Amid his own health problems and the struggles of fleeing a country under attack, Anatolii Tarasiuk and his family found refuge in a place, and in people, that changed their life.
Words and Photography by Anna-Rhesa Versola
Ukrainian artist and refugee Anatolii Tarasiuk, 45, says he owes his life, and the lives of his family, to many caring people, including Becky Woodruff, owner of The Frame & Print Shop in Chapel Hill.
“I met her, and it changed everything,” Anatolii says. Becky marveled at the 45 original oil paintings Anatolii saved during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. She sensed his optimism despite the stress of escaping the repeated bombings with his wife and young sons, including an infant, born in May 2022. She admired Anatolii’s fighting spirit, even when his body was weakened by the chemo and radiation treatments he was receiving at Duke Cancer Center.
Becky featured Anatolii’s abstract expressionism art at her gallery and shop at University Place from April 6 to May 31 and plans to exhibit his work again in the fall. “Because of the exhibition, I sold some pieces of art,” Anatolii says, smiling with pride. “It’s like it was finally an open door. Before, it was all closed. I met Becky, and everything just unlocked from that moment.”
Through Becky, another kind person provided Anatolii with free studio space inside the Eno Arts Mill in Hillsborough, allowing him to focus on creating more art to sell at exhibitions and through his Etsy shop (etsy.com/shop/AnatoliiArtStore).
Becky says her new friendship with the Tarasiuk family is a privilege. “The war has been going on over there, and we’ve been wearing our Ukraine colors and donating our money, but this is a chance to do something to really help someone, to really make a difference,” Becky says. She and her husband, Bob Woodruff, president of The Cedars of Chapel Hill, are helping connect Anatolii to additional resources and assistance in applying for a visa and citizenship. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, vetted Ukrainian refugees like the Tarasiuk family have up to two years to obtain documentation to legally stay in the country. Anatolii and his family arrived in July 2022 and have until July 2024 to find a way to remain, otherwise, they must return to Ukraine.
Russia Invades Ukraine
In summer 2021, Anatolii was skeptical that war would break out between Russia and Ukraine. He would reassure an artist friend, who would regularly call from Winston-Salem, that all will be fine. But, in February 2022, the missile attacks began. Anatolii’s wife, Kateryna Tarasiuk, was pregnant with their third son. It was time to leave Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, which is about 236 miles from Russia.
The couple and their two children, Andrii Tarasiuk, now 9, and Danyil Tarasiuk, now 6, hastily packed their belongings, including Anatolii’s paintings and art supplies. They sought refuge at a village church about 70 kilometers from the city and then drove about six hours to attempt a crossing into Moldova. They were unable to pass through customs at two different checkpoints. No men younger than 60 were allowed to leave Ukraine, unless they had a disability or a disease, like cancer, or had at least three children under 18.
“I had two and a half children,” Anatolii says, referring to his unborn son. At the time, he did not yet know of his own cancer diagnosis. “We were the ones who didn’t make it through customs, but maybe it was good because we met some beautiful people who gave us housing for three months.”
The brief respite allowed Kateryna to give birth to a healthy boy, David Tarasiuk, on May 9, 2022. The family faced another decision: whether to stay or flee to England, Canada or the United States. They prayed for guidance and applied for entry into North Carolina, and with the support of a Facebook group, found sponsors to cover transportation costs like airline tickets.
A Narrow Escape
During the sponsorship process, Anatolii decided to follow up on some of his own health issues. “I was not brave enough to ever address it [before], never had the time maybe,” he says. “My concern was that it was cancer.”
On June 27, 2022, Anatolii underwent scopes and a biopsy at a clinic in Kremenchuk, Ukraine. After the clinic, Kateryna wanted to go shopping at the mall down the street, but Anatolii did not feel well from the procedures, which were done without sedation. They drove away. Moments later, he saw columns of smoke rising from the shopping mall in the rearview mirror. The place was obliterated by a Russian missile strike, killing at least 21 people and wounding dozens more, according to numerous news outlets.
“I started to get phone calls from my relatives,” Anatolii says. (His mother and Kateryna’s four sisters and their respective families are still in Ukraine.) “They knew we went [to Kremenchuk]. When they told me what happened, I was like, ‘Good God, we could be dead by now.’ We could have been killed, but God had a different plan for us.”
Anatolii’s application to enter the U.S. was granted, and the Tarasiuks arrived at RDU International Airport on July 15, 2022. “But we didn’t have any place to go,” he says. A Christian friend spoke with the leaders at Catch the Fire Church in Durham, and the church offered a three-month stay at a guest house. “We ended up being part of the church since then,” he says. In Ukraine, Anatolii had been a pastor, composer and videographer, so joining the welcoming congregation felt good.
By September, the family moved from the guest house into a home in Hillsborough owned by Victoria Cryer and James Cryer, a couple who generously allowed them to stay there while they were out of the country. This allowed the boys to settle into the local elementary school and Anatolii to begin his cancer treatments. At the end of the school year, the Tarasiuks moved again into yet another home, this one in Morrisville, where Anatolii continues to recover from his June 20 cancer surgery.
“I’m so thankful,” Anatolii says. His family is safe and happy, and his faith in humanity has been renewed. “We’ve made some good American friends. Honestly, I feel like I belong here.”