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Ukrainian refugees are finding home in a small city in southern Brazil


Most Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict in their country have ended up elsewhere in Europe. But some have traveled much further, even as far as South America. Jill Langlois has this report from the city of Prudentopolis in southern Brazil.

JILL LANGLOIS, BYLINE: Cupola-topped churches and wooden homes painted in pastels dot the streets of Prudentopolis in southern Brazil. And if you look closely, the signs on storefronts are written in both Portuguese and Ukrainian. Residents still make the popular Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanky (ph), and the town's Ukrainian dance troupe is known worldwide.

Ukrainian migrants settled the rural town over 100 years ago when they came to Brazil with the promise of having fertile land to farm. Many in Brazil refer to the town of over 50,000 as Little Ukraine. But in recent months, Prudentopolis has become more than a cultural curiosity. It's become a safe haven for Ukrainian families fleeing war.

LARYSSA MOSKVICHOVA: (Through interpreter) It was really difficult. I had to leave my home behind. It was all we had.

LANGLOIS: Among them are Laryssa Moskvichova and her three daughters - Anastasiia, Sofiia and Ruslana. After sheltering from bombs for a week in a central bedroom in their duplex in Kharkiv and another two days in a cellar with temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit, Laryssa knew there was no choice but to run.

MOSKVICHOVA: (Through interpreter) We had half an hour to grab everything we could, pack our bags and run. All I could think of were my girls. I got all of their things and forgot about myself. I didn't even take my clothes.

LANGLOIS: Laryssa didn't know where to turn. She piled her girls into the car and headed toward Poltava, a Ukrainian city the fighting hadn't yet reached. There, she met a pastor helping Ukrainian families find safe places to start over through the Global Kingdom Partnership Network. Days later, he sent a message over WhatsApp asking who wanted to go to Brazil.

MOSKVICHOVA: (Through interpreter) The first thing I thought was, Brazil? What? Brazil? Maybe Germany or Poland. No, I'm not going to Brazil. I don't know anyone in Brazil. I don't know anything about it. But then I thought, if this is what God wants, then I will go.

LANGLOIS: Laryssa and her family have now been here for just over three months.

Once an entrepreneur with an online toy store and a business selling pet parrots and parakeets, she now spends a lot of her time making and selling traditional Ukrainian baked goods like oreshki cookies, apple pies, honey cakes and vareniki dumplings. Her daughter Anastasiia, now 22, sometimes helps out.

ANASTASIIA: From the start, we feel accepted, and we feel comfortable with Brazilian people. Our friends helped us to do some work, to have some money. It's a great blessing for us.

LANGLOIS: But there's one Brazilian family in particular that has truly made them feel at home. Andreia Burko Bley met Laryssa during school pickup. And they quickly became the best of friends.

MOSKVICHOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

ANDREIA BURKO BLEY: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGLOIS: Andreia's great-grandparents were some of the first to come from Ukraine to settle in the Brazilian town. As immigrants in a new place far from home, they struggled, but the kindness of strangers helped them pull through.

BURKO BLEY: (Through interpreter) We immediately felt obliged to help them in the same way that someone helped my great-grandparents, for my grandparents. So it was a way for me to repay that debt.

MOSKVICHOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

BURKO BLEY: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGLOIS: The two families now spend most evenings together. Tonight, they're sitting around the dinner table, sharing pizza and stories about their day. Andreia's husband, Paulo, and their two sons don't speak Ukrainian, but they manage to communicate with their new friends with the few words in Portuguese they've already learned and the help of Google Translate. Shared language and culture have helped Laryssa and her daughters feel welcome in their new home. And it's the kindness of strangers that's made them want to stay.

Jill Langlois, NPR News, Prudentopolis, Brazil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jill Langlois
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