DERBY — The Shapovalovs spent nearly 40 days under Russian occupation. Now living mere miles from Canada in the Northeast Kingdom, the Ukrainian refugees are adapting to a new life in Vermont.
But home is never far from their minds.
“We didn’t know that the tanks would go on our streets and that we’d be refugees. We didn’t plan to move to the U.S. with just our backpacks,” said Oleksandra Shapovalov, the family’s matriarch. “But we’re here, and we want to be useful to this country. And nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.”
The family of eight will be the first residents of the “House of Mercy,” a home for Ukrainian refugees being created out of a shuttered nursing home by the faith-based Vermont nonprofit Agape Ministries.
The Shapovalovs lived near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and at first believed that the threat of a catastrophic atomic meltdown would spare their home. But within weeks, the Russian Army had seized the plant. Roads they had traveled for years changed overnight. Tanks damaged the asphalt. Shrapnel littered the shoulders. Missiles had scorched the roadside, blackening fields. Their village of Skelky along the Dnipro River would never be the same again.
They spent nights in bomb shelters, bundled up during winter cold. Pharmacies and grocery stores emptied, and the Shapavolovs knew staying in place was not an option. The family boarded school buses to head west to safety, but their vehicles were turned around by machine gun-toting Russian soldiers on the road. It took three attempts to flee before they succeeded.
Although they are now physically removed from the fighting, the war remains a presence in their lives. Fourth of July fireworks sent the family running for cover. The sound of nearby target practice frightened Oleksandra awake, her heart fluttering. Instincts don’t change overnight.
Working on the House of Mercy and coordinating the arrival of more refugees has brought stability. Dmytro, the Shapovalovs’ patriarch, was a pediatrician in Ukraine. In the House of Mercy, he’s just another man with a hammer, paint-flecked and dusty, installing a shower.
“I’m a builder now,” he said.
A ‘House of Mercy’ comes together
The Shapovalovs arrived in the Northeast Kingdom thanks to Agape Ministries, an Albany-based Christian nonprofit led by Scott and Theresa Cianciolo that works with developmentally disabled children and adults. Last month, the organization purchased the 10,000-square-foot shuttered nursing home in Derby from North Country Hospital. Now named the House of Mercy, the space will house 31 Ukrainian refugees — many of them children with disabilities. Dmytro and his family are the first eight.
After the war in Ukraine began, what was once a small nonprofit has become a fast-moving volunteer operation, raising $750,000 and coordinating labor and donations for the project in a matter of months. The organization has received Act 250 approval to renovate the building into a home suitable for people with a range of medical needs, from severe cerebral palsy to autism spectrum disorder and a rare neurological disease called Rett Syndrome.
Neither the Cianciolos nor the Shapovalovs have much building experience. But that hasn’t stopped them from getting their hands dirty.
Inside the building on a recent Monday, the Cianciolos’ relatives and refugee friends worked away within view of Lake Derby. Theresa Cianciolo led a tour through the home, a stitched together 1840s farmhouse with a 1980s addition patched onto the rear. Bedrooms branched off the main hallway, each equipped for the needs of its soon-to-be residents. Loose doors and drawers lay around scattershot.
But as Theresa explained her vision, the end product became clear: a comfortable home for those who have not known comfort for months. Getting there has required listening and adapting.
“Our original plan was to separate the moms and kids to give the parents privacy,” Theresa explained. “But every single (family) has spent time in a bomb shelter, and they're like, ‘we're not leaving our kids.’ ”
In the Cianciolos’ telling, the House of Mercy exists only through a series of miracles — “Red Sea moments,” Scott Cianciolo calls them. The couple was $5,000 short right before they were set to close on the property last month, then a donor called. Ocean State Job Lot is covering the full cost of furnishing the house — “from rugs, to lamps, to beds, to sofas, whatever else you need,” Theresa recalled. Electricians have worked for free after hours. A stranger recently reached out to sponsor a Ukrainian family of five.
On this recent Monday, Scott had called the landscaper who had previously mowed the property. He hoped to hire the man, but an anonymous donor had already paid to have the grounds mowed for the rest of the year.
Families will live in close quarters, at least initially. The Shapovalovs began their Vermont residency the same. Slowly, they’ve spread out in the Cianciolos’ Albany home. The night terrors don’t come nightly now, and they’ve found something like normalcy.
“Realizing that this building will be our home for some time” has made Oleksandra feel grounded, she said. “We have some stability here.”
‘We weren’t done with Ukraine’
For Scott and Theresa Cianciolo, the House of Mercy is an interweaving of years of work.
The couple have devoted much of their lives to working with children and adults with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome. That work first brought them to Ukraine in 2014, where they adopted twin boys, both of whom have Down syndrome, from an orphanage in Odessa.
“We knew at that moment that we weren't done with Ukraine,” Theresa Cianciolo said. Five months later, she was back in the country and has made more than 25 trips since.
In Ukraine, the couple worked with and advocated for people with disabilities, teaching parents how to support their children, and working with the Ministry of Education on school inclusion. Theresa Cianciolo, a doctor, taught at several Ukrainian universities, creating a diagnostic tool for pediatric clinicians.
During that time, the Cianciolos met the Shapovalovs, who, inspired by their American friends, also adopted children with disabilities. Months after moving to Ukraine, the impending war forced the Cianciolos back to Vermont. And although they never stopped thinking about Ukraine once stateside, creating something as large as the House of Mercy had not initially crossed their mind.
“Had we had the foresight to do this, we probably would have messed it up and not gone after it,” Scott Cianciolo said. Responding spontaneously to the emergency allowed the couple’s goals to grow. Their first mission was to bring their Ukrainian friends to the U.S.
Back in April, Theresa Cianciolo had flown to Mexico, hoping to greet the Shapovalovs there and usher them over the border to the U.S. At the time, an estimated 15,000 Ukrainians had entered the U.S. that way. But right as the Cianciolos’ plan went into action, President Joe Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program. With that announcement came news that refugees would be turned away at the Mexican border. Days from a reunion, the two families had to start over.
Uniting for Ukraine, though, has proven a useful way for Agape Ministries to help even more refugees. The program allows Americans with the demonstrated financial means to sponsor Ukrainians to come to the U.S. for two years. Already, more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees have come to America through a variety of legal pathways. U4U, as it's sometimes called, allowed the Shapovalovs to come to the Kingdom. And in Derby, the Cianciolos will welcome incoming families throughout August.
‘Carry your own story’
The Shapovalovs' new neighbors are full of advice. In particular, they want the family to be prepared come winter.
“Everybody keeps telling me about the terrible, horrible winter that’s coming soon and will be more than half the year,” Sasha Shapovalova, 21, joked. Fluent in English, she’s helped the Cianciolos prepare documents for more Ukrainians to arrive stateside. She hopes to become a translator, and she has served that role for her family.
Navigating between Ukrainian, English and Russian can get exhausting. So, too, is holding onto the memories of home.
“It’s hard to carry it, to carry your own story and the story of other people,” Sasha said after an hour of translating. “You’re overwhelmed, and you’re crying, and you ask God ‘Why? Where are you?’ ”
Now, in relative safety, Dmytro wants Americans to know the nature of the war.
“The Russians want to be like a new empire. The people in the whole world must understand that this is the war against all countries, especially progressive, democratic countries,” he said. “If the war goes on, people in the USA will feel its consequences. The whole world is engaged in this war.”
Yet with notoriously short attention spans, Americans have started showing apathy toward Ukraine, Theresa Cianciolo said. And attention in itself is not enough.
Since arriving in Vermont, the Shapovalov family has been anything but apathetic. They rise early to help with construction in Derby, or weed through the bureaucracy necessary to bring more countrymen to the U.S.
Professionally, the family is transitioning. Theresa Cianciolo, herself an advanced medic, hopes to connect Dmytro with emergency medicine practitioners at Newport Ambulance Services. Sasha graduated college in Ukraine, but she’s still figuring out what her degree allows her to do in Vermont. People here don’t know what to make of her education and diploma, she said.
Despite it all, they are determined to work. “We can take on education again,” Oleksandra said. “Sometimes it’s useful to start from the beginning again.”
Her husband concurred, antsy to get back to building showers. “I think we will be useful for this town,” he said. “We want to do something good for this country.”