WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — When war broke out in February, there was international outrage, but it took a personal toll on Ellada Thrall.
Thrall moved to the U.S. from Ukraine in April 2021 after meeting her husband, Joseph, through an app that connects people learning each other’s languages. According to her, while Ukraine and the Hawkeye State may seem like they’re worlds apart, they have much in common.
“When people ask me: ‘What’s the difference between Iowa and Ukraine,’ it’s kind of the same. It’s fields, it’s a lot of corn, it’s a lot of farms and all of that,” Thrall told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. “The difference is probably people.
“People here in America are more open. We don’t have anything in Ukraine like small talk and it was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow. Why are you talking to that person? Do they know him?’”
Thrall had been in America for less than a year before the invasion. She and her family had dismissed the reports of troop buildups on the border and didn’t believe that war would come. But on Feb. 24, Thrall watched the nightmare unfold on Facebook.
“I remember that for me, it was late at night, for my parents, it was early morning,” Thrall said. “I remember that feeling when I started shaking, I couldn’t say it, I couldn’t walk – it’s like a moment of frozenness – I was like, ‘No way, it’s going.’”
Watching footage of the war and hearing the reports was bad enough for Thrall. In those first days, she had trouble eating and sleeping as she became drawn into every update about the invasion and what it meant for her family back home. However, the worst was still to come.
Her father, Oleksandr Zhyhylii, was called up from the reserves to fight in early March. Before his deployment, they spoke one more time. In those moments, Zhyhylii tried to set his daughter’s mind at ease.
“My mom called me – FaceTime – before my dad went to the front lines,” Thrall said. “And it was a picture of my dad hugging mom, and saying: ‘Hey, don’t worry. Everything’s going to be okay. I’ll be right back.’”
It was the last time they spoke. Zhyhylii was sent to Donetsk and for days, there was no word from him.
Then on March 30, Thrall’s mother received news from the front – Zhyhylii had been killed two weeks earlier in an artillery barrage. A military funeral was arranged for her father, but Thrall had to settle with attending through a screen.
Six months later, it’s still difficult for her to talk about.
“When I got my green card, or when I got my job, I couldn’t call him and share what’s going on with me,” Thrall said. “And it’s just really, really hard inside and I’m still in the healing process.”
As the war continued, Thrall realized that her life needed to as well. In August, she took a job with the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Urban Education as an academic coordinator for Upward Bound, a federally funded program centered around developing collaborative relationships between low-income students, parents, schools and the community.
Having experience as a teacher and working with children with special needs, she jumped at the opportunity to do what she saw as a fulfilling career.
“When I got this opportunity with UNI, I was like: ‘Wow. It’s something that I’m really enjoying doing.’ It’s something that I want to do because it’s rewarding to change the lives of young people and their families,” Thrall said. “I’m always thinking about the future goal and that’s what keeps me moving and I’m just not letting myself give up.”
In the month she’s been there, Thrall has gained the respect of her colleagues. UNI-CUE Executive Director Robert Smith is one of them. After reading her resume and learning more about her, Smith said he knew he had to have her on the team.
He said she’s rewarded his intuition by becoming an asset for Upward Bound.
“Just the in-depth (knowledge) that she brought to us and how valuable she is, we’re going to learn more from her and how to continue to keep fighting through than we could probably ever teach her,” Smith said. “It’s an honor to have her here. We’re excited to have her as part of her family and helping us. And we want to be there for her and help her through all this.”
Thrall says her co-workers aren’t the only ones helping her through this time. The community that bewildered her with its small talk when she first arrived was about to surprise her again.
It wasn’t long after the conflict broke out that Thrall started to notice little things around the community. Soon, there were Ukrainian flags flying and being displayed at peoples’ homes. Signs started popping up reading: “We Stand with Ukraine.” The people of the Cedar Valley were doing more than welcoming her to their home – they were letting her know that she had their support.
It was a reminder that while she can’t be with her family back home, she’s far from alone.
“I take pictures and send them to my friends and mom to show them how Americans support the fight for freedom in Ukraine, how people stand with Ukraine,” Thrall said. “It gives me the understanding that people here really care.”