'Like a balm for the soul': Ukrainians on an Anchorage soccer team find a sense of home

May 6—When Yan Ditlovich fled the war in Dnipro in central Ukraine last June, the first thing he packed was his soccer shoes.

Last month, he laced up those shoes proudly at The Dome sports complex in Anchorage.

For Ditlovich, it was his first time playing with a team of Ukrainians in the Soccer Alaska adult recreation league. Since the team formed over the winter, soccer has helped the players connect with other Ukrainians, and with members of their new community.

"Soccer is like a balm for the soul," Ditlovich said. Players' comments for this story were translated from Russian by a Daily News reporter. "It helps me unwind, helps soothe these worries about what's happening in Ukraine, helps me forget for a moment."

The team — sponsored through Catholic Social Services' Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services — includes eight Ukrainians who came to the United States over the past year from various cities. There are also two Americans and a captain, Nick Opanasevych, who is Ukrainian but has lived in the U.S. since 2003.

"We always played soccer in our town with our friends, and we are happy we got a chance to play here," said Pavlo Mykhailov, who is from the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. "We are not alone here."

Leaving home behind

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a growing number of Ukrainians have come to Alaska. In fiscal year 2021, prior to the war in Ukraine, only 22 people from other countries enrolled in refugee services offered by Catholic Social Services. In 2022, the number jumped to nearly 500 people, most of whom were Ukrainians, according to Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services director Brigit Reynolds.

This year, Alaska so far has seen 241 arrivals, of whom 227 people, or 94%, are Ukrainian, said Issa Spatrisano, Alaska state refugee coordinator at Catholic Social Services.

The typical way for Ukrainians to relocate to the United States has been as refugees, but after the federal program Uniting for Ukraine launched in April 2022, they can now come to the U.S. for two years with the support of a sponsor — for example, with help from relatives, friends and the New Chance Church's Ukraine Relief Program. Ukraine's draft means that not all men are able to relocate, but Ukrainian citizens living outside of their home country and men who have more than three children are some of the exceptions allowed.

[Influx of Ukrainian refugees prompts state to relaunch job placement office]

When Serhii Hrevtsev learned about the opportunity to come to Alaska, he didn't believe it was possible. Hrevtsev had been living in Poland working as a truck driver for eight years before the war, but his family — mother, father and brother — were all in the city of Mariupol, which was seized and devastated by Russian attacks last spring.

"When they destroyed Mariupol, with the first opportunity for my mother and brother to leave, I organized them a trip, and they drove — all the way through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania — to come to Poland," Hrevtsev said. "There were absolutely no plans. I just needed to get them out of Mariupol. Would it be bombed more or not — nothing was clear."

Ditlovich left Dnipro two days after the war started. Together with his wife and five children, he waited in line to cross the border for two days. Ditlovich's mother stayed at home, separated from her children and grandchildren.

As did Hrevtsev's father.

"I just worry about him a lot," Hrevtsev said, fighting back tears. His father still lives in Mariupol, which is now occupied by Russia, and Hrevtsev talks to him whenever the connection allows. "He is going through such hardship, and I can't do anything to help."

Together with his mother and brother, Hrevtsev was able to come to Alaska last summer.

Forming the team

In Alaska, the newcomers can access resources through Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services — such as language classes, medical case management and family mentorship — funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and community contributions. The new arrivals also need social and emotional support, Reynolds said. Church groups and crafting meetups have drawn women.

"But we didn't really have any space for men's recreation," Reynolds said. "Like, what are we doing for that population?"

Opanasevych, who has played with Soccer Alaska on and off for years, was among the people who suggested starting the team. He began recruiting players in winter, and by March, the team had enrolled in the league. Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services covered fees and paid for the jerseys — blue and yellow, like the Ukrainian flag.

When Hrevtsev heard that other Ukrainians were gathering to play, he got excited.

"What?! I want to join too!" he remembered saying. "When I came here, I didn't know about this stadium. I had no friends — no one, really. But I always loved playing soccer."

In their first-ever game, the team crushed their opponent by a score of 11-0. They've lost only one of the seven games they have played so far.

Ditlovich joined the team later in the season, and during his first game with the team, he opened the scoring with a goal. The main difference he notices between playing soccer in Ukraine and Alaska is style: At home, it's all about winning, and here, people play to enjoy themselves.

When he was younger, Ditlovich used to play in amateur tournaments.

"Some guys I played with are at war right now, at the front line," he said.

In Alaska, he regularly drives his children to soccer practice and tournaments and is happy to get back into the sport himself.

"Soccer is still in my heart," he said.

The team plays every Monday night through the spring season, with two more games coming up.

"There are no professionals, we are all amateurs, but each of us has a small story, each of us played soccer somewhere," Hrevtsev said. "We are waiting for this Monday the whole week long. Personally, I get tired physically, but mentally, it gives me energy and joy for the rest of the week."

On an April afternoon, Hrevtsev, Opanasevych and teammate Alex Korniichuk sat in the Peanut Farm sports bar in Midtown Anchorage, watching a UEFA Champions League game.

"This is how we learn to play soccer," said Opanasevych.

The team captain said he's thinking about providing more practice opportunities and recruiting more players for the summer season. He's also open to the idea of having several teams, for players at different skill levels or for both men and women.

For now, the players hope to win the spring championship and qualify to play in a more competitive Soccer Alaska division.

"Despite the fact that we are a new team, I believe we will win this season. We only aim for first place." Hrevtsev said. "But our actual goal is to get into League B. Then, we can compete."

[Watching from Anchorage as a war unfolds, a young Ukrainian hockey player hopes to reconnect with family]

Adjusting to a new life

Attending the soccer matches is a family affair.

During an April game, several wives and children cheered from the bleachers, including Maria, Natali and Alla Mykhailova — who are married to brothers Pavlo, Illia and Kostiantyn Mykhailov, respectively. Almost the whole Mykhailov family was able to move to Alaska, with help from their sponsors.

"Our husbands love playing soccer; their childhood dream was to become soccer players. It's very important for them," Maria Mykhailova said. "It's also very important for them that we are here too."

Playing soccer here helps the players adapt, socialize and release some of their tension and emotions, Maria Mykhailova said.

Pavlo Mykhailov agreed: "We came here very recently, and the adaptation has been hard. We are slowly returning to life."

After leaving Ukraine, the family spent some time in Germany. But moving to Alaska — a place with more Ukrainian and Russian speakers, a Slavic church and resources available — makes the transition easier, Natali Mykhailova said.

"There, you were sitting and waiting for something — until the war ends, until something happens," she said. "Here, it feels like our life has started."

Working in fishing plants and hospitals, construction companies and bakeries, the newcomers are finding various jobs, Opanasevych said. Often those jobs have nothing to do with their previous occupations, which can mean starting from scratch, he said. For example, in Ukraine the Mykhailov family used to operate a successful business, a store with construction products.

"The store is just left there, with all the goods, with all the investments," Pavlo Mykhailov said. "The war makes it too dangerous to live there, and providing for your family economically is not easy either."

With the status of "humanitarian parolees," the family can stay in the U.S. for two years. It's unclear what options will exist when that time is up.

For each of the newcomers, the Alaska experience looks different. Kostiantyn Mykhailov said he wants to focus on life here. Hrevtsev said that however great the place is, it's hard to escape thoughts of home and those who are still in Ukraine. Pavlo Mykhailov said that everyone in his family misses their city, loved ones, friends and relatives, but they work to adapt to living with an uncertain future.

"Planning is hard for us because we already planned something in our lives, and plans can change any day," Mykhailov said. "While we are here, we are glad."

For now — just like they played soccer every Sunday back in Ukraine — the team and families meet weekly at The Dome in Anchorage.

"Each Monday, they play in this tournament," Maria Mykhailova said. "It brings stability to our life."

The Daily News' Marc Lester contributed to this story.