Saddleback Ukrainian student adjusting to life in the U.S.

Serge Kriachko (center) who has fled the Ukrainian conflict for a life in the U.S. huddles with the Saddleback soccer team. The Lariat| Sara Puckett

The ordeal began with the sound of gunshots, which Serge Kriachko initially mistook for fireworks. Living next to a university, he assumed local college students were behind the commotion. To his dismay, those “fireworks” were gunshots sent by Russia, marking the start of a devastating war. He vividly remembers checking his phone and finding a deluge of messages announcing the grim reality: the war had begun.

Nearly two years later, Kriachko is a current student at Saddleback College. He found himself drawn to the men’s soccer team. For now, he practices with the team, driven by his passion for the sport and his dreams for the future. 

After a heart-wrenching conversation with his mother, they decided to leave their home. Kriachko’s residence was situated near the Russian border. Their home provided a clear view of Russian tanks advancing into Ukraine. He was handed the car keys and dispatched to fill up the gas tank before gas prices went up. What he encountered on the way left him in disbelief.

 “It was really hard to believe it was happening. It was like something in a movie,” Kriachko said, as he came across a convoy of 20 tanks.

Upon his return home, Kriachko was met with another staggering sight—his mother had already packed their essentials. A high school graduate at the time, Kriachko recalled his modest packing list, “I packed my backpack, it was really simple, my laptop, laptop charger, phone charger, and underwear, and that’s all.” said Kriachko.

For the next two nights, Kriachko and his family sought refuge in the cold basement of his father’s apartment complex. With temperatures plummeting to 1 degree Fahrenheit, the basement offered little comfort, feeling more like 1 degree Fahrenheit. 

One fateful night, Kriachko made a daring choice to venture out despite the inherent risks.

 “I know it was a dumb choice,” he admitted, “but I decided to see what was going on.” He recounted witnessing rocket launches during the night and the sight of fighter jets dropping explosives during the day. The tremors and deafening sounds shook his home. Realizing that it was no longer safe to stay, Kriachko and his family embarked on a journey to find safety.

A friend of Kriachko told him that the trains were taking civilians to the border of Slovenia. Once at the train station,  the heartbreaking reality set in.

 “It was the last time I would see my dad and both sets of grandparents,” Kriachko said. Farewells were exchanged, hugs given, and the family was left with the hope of reuniting someday. Despite the physical distance, Kriachko stays in contact with his father.

Their journey took them to Western Ukraine and then Slovenia, where compassionate locals offered support with food, water, and warm clothing. Afterward, the family moved on to Slovakia, where a friend’s family provided shelter and sustenance. Kriachko expressed his gratitude.

“It was really nice to see people giving us help because they knew we needed it,” he said.

An opportunity to come to the United States arose, but the four-year wait for a visa was a setback. Kriachko’s godmother, his mother’s best friend, stepped in to expedite their journey, finding them sponsors to facilitate their move. This led them from Austria to Albania, where they savored the flavors of a winery farm’s homemade cuisine.

“It was very delicious. I miss that food. All the food was homegrown,” he said.

News of the United States opening its borders to Ukrainian refugees via the Mexican border brought fresh hope. The family decided to pool their resources to purchase bus tickets to Greece, from where they would fly to Turkey and then Mexico. Upon arrival in Tijuana, Mexico, Kriachko, his mother, and his sister slept in a tent for two nights, although the campsite proved to be less than ideal. He recounted the challenges of fending off persistent drug dealers, even witnessing an altercation involving a Ukrainian man.

Finally, they crossed the border into the United States, and Kriachko’s newfound responsibility became starkly apparent. His friends, scattered across Europe, faced the same challenges of displacement and uncertainty, a stark contrast to their previous carefree lives spent playing card games and board games.

In his homeland, Kriachko had been accustomed to a different way of life, where he helped with chores like chopping wood, mowing the grass, and managing household tasks. Now, in the United States, a new set of responsibilities awaited.

Kriachko’s dreams extend beyond his past hardships and the cultural shock he experienced upon arrival. He expressed his determination to achieve the American dream, believing that he is in the stage of working hard to attain it. In a little over a year in the United States, he has already begun college, acquired a car, and believes he is making good progress. Looking ahead, Kriachko aspires to become a pilot for commercial or private planes.

Adapting to life in the United States was a major cultural shock for Kriachko. He marveled at the “movie-like” quality of his new surroundings, contrasting them with his expectations. A visit to Los Angeles, where he hoped to see the famed Walk of Fame, left him disheartened as he was confronted with homelessness, drugs, and squalor. Kriachko’s preference for Orange County, a “really nice place,” underscored the stark contrast between his previous life and his American experiences.

The American food culture presented another layer of cultural shock for Kriachko. Accustomed to homegrown food in Ukraine, he was taken aback by the ubiquity of sugar in everyday products. He expressed his surprise at finding sugar in bread, saying, 

“Like how? There is so much sugar here,” Kriachko said.  He made an effort to choose food that aligns with his idea of a healthy diet.