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Kentucky by Heart: War in Ukraine hits too close to home for friends, family with personal connections

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

The tragic invasion of Ukraine and its resulting carnage is taking place in a geographically distant place from Kentucky, but our state has important links to the people of the country.

I can speak from personal experience about Ukrainian immigrants in the central Kentucky area. Their children are in my classes as I sub teach at public schools in Jessamine County. Almost without exception, they are respectful and perform well academically—despite often navigating cultural transitions. I get my clothing hemmed, my timepieces maintained, and my house painted by local Ukrainian businesses. I couldn’t ask for better and more honest service. I know them as religious people. Additionally, my wife, Suzanne, and I have another, more personal, connection.

Suzanne with her granddaughter in, Roznichi, Ukraine (Submitted photo from Suzanne Isaacs)

Suzanne’s granddaughter was born in Ukraine, though she now lives in Kentucky. Years before we were married, Suzanne traveled from Lexington to Ukraine to be there at the birth, then followed with two other trips there. My wife’s memories of her time spent in a small village in western Ukraine are vivid.

“I was amazed by the hard-working women in the small, agrarian village of Roznichi, where I spent a majority of my time,” said Suzanne. “They were out in the fields working at the crack of dawn. Most people in the village didn’t own a vehicle, and I saw women dressed up in their high heels, briskly walking along the dusty highways to catch a bus that would take them to work.” Suzanne attended a couple of national holiday celebrations while there. She called those experiences a “paragon of cherished memories. Their patriotism was quite apparent.”

In the early 1990s, Don Vanzant was the senior minister at the First Christian Church (FCC), in Versailles, when he and his wife, Nina, through the support of FCC, led in helping a Ukrainian refugee family migrate to central Kentucky after they feared damaging health effects from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, as well as having encountered religious persecution. The couple worked through a local agency charged with facilitating the migration of such refugees.

Don noted that gaining clearance from authorities to allow the family to come was slow-going at first. He was advised to file papers again. He did, but this time, the minister answered one question differently. “The application asked if the refugee was part of my family,” explained Don. “I marked it yes, that the father was my brother.” With that, the family was soon en route to America and specifically to Versailles. Asked recently about the tweak he made on the application, Don responded, “I’d do it again.”

Prayer gathering at the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church in Lexington (Submitted photo by Steve Flairty)

Don recounted that previous generations of this family’s Ukrainian history endured severely hard times with the Soviet Union under Stalin, who is said to have purposely starved millions, and those memories have lingered in their culture. Being in America changed things. “When they (first) came, they did not smile,” Don said. “And now they smile all the time.” Showing their appreciation for Don and Nina’s efforts, the family brought seven suitcases to America, “and two of them had gifts for us,” said Don.

And the grateful family Don and Nina helped come to Versailles, ones Don calls “wonderful people,” would become the paternal grandparents of Suzanne’s granddaughter.

On February 25, Suzanne and I participated in a prayer vigil for all Ukrainians at the 1000-member Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, in Lexington. Hundreds were present in support, both Ukrainian-born Americans and others. There was inspirational music, speaking, and a large group prayer offering along with prayer time spent in small groups.

Our small-group prayer time that day will always be memorable. Two Ukrainian women were part of our group. One sobbed while she prayed out loud. For our benefit, the other translated her words. We heard the pain in their voices, and the message that one was deeply concerned about her mother’s life in Ukraine brought it on home to us. The mention of the woman’s mother’s plight in her prayer affirmed the fact that the invasion of Ukraine is also a Kentucky event–a tragic one, indeed.

Here are links to a few agencies that are supporting the Ukrainians in their travail:





Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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One Comment

  1. Judith Blake says:

    A nicely written and informative article. I like many others are in prayer for these people We are proud to have these wonderful people among us and are deeply concerned with Ukraine

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