every time they heard sirens go off. 

That's when her friend, Grant Ceffalo, found a way out for her family and five other Ukrainian refugees.

The two had met while working at Chernobyl together in 2016. Ceffalo, who is American, moved to Ukraine once he retired because he loved the country and its people so much.

The war began while he was helping his former employer for six weeks in America.

"I was texting everybody every day to see if they were okay. Where are you? Are you in a safe place? Do you need money?" he recalled. "When Tania and her group got to Poland, I said I'll be [their] sponsor."

He flew them from Warsaw to Paris to Mexico City because it was easier for them to be admitted to the United States over a land border.

Credit: Grant Ceffalo
Eight Ukrainian refugees pose for a picture after crossing the border between the United States and Mexico.

From there, he decided to buy a home in Oak Ridge so he and his Ukrainian friends could start a new life in America.

"I chose Oak Ridge because the people here are so kind," he said. "They're safe now and that's what counts."

He brought them to a friend's house to celebrate their first Fourth of July.

"America fought for our independence from a stronger power 200 and some years ago, and now Ukraine is doing the same fighting Russia," he said. "I think July the Fourth is a great exemplar of that."

A large Ukrainian flag flew alongside the American bunting in honor of the Ukrainian guests. Masha Rudiuk said was grateful to celebrate.

"We feel safe now and all people which we've met are always trying to help us," she said. "They are really, really friendly."

Credit: Grant Ceffalo

RELATED: "The number is increasing daily" | Nearly 100 Ukrainian refugees relocate to East Tennessee

Still, some of the celebrations triggered memories of a painful past. They weren't sure what the firework noises were at first.

"It was really scary because we didn't see it or know what was happening," Masha said. "It was just sounds and it was not good."

She said she was looking forward to seeing the fireworks so they can associate the sounds with better memories.

Tania is working remotely for the Chernobyl Research & Development Institute. Her group is also selling “I Stand With Ukraine" shirts to help them fund this new beginning while reminding people of what is happening in their home country. 

"Our people in Ukraine there are still dying and it is really terrible," Tania said. "This is our sad story, but maybe [it has] a happy ending."

You can help Tania, Masha and the other refugees by donating to the Ukrainian Refugee Family Account at TNBANK. The shirts can be ordered by emailing sunflowerukraine2022@gmail.com.

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