Back in the early 1990s, Davidson College joined in a consortium of colleges that welcomed a wave of students from the former Soviet Union countries to study in our country. Happily, for the college and the town, our two students were Oleg and Olga. Oleg was from a region in the Caucasus Mountains and Olga was from Odessa. Many of us in Davidson got to know both of these wonderful people quite well.
Oleg went on to law school at Wake Forest and practiced in the Pacific northwest until his untimely death a few years ago. Olga came to several of us at Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC) to ask if we could help her family immigrate to the United States. Olga had come to think of Davidson as a great place for her family to settle, and she hoped her family would join her in America!
Rosemary Raynal, Polly Griffin, and I took the lead in this effort, though it involved the significant help and participation of dozens of members of DCPC. We sought help from the Jewish congregations in Charlotte, because the Krimons are ethnic Jews. These congregations were participating in a program providing asylum for Jewish families from Ukraine and other countries. DCPC approved budgeting for the cost of bringing the Krimons to America, and the Jewish Community Center kindly allowed us to participate legally under the auspices of its program, making it possible to move on this relatively quickly.
It took a little over two years for the Krimons to make all the necessary contacts and arrangements in Ukraine, all while Olga kept up her studies in Art History at Davidson, having received a full scholarship to complete her undergraduate education. It was a tense time for her and the rest of us because of delays and misfires in the process. However, the Krimons finally had their papers in order and their flights booked. Ilya and Vica Krimon, along with their nineteen-year-old son, Yuri, arrived in Davidson, North Carolina in April 1993.
A big contingent of Davidsonians met them at the airport and brought them to Davidson and their temporary home with Anne White in the small, attached apartment she generously made available. Ironically, Rosemary, Brenda Barger, and I were all in Russia on the day the Krimons arrived. We could not believe that it coincided with the timing of our long-planned trip to Russia and Prague, and though we had a wonderful trip with many adventures – some planned and some not – we were all anxious to meet the Krimons back in Davidson.
Because the Krimons have hospitality in their very souls, the first time we got together was in their little apartment. They cooked for us. How many of us were gathered around their tiny table? Probably as many as 15 people. It was like the loaves and fishes. And despite the fact that they spoke little English, and we spoke no Ukrainian, we talked and laughed and cried and ate Vica’s delicious food for hours that night. I remember looking at their beautiful cerulean blue eyes, a family trait, across the table and I never tired of seeing those eyes whenever we met. We learned at that moment that Vica is the Martha Stewart of Ukraine. She cooks and entertains effortlessly, and a seat at her table became a coveted place during their time in Davidson. You haven’t had borscht until you’ve had Vica’s borscht. And I don’t even have the words for her cakes. Combined with Ilya’s big bear hugs and his infectious laugh and Yuri’s brilliance and sweetness, time with the Krimons made one feel better about life. Their home became like a spiritual rest stop.
After only a few weeks in Davidson, the Krimons and I drove into Charlotte to take care of some paperwork for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). They were still tired, and a little stunned, from the travel and years of struggle in Ukraine, and their heads nodded in fatigue on the way home. We were traveling along Albemarle Road, and I saw the “Hot Now” sign flashing in the window of the Krispy Kreme. I turned the wheel with a snap, figuring that a hot Krispy Kreme and a cup of coffee would be just the thing to turn this into a party.
Of course, the smell let them know that something special was on the way, and they perked right up. Then came the first taste. Hot, tender, moist. Ilya Krimon practically killed himself eating doughnuts that day! I lost count. We took home a couple of boxes, too, but that first hot Krispy Kreme made him smile from ear-to-ear. We talked about “dog-noots” all the way home. I think it was that day that they decided that they really could live here and move on from being pulled up by the roots from the only home, the only culture, they had ever known.
Their apartment at Anne White’s had been promised to others, so we had to find a new place for the Krimons to live. These early months were intense for them, with English lessons and job searches and applications to UNCC for Yuri. We wanted them to have a nice place to live but we were not finding anything suitable or affordable, and we became more and more concerned about their living situation.
One day, right before Christmas, I was in the sanctuary at DCPC with our youth groups, sorting out the White Gift food offerings to deliver to families. I looked up and saw a tall, slim, well-known figure walk in and he came right up to me. Without any chit chat, Nason Fishback, being a straight-to-the-point kind of person, said, “Margie and I have a large, detached apartment at our house and the Krimons can come there.”
I said, “How much do you think you will need to charge, and we’ll try to make it happen.”
He responded, “We will not charge anything. Tell them. And bring them by to have a look at it. We like it. I think it will work nicely for them.”
“That is so generous. But they would want to try to pay something. They want to make their own way.”
“Well, they don’t have to pay, and we won’t take anything. Period.”
With that, he turned and left the sanctuary. I felt like I had been visited by a very business-like Christmas fairy.
Sure enough, the Krimons loved the apartment. It had two bedrooms and two baths and a comfortable living room, with plenty of space for a larger table. Vica had people to feed, after all. They remained there until they moved to California in 1998.
Both Vica and Ilya found work early on, mostly in manufacturing plants in the area. They are both highly educated with graduate degrees from the most prestigious programs in Russia and Ukraine. Vica always laughed and said that she had a degree in economics, but the only problem was that it was in an economic system that no longer existed. Ilya had a graduate degree in telecommunications engineering, which has served him well in this country. Vica tutored many people who were interested in learning Russian and found herself to be a natural born teacher.
Olga graduated with honors from Davidson College, and through a cruel twist of fate, had to return to Russia, after working in New York City for two years, to start over again on her immigration papers. She had entered our country on a student visa and the INS would not allow her to stay under her parents’ asylum status. We consulted lawyers and pleaded our case that Olga’s family was here now, but to no avail. She lived in Moscow for about two years, and when she returned, she settled in the Los Angeles area. She received an MBA at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California and is increasingly praised as a portrait painter. She is the mother of two beautiful sons.
After his first few months in Davidson, Yuri entered the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and was a tremendous success in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. I mentioned his brilliance, right? He lived at home, worked to support himself, and graduated with honors. He was the recipient of several academic awards, as well. Upon graduation, he was offered a great job with Intel in Folsom, California, where he still lives today. His notable career there even has been punctuated by a number of patents.
The Krimons had to face that both of their children lived in California, and they didn’t come to this country to be separated from them by an entire continent. So, they made the difficult decision to move to Folsom in 1998. It was hard to see them go, but we understood that they needed to unite their family. In addition to their children, they also had extended family who had settled in various parts of California. Ilya was fortunate to find work for which he was educated with the state telecommunications system, Pacific Bell. And Vica taught American History and English as a Second Language at a community college for students from around the world.
Back in 1998, we had a going away party for them that was filled with stories of their adventure, great covered dishes, and profound affection for this family who dropped into our lives and changed us forever. The array of people at the party, whose lives they had touched, was amazing: US Airways pilots, preachers, teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, residents of The Pines, and folks from every other age range, too. The Krimons had given us so much more than we could ever have given them, and it was a privilege to know and welcome them into our community.
They invited me to join them in Sacramento on July 4, 2000, on the occasion of their becoming citizens of the United States America. It took place in the State Capitol building and was deeply moving. Imagine leaving one’s lifetime home and starting over in a foreign country, where nothing is familiar or easy. Not only did they do that successfully and graciously, they embraced us and our little town. They, then, did the same thing when they moved to Folsom. They have contributed so much to our society, worked hard to fully participate in our way of life, and always have given back to the community. They are the kind of citizens that we should all aspire to become.
I spoke with Vica recently and they are devastated at the war that is being rained down on their native country. They have been in touch with friends and family there and are profoundly anxious about the welfare of people who are dear to them, along with the destruction of so many beautiful places that they remember fondly.
Ukraine is a part of my life because of the Krimons, as it is a part of so many in Davidson who know and love them. Though we cannot be together with the Krimons right now, we suffer along with them and pray for an end to the war being visited upon the land of their birth.