PHOTOS: Ukrainian refugees feel surprisingly at home in Brazil's 'Little Ukraine'
Laryssa Moskvichova just filled her biggest order yet. It took four days to make around 360 oreshki, a walnut-shaped cookie filled with doce de leite, a caramelized condensed milk associated with Latin America but also used in Ukraine.
The recipe she brought with her from Ukraine is a favorite of customers in her new home of Prudentópolis, a small town in southern Brazil where she fled with her three daughters — Anastasiia Ivanova, 22, Sofiia Moskvichova, 14, and Ruslana Moskvichova, 6 — when the war at home became too much. ( Like other Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60, Laryssa's husband — the father of her two youngest daughters — had to stay behind when his family fled.)
Orders have been rolling in at a pace Laryssa never expected. Today she's working on buckwheat bread and prepping for another round of oreshki tomorrow. In the days to come, there will be apple pies, honey cakes, vareniki dumplings and more oreshki.
As she kneads the dough for her last loaf of bread and places it into a pan lined with parchment paper, the afternoon sun streaming through the sliding glass doors leading to the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment, she calls her new friend Andreia Burko Bley, who grew up in this town and has sons the same age as her two youngest daughters.
They talk about Andreia taking the girls to school the next day and the menu she made to help Laryssa's baking business, which she and her husband, Paulo Bley, have been circulating on WhatsApp.
It's an easy conversation, filled with laughter and the kind of chatter that usually only comes with years of friendship.
But in fact, the two women only just met in early June.
Andreia is one of many natives of the Brazilian town who learned Ukrainian before she learned Portuguese. Her great-grandparents were among the first families some 116 years ago to come from Ukraine and settle Prudentópolis, named for a past president of Brazil and now known as "Little Ukraine," with the hopes of making a living by farming the available land.
This unexpected hub of Ukrainian culture has become a haven for eight families who escaped the war in the last six months with the help of a worldwide network of evangelical churches. Its ties to home provide not only a sense of comfort to those like Laryssa and her daughters but also deep connection to those who live there and a bond that can't be broken, even if they can, one day, go home.
From fear in Kharkiv to pizza (with a fork) in Prudentópolis
Three pizza boxes are stacked in the center of Andreia and Paulo's dining table. Bruno and Ruslana, classmates at the nearby elementary school, giggle as they take turns swinging a plastic sword at each other in the adjacent living room, the smell of melted cheese and tomato sauce wafting through the air.
Their mothers chat as they get plates and cups from the kitchen cupboards, and Paulo does his best to talk to Sofiia. When the few Ukrainian words he has picked up in the last couple months and slowly spoken Portuguese don't work, he turns to Google Translate for help. He didn't grow up here and is not of Ukrainian heritage like his wife, so he's learning as he goes.
The chatter among the eight — in Ukrainian, Russian, Portuguese and English — continues as they all settle in around the table. Andreia places utensils next to the round cardboard boxes. Sofiia gives a soft laugh at the thought of eating pizza with a fork and knife. It might be the norm in Brazil but not in Ukraine. She folds her slice in half before taking a bite.
A laugh over a hot meal was unimaginable for the 14-year-old and her family just a few months ago. When bombs started falling from the sky over Cold Mountain, the Kharkiv neighborhood where they lived, the family hid in Anastasiia's room — at the center of their duplex, it didn't have any windows — for a week. When the bombs got so close they destroyed a school the girls once attended, they moved down to the cellar, a space so small they couldn't lay down.
But the Ukrainian winter was too harsh and after two days of temperatures as low as -22° Fahrenheit, Laryssa knew they had to leave.
"It was really difficult," she says. "I had to leave my home behind. It was all we had. 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."
They piled into their car and headed toward Poltava, a destination for many since fighting hadn't yet reached the city, giving them time to decide where to go next. During the 20-hour trip — it should have lasted no more than two, but the mass exodus meant traffic was bumper-to-bumper — a friend of Anastasiia's called and recommended they get in touch with a pastor in Poltava from the same church they attended in Kharkiv, Word of Life. He was part of the Global Kingdom Partnership Network (GKPN), a group of evangelical pastors finding safe places around the world for Ukrainian families to start over.
Days later, when he sent a message over WhatsApp asking who wanted to go to Brazil, Laryssa's reaction was immediate.
"The first thing I thought was, no, I'm not going to Brazil," she says. "I don't know anyone in Brazil, I don't know anything about it. What's even there?"
But her faith that God would guide her and a dream she had where she was flying over the ocean made her change her mind. The family embarked on a journey that would take them to Lviv, Warsaw and Frankfurt before boarding a plane to Brazil.
When she first arrived in São Paulo with her girls — a trip paid for by the church — Laryssa had no idea she would end up in Prudentópolis. The four spent a week at a church-owned farm outside Curitiba, the capital city of Paraná state, before Pastor Vitalii Arshulik, from the First Baptist Church of Prudentópolis and a member of the GKPN, helped set them up in a fully furnished apartment with a stocked fridge, made possible with donations from the community. The church is also helping the families who have come to Prudentópolis and neighboring towns with mental health support, language classes, job-hunting help and money to pay bills, including rent, for their first year in Brazil.
"We feel happy to be able to help, to be able to do something for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters," says the pastor, who came to Brazil with his wife and children five years ago to head up the local Baptist church. "It was very important for us to welcome them."
A new faraway home looks a lot like Ukraine
For Laryssa and her daughters, the connection between their new home and their old one was a shock. They didn't expect to find traditional brightly colored wooden Ukrainian houses and churches with cupolas, a strong pride in Ukrainian dance, music and art — like embroidery and the intricate designs of pysanka Easter eggs, two mediums that Andreia still practices today after learning them from her grandmother as a child — and their language spoken in the streets of the Brazilian town of 52,000.
"I never thought that in Brazil, across the ocean, people would speak Ukrainian," says Anastasiia. "It's a miracle."
Sofiia and Ruslana were quickly enrolled in school, while Laryssa and Anastasiia got to work organizing their new home. They found solace in church and the kindness they received from neighbors, both Ukrainian and Brazilian.
But it wasn't until they were befriended by Andreia and Paulo that they truly felt they had found their place.
Laryssa and Andreia met during school pickup after Andreia's 6-year-old, Bruno, insisted she meet Ruslana's mom. He was sure they would be fast friends, since his mom's first language was Ukrainian too.
The Ukrainian spoken in Prudentópolis is slightly different than what is spoken in Ukraine today — an older version of the language that was brought to the town over 100 years ago and never changed — but that didn't stop Bruno's prediction from coming true.
The two women quickly became close, and their families followed suit. Andreia started driving Ruslana and Sofiia to school so they wouldn't have to walk, and she and Paulo helped promote Laryssa's baking business and set her up with the basic ingredients she needed to get started. Before coming to Brazil the mom of three was already an entrepreneur, running her own online toy store and a business selling pet parrots and parakeets.
When Paulo noticed that Sofiia, the quietest of the family and an avid painter, had a phone case with Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night," he gave her his sweatshirt with the painting replicated across the front.
"Their hearts are so big," says Anastasiia. "In Ukraine we didn't have friends like this. They are very caring people."
For Andreia and Paulo, what they've received is so much more than what they've given.
"I never imagined it would be like this," says Andreia of her relationship with Laryssa's family, "that it would hold this cultural, emotional and spiritual weight."
As Laryssa stands at the black stone counter of her kitchen, dusting an order of oreshki with powdered sugar before packaging it to be picked up, she sighs.
She never imagined she would even visit Brazil, but now, because of something as simple as kindness, it's starting to feel like home.
Jill Langlois is an independent journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She has been freelancing from the largest city in the western hemisphere since 2010, writing and reporting for publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time. Her work focuses on human rights, the environment and the impact of socioeconomic issues on people's lives.
Gabriela Portilho is a documentary photographer and journalist whose work investigates the relationship between human beings and their communities, focusing on environmental and gender issues. A member of Women Photograph and Native Agency, she lives in Paraty, a small city between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.