Longtime OSF actress Shirely Patton opens her doors to family of four, says ‘It is a tradition in this house”
By Paul R. Huard for Ashland.news
The lives that Mikhail “Mike” Zhyvotovski and his wife, Olena “Lena” Zhyvotovska, led would have been familiar to most Americans.
The couple, 35 and 34 respectively, lived in Mariupol, the 10th-largest city in Ukraine and a thriving seaport and industrial town. Mike was a crane operator there, earning a solid living for his family.
Olena was a hairdresser, and their children Kostya, 11, and Andrey, 4, attended their neighborhood schools. Andrey even studied music.
All of that was shattered Feb. 24 when Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, launching a war of conquest the likes of which the world had not seen since Hitler and Mussolini were walking the Earth.
Artillery rounds, missiles and bombs from Russian army units, aircraft, and naval vessels in the Sea of Azov rained down on their city, hitting mostly civilian areas. The attacks continued for a month, and residents were not even able to bury the dead.
“Houses were flattened and there were many corpses,” Olena said. “It was very scary.”
“We realized that we would not last long,” Mike said.
Mike, Olena and their children escaped with their lives and little else. They could have been among the millions of Ukrainian refugees still searching for a place to find compassion, hope, and chance to rebuild their lives.
But Shirley Patton, who spent more than 30 years as an actress with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, not only gave the Ukrainian family a chance. She gave them a home — taking them in as her guests after they arrived in the Rogue Valley on Sept. 29.
“It is a tradition in this house,” Patton said Saturday during an interview in her home. “The war in Ukraine is a terrible human problem. Rather than feeling helpless, this is something we can do.”
“Besides,” she said. “I have the joy of these young people here.”
How a family of Ukrainian refugees now live in peace in a home high in the foothills above Ashland is a story about a 7,300-mile odyssey from a war-torn country to a place where help is offered by those with faith in the Bible’s teachings about the welcome believers should offer strangers in a strange land.
“God reminds us that all of us are refugees,” said the Rev. Dan Fowler, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Ashland, where Patton has been a parishioner for 60 years. “No one from America is really from America if you look at our lineage. It’s in the manual. It’s what we are supposed to do.”
The war in Ukraine prompted many to consider what they could do to help, Fowler said.
One of them is Scott Bandoroff, a member of the congregation Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, who met with Fowler to urge the pastor and his church to support Uniting for Ukraine Rogue Valley. The organization is sponsoring an upcoming concert to raise funds for the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees locally.
Fowler agreed, even suggesting a partnership between the church, synagogue, and Uniting for Ukraine Rogue Valley.
In September, Bandoroff spoke at First Presbyterian, urging parishioners there to open their hearts and homes to the refugees.
“My favorite line was when Scott said, ‘This is an opportunity to do Christian,’” Fowler said.
After consultation with the church board and congregation, Fowler put out the call to the church’s parishioners, asking for volunteers willing to host Ukrainian families. Shirley Patton responded first.
Patton said it was not the first time she had hosted strangers in her home. In the past, she had international students who lived with her.
But this time, the situation was different and the stakes higher.
“I think most of us want to do something to help — and here was this opportunity,” Patton said. “There are a lot of things I can’t do, but opening my home is something that I have experienced before.”
Patton’s Christianity is also a powerful motivation.
“Our faith teaches us about welcoming strangers and how important diversity is in our lives,” she said. “It feels really good to live it, taking joy in others.”
For those who say that the war in Ukraine is not America’s problem, Patton has a simple but forceful answer.
“We are all connected, whether we look alike or if we look different from each other, whether we grew up in the same culture or a different culture. We are one,” she said.
During the interview, Mike and Olena told their harrowing story of escape from their besieged city.
When they first received news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the government told civilians to take shelter in their homes. Soon, they were hearing air raid sirens pierce the night.
“We did not believe this was happening,” Elena said. “We thought that it would end soon.”
At first, the couple considered escaping by bus — but the Russian military either would not permit “humanitarian corridors” (safe routes allowing refugees to escape) or bombed transportation carrying civilians escaping to safety.
Mike purchased a car, and the family’s odyssey began on March 20. The couple packed their children and a few essentials into the automobile and joined the columns of vehicles leaving the city, staying first with relatives in the western part of Ukraine and then leaving the country, ending up in Brandenburg, Germany, by the end of July.
Mike said the invasion infuriated him, but he was unable to join the Ukrainian military because he had no training or experience as a soldier. “I wanted to go to war,” he said. “But I had no military specialty, so they didn’t take me.”
In Germany, they were housed in a school converted into a dormitory, but the family yearned for better options. A friend who had traveled to the United States knew Scott Bandoroff, so Mike and Elena forged a connection with the Ashland man.
Not long after, Bandoroff passed the information about the family to First Presbyterian Church and Patton made her offer to host them.
When Mike, Olena, and their children arrived at Rogue Valley International Medford Airport after a long and arduous trip, they found Bandoroff waiting for them, draped in a Ukrainian flag and wearing the national colors of blue and yellow.
For now, Mike and Olena want to rest and consider their options, including finding work, improving their English, and helping their children make the transition into American schools and culture. Making any other plans, including when or if they return to Ukraine, is “too far ahead” at this point, Mike said.
The couple praised the warmth, generosity, and friendliness of Americans they have met, saying they feel welcome in the United States.
“America’s greatest wealth is its people,” Mike said.
Patton said she is happy that the family feels safe.
“It’s wonderful to put my home to good use again,” she said.
Email freelance reporter Paul R. Huard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oct. 14 update: Ages of children corrected. They had been transposed.