From the safety of a friend’s home in Chattanooga, Mykhailo and Olena Murza struggle with
news of the war raging in their native Ukraine.
“When it’s your home country, it’s really painful,” they said.
The couple and their four children, ages 26 to 15, fled their home in Mykolaiv on Feb. 24 – the
same day Russian forces launched its first assault on Ukrainian soil and two days before fighting
for control of Mykolaiv began.
“We got out before the bombing started in our hometown,” they said. “When you have kids, no
matter how old they are, you want to get them safe.”
But they worry for those who stayed to defend the shipbuilding city from Russian occupation.
Mykolaiv, a transportation hub located on the Southern Bug River, has been the focus of
continued missile strikes as the Russian military attempts to disrupt the Ukrainian economy by
cutting off the country’s Black Sea coast.
“It’s really dangerous to stay there,” they said.
But before the war, Mykolaiv was where Olena and Masha Byrdeina, a Ukrainian refugee now
living in Chattanooga, met and became friends.
“We were attending church together for many years,” said Masha, who left Ukraine to resettle in
Chattanooga in 2017 with her husband and their three children.
When the Russian invasion began in February, she contacted Olena to make sure her friends
“When this started, I couldn’t even process that day,” Masha said. “It was truly painful. I called
them every day, every morning.”
The family traveled west and was eventually given permission to cross the border into Slovakia.
“They were living in a small house that people were giving to refugees,” Masha said.
When the United States launched the humanitarian program known as Uniting for Ukraine in
April, Masha and her family offered to sponsor the Murza family. The program serves as a
pathway for Ukrainians displaced by the conflict to enter the US temporarily if a supporter in
the US agrees to sponsor their stay.
It took a month for the paperwork to be processed, but the family arrived in the US at the end of
“They started in Warsaw, Poland, and flew to Amsterdam and to Atlanta and I picked them up
there,” Masha said. “They live with me in my house, and it’s a full house, but it’s fine when the
people are your friends.”
Masha, a former Bridge Refugee Services client, quickly connected the family with Bridge, who
helped them apply for cash assistance, food assistance and other services available through the
Tennessee Office for Refugees.
“Bridge helped us with that,” they said.
Bridge staff said they have helped more than 100 displaced Ukrainians like the Murza family
apply for TOR services since they began arriving in Chattanooga this spring, as well as a
comparable number in Knoxville who are similarly situated.
Mykhailo and his oldest son, Pavlo, 26, worked in construction in Ukraine, while 23-year-old
Viktoria was a business analyst. All three eagerly await employment authorization so they can
“We are ready for any kind of job,” they said.
Teenagers Yevhenii, 17, and Tymofii, 15, will attend Chattanooga Central High School next
“I think they are nervous a little bit, but they will be good, I’m sure,” Masha said. “They’re smart
and are awesome kids.”
While they already know some English, the family has been attending classes to improve their
Masha and her family have also introduced them to the community, as well as other Ukrainians
living in Chattanooga.
“We are really pleased with the people we met here,” they said. “The people are really open and
helpful and everyone is really trying to help.”
While they miss their homeland, they’ve been able to stay in touch with many of their loved
ones. Most have relocated to other countries. A handful remain in Ukraine to support the war
effort or because they were unable to leave.
The family said knowing they would be coming to live with someone they already knew made
their transition to America easier.
“We are like family,” they said.
They are also grateful to be safe and together in Chattanooga.
“I’m glad to have them here,” Masha said. “I hope I’m their blessing too.”