The Warchol family at home with Ukrainian friends Iryna and Olena Litvinova


A kindness repaid

Life came full circle for returned Peace Corps volunteer Michael Warchol when he welcomed members of his Ukrainian host family into his home.
The time we all lived together was one of the happiest in our lives.

When Michael Warchol and his wife, Lauren, arrived at their Peace Corps assignment in the eastern Ukrainian town of Rubizhne in 2008, their hosts, the Litvinovs, became like family and eased their transition in a new culture and language.

Fifteen years later, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Warchols are repaying the Litvinovs’ kindness and hospitality by hosting Iryna and Olena Litvinova, the mother and younger daughter, in their Richmond home. “Life has come unexpectedly full circle,” says Warchol, manager of communications and events in UR’s office of international education.

The Litvinovs — grandmother, Lyudmila; father, Andriy; mother, Iryna; and daughters Yulia and Olena, then 7 years old — warmly welcomed the Warchols into their home for the first month of their Peace Corps assignment in the Russian-speaking region. The family helped the couple sharpen their language and cultural skills and bonded over countless card games. “The time we all lived together was one of the happiest in our lives,” says Iryna, through Lauren’s translation. The Litvinovs remained close friends and invaluable guides throughout the Warchols’ 27-month assignment.

After, they all kept in touch and exchanged photos via email and WhatsApp. When the Warchols and their 2-year-old son, Will, visited the Litvinovs in 2013, Olena gave Will one of her stuffed animals as a parting gift.

Circumstances soon changed for the Litvinovs. Ongoing conflict in the Donbas region and professional advancement took them to the city of Kharkiv — one of Russia’s first targets as it invaded Ukraine last year. Taking what they could carry, they evacuated to Kremenchuk, a city considered somewhat safer but still subject to shelling and 22-hour daily power outages.

When Iryna and Olena asked the Warchols for sponsorship, “we didn’t bat an eye,” Michael says. In December, after a 65-hour journey, mother and daughter arrived safely in the U.S. When the pair walked into the Warchols’ in-law suite, they found a Christmas tree to decorate, a Rubizhne embroidery they’d gifted to Lauren — and Olena’s stuffed animal.

As Lauren has guided their resettlement — “She’s their champion,” says Michael — Iryna and Olena have relished getting to know the three Warchol children. Because the language barrier prevents Iryna from continuing her work as an economics professor, Iryna and Olena have turned to their passion for art. They exhibited their works — landscapes for Olena, Ukrainian petrykivka paintings for Iryna — at Arts in the Park in Richmond and sell their works online. They recently moved into their own place and hope that Lyudmila can join them.

“It was definitely hard to leave our family members behind,” Iryna says. “But we’re really glad we came here to find safety and reprieve from the war. We feel accepted in Michael and Lauren’s family. They and their friends have welcomed us.”