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In an Ozarks alterations shop, Russians and Ukrainians lean on common bonds to avoid tension

Ukraine shop
Jennifer Moore
The staff at Martin Alterations in Springfield, Missouri immigrated to the United States from three countries that are now involved in armed conflict, namely Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Inside an alterations shop on South Campbell Avenue in Springfield, Missouri, Ukrainian immigrant Andrey Vakhrushev is having tea with his staff and revving up the sewing machines ahead of another busy day.

As Russian forces continue their invasion of Ukraine, his brother is now in a war zone back home. Vakhrushev says he’s doing his best to keep in touch.

“He has 12 kids and they need to be fed,” he said. “Now it's a very bad situation. Just as soon as they hear sirens, they go to the shelter [for] five or 10 minutes or one hour sitting there scared, crying,” he said.

His family is in the Trokosy region in central Ukraine, he said.

Vakhrushev and his wife, both Ukrainian citizens, own Martin Alterations. Their employees are from Russia and Belarus, both of which are directly involved in the military conflict. Russia’s invading troops are using Belaurus as a staging ground, given its nearly 700-mile border with Ukraine.

Despite that, Vakhrushev says there’s no tension between the staff here.

“Not at all. We are friendly. We are nice. We are simple, easy people. We are always nice to each other and kind. We can hear our families’ situations or stories or needs because we are all one nation,” Vakhrushev said.

When asked what he means when he speaks of “one nation,” he says he’s referring to the countries that once comprised the former Soviet Union.

A common heritage between warring countries

Vakhrushev was born in 1977, meaning he was still a kid when the Cold War ended. But he remembers life from back then. It wasn't that long ago when the members of the Soviet Union were unified by one central communist government, even as they maintained their unique identities.

“Because most of us are adults here. We were born in Soviet Union and grew up in Soviet Union, so we used to be together. We used to go to any country [in the Soviet Union] we wanted. Even people got together for marriage. Families moved from Ukraine to Russia, Russia to Ukraine or Belarus,” he said.

One of Vakhrushev’s employees, Nina Yermakovich, is from neighboring Belarus. Another, Yelena Byrk, is from Russia.

“I was born in Siberia,” Byrk said.

Her father was imprisoned twice by the Soviet Union for openly practicing Christianity, she said. Eventually, he was expelled from the country and hopscotched his away across Europe before seeking a new beginning in the United States.

Yelena Byrk followed her father to the U.S. in 1989. She says her life is a testament to the extremely close bonds between Russia and Ukraine. Even though she hails from Russia, as a younger woman she donned a traditional Ukrainian dress and wed a Ukrainian man. Her niece is also married to Ukrainian, she said, and her relatives are there now.

“Russian people [don’t] want war,” Byrk said. “Everybody prays. I pray for peace in the Ukraine and Russia and America.”

Here in this small alterations shop in the Missouri Ozarks, the workers are helping each other through this difficult time. Despite that their home countries are now at war, they say they'll continue to respect what makes them unique while leaning on the threads that bind them together.

As News Director, Jennifer oversees news gathering and production for KSMU-Ozarks Public Radio; in her role as Content Coordinator, she makes sure all programs on KSMU, including those produced locally, nationally, and internationally, flow seamlessly over the air. She trains the student reporters and announcers and hosts the monthly program Engaging the Community. Follow her on Twitter @jennwritesmoore.