Helping a Ukrainian Family Meet Their Medical Needs in California

Northwest  |  December 7, 2022
Tzu Chi Volunteer Michelle Wong and
Tzu Chi volunteer Michelle Wong meets with Slava, Tosha, Amir, and Arina for the first time. Photo/Leslie Shieh

Written by: Leslie Shieh
Translated by: H.B. Qin
Edited by: Adriana DiBenedetto

On September 6, 2022, under the afternoon sun in California’s Silicon Valley, Tzu Chi volunteers Michelle Wong and Leslie Shieh welcomed Slava and his family to their dental clinic.

Escaping conflict in Ukraine, comedian Slava and his wife, Tosha, found safety in the United States after a long journey accompanied by their two young children, Amir and Arina. Slava had been experiencing a toothache, but at that time, they could not afford the cost of expensive dental procedures. Slava’s wife, Tosha, searched for help via the internet, and Tzu Chi promptly reached out to provide the family with free dental care and living assistance.

Lives Turned Upside Down by Conflict

Tosha and her family resided in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. There, Tosha earned a living as a graphic designer, and her husband, Slava, was a well-known local comedian who previously performed with President Zelensky. However, the family’s peace was shattered by Russia’s sudden invasion on February 24, 2022.

Slava, Tosha, and their two young children share happy moments in Kyiv. Photo/Courtesy of Tosha

A friend’s phone call in the early hours of the morning brought Tosha the shocking news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Thinking of her grandmother, parents, and siblings who had not left, Tosha was uncertain about fleeing. But after the conflict started, missiles came so close to their home that they had no choice but to leave Ukraine.

In Search of Safety Far From Home

The original plan was for Slava to send Tosha and the children to the Romanian border to be taken care of by a friend. Then, Slava would return to Kyiv to defend the country, but the family lost contact with the friend they were to meet with due to a missile attack along their trip. For his family’s safety, Slava accompanied them, went to Italy through Romania, and tried to build a new life there. The family had difficulty communicating in a new and unfamiliar country with a different language. While Tosha didn’t know Italian, her English proficiency helped her obtain a job as a designer, and Slava found work as a laborer. With the help of friends, Tosha and her family received humanitarian parole from the United States Department of Homeland Security, and the family embarked on another journey, arriving in the United States on August 11 and joining friends in Palo Alto, California.

On the way to Kyiv
The family’s escape from Kyiv was dangerous, with many scorched cars along the way. As Slava drove, Tosha took photos from her car. Photo/Courtesy of Tosha
Red car on the road
The Ukrainian army sets up fences and roadblocks from Kyiv to Odyssey, hoping to slow down the invasion of their homeland. A trip usually taking five hours by car took Slava 10 hours. Photo/Courtesy of Tosha
Tosha, Ukrainian
Tosha sheds tears when recalling how difficult it was to leave Ukraine and grieves for everyone who has been impacted. Photo/Renee Liu

Slava’s dental treatment had been delayed for months because of the conflict. After arriving in California, his wisdom teeth became more painful and began to bleed. Still, he couldn’t seek medical treatment because of the high cost of care, and their California Medi-Cal had not yet been approved. Anxious, Tosha tried to find medical resources online and came across a report about Tzu Chi assisting Ukrainians in Poland. Hoping for relief, Tosha emailed Tzu Chi USA asking if the foundation could help them. Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters in San Dimas forwarded the request to Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region, which is closer to where Tosha lives, and urged local Tzu Chi volunteers to make contact. The community’s charity group volunteers quickly responded to Tosha’s request, and collaborated with volunteer doctors to arrange a visit.

Tzu Chi Doctors Are Ready to Help

Dr. Qingxin Wang is the attending physician of the free dental clinic in Milpitas, California. Dr. Wang has been leading the Tzu Chi medical team in supporting the oral health of community residents for more than 15 years, and often helps Tzu Chi care recipient families. Dr. Wang was in charge of Slava’s treatment, and explained that Slava’s inflamed wisdom tooth needed to be extracted due to ulceration. The tooth next to it was also affected, requiring root canal treatment and crown restoration. Dr. Wang contacted several peers and finally referred Slava to an oral surgeon willing to extract the wisdom tooth free of charge, while Dr. Wang completed the rest of the treatment.

Man and dentist
Before the treatment, Dr. Wang sooths Slava’s concerns with kindness and humor, and would only start the treatment after he felt calm and secure. Photo/Kitty Lu
Little girl in yellow dress with Tzu Chi volunteer
During her father’s dental visit, Arina checks a little dinosaur’s teeth, and Dr. Wang (right) shows Arina how to brush her teeth. Photo/Kitty Lu

Due to the time required for treatment, Dr. Wang arranged to work overtime on her day off to treat Slava. On October 24, Dr. Wang completed the last treatment for Slava at Tzu Chi’s Dental Mobile Clinic

Man and dentist hugging
Slava is very grateful to Dr. Wang for helping him with his oral health. Photo/Kitty Lu

Peace of Mind

Tzu Chi volunteer Michelle Wong started contacting Tosha and arranging dental treatment for Slava after receiving the message from Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters. Tosha translated for Slava and the doctor during each visit, while Michelle Wong took care of the two youngsters. Michelle Wong also invited the family to pick up pantry essentials from the Tzu Chi food bank in East Palo Alto. Tosha explained that they came to the U.S. with little funds, and relied on friends for daily essentials. They were delighted that the food received was able to reduce a large part of their living expenses. The Tzu Chi volunteers also prepared new clothes and shoes for the children and various household items to assist the family in as many ways as possible.

Volunteers distributing foods
Slava receives food from the food bank. Photo/Leslie Shieh
Volunteer and father helping little girl to wear her shoes
Tzu Chi volunteers prepare new clothes, shoes, and household items for the children. Photo/Leslie Shieh

Currently, the family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto with friends. When Tzu Chi volunteers made their first home visit on September 22, they brought children’s clothes, shoes, toys, stationery, delicious pastries, and fresh fruit. Volunteers were touched to learn that Tosha also prepared Ukrainian apple pie and herbal tea for the visit.

When volunteer Michelle Wong presented the family with a Tzu Chi cash card, Tosha and Slava were astonished; they didn’t expect Tzu Chi to provide them with financial assistance, just as they could hardly believe their plea for help had really been answered. 

Tosha expressed that the money was a great help to them while they strived to regain their footing. And more importantly, they felt safe knowing that there were people there who cared about them and provided them with real help. Tosha explained that she and Slava were consistently on tenterhooks even after settling in the United States. When they saw planes flying over, they feared that there could be missiles launched any second. However, the sincere warmth and attentiveness they felt from Tzu Chi volunteers helped them begin to believe in the goodness of humanity again. 

The Future Is Promising

When recalling questions from her children, asking when they could return home and where their other family members were, Tosha’s pain shone in her eyes. Tosha said that although her home has been destroyed and an end to this conflict is uncertain, the family is determined to persevere with love in their hearts, and memories of their family are always near despite the distance. The family must find another place to live in the shortest possible time, but living in California’s Silicon Valley is a huge financial hurdle. They also urgently need a car to find a job and make a living when they get a work permit. In this regard, Tzu Chi volunteers are trying their best to help, hoping to find kind-hearted people to donate a used car to relieve their needs.

Ukrainian lady holding Tzu Chi safety & happiness keychains
Tzu Chi volunteers present a small peace and happiness charm to wish Tosha and her family a joyful and fulfilling tomorrow. Photo/Renee Liu
Tzu Chi Volunteers and Ukrainian family
Tzu Chi volunteers with Slava, Tosha, and their two children. Photo/Renee Liu

Wiping away her tears, Tosha spoke with determination about the resilience and bravery of Ukrainians, and with this same sentiment, said that the people of Ukraine would endure. This is a long-term path of care, and Tzu Chi volunteers are committed to accompanying Tosha and Slava as they overcome challenges, and stride ever onward.

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