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A Ukrainian family flees war and finds refuge and a home in Fort Worth

By Rebecca ChristophersonMarch 18, 2024No Comments

Building A New Home in Fort Worth

By Tori Couch
Photography by Rodger Mallison

When Olga Khytrenko joined the design firm Semmelmann Interiors last March in Fort Worth, she knew more about Eastern European trends than American ones.

Khytrenko had worked at a design studio in Dnipro City, Ukraine, and as a freelancer, creating a client’s dream room using design software.

“I love making my client’s wishes come true,” Khytrenko, who speaks limited English, said in written responses to 360West’s questions. “I always like to see the positive impressions of clients when they see their desires embodied in my 3D visualizations.”

Khytrenko started pursuing a design career while on maternity leave with her daughter Mira, now 6. Design and architecture had always been of interest to Khytrenko, who originally earned a degree in linguistics.

Going back to school and earning a degree in design, Khytrenko changed careers and enjoyed the new work and spending time with her husband, Dima, then an air traffic controller, and Mira.

Everything made sense until their lives turned upside down on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

As the war progressed and daily safety became a concern, the Khytrenkos decided to leave. Since the war started, more than 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced internally or sought refuge in another country, according to UN Refugee Agency statistics. The United States has brought in more than 271,000 refugees.

“It was so scary and dangerous,” Khytrenko said.

The Khytrenkos flew to Germany and waited a month to receive the documentation and travel authorization to enter the United States. The Khytrenkos had a sponsor from Fort Worth and were matched with the non-profit organization BeHumanKindness.

BeHumanKindness’ work caught the attention of Jamie Loke, an associate professor of journalism at TCU. A neighbor from Ukraine connected Loke with the organization.

Loke was teaching a journalism class focused on refugees of war at the same time the Khytrenkos came to Texas. She encouraged her students to meet the Khytrenkos upon arrival at the airport in February 2023 and follow the story as it unfolded. 

Loke quickly became intertwined with the Khytrenkos and their journey. Her neighbor provided temporary housing since the Khytrenkos’ apartment was not ready.

Visiting the Khytrenkos while they were staying across the street helped Loke better understand the reality and weight of the situation. 

“I was so naive and so excited and wanting to welcome them that I didn’t think how exhausted they were,” she said. 

Soon, opportunities arose where Loke, her husband and two young daughters could lend a hand. Loke helped clean the apartment before the Khytrenkos moved in.

Friends bought a Costco membership for the family, purchased items off of an Amazon wishlist, gave the Khytrenkos a used washer and dryer and donated household items.

Finding jobs soon became a top priority. During dinner one night, Khytrenko shared her passion for design with Loke. Loke had no design connections, so she asked a friend in real estate for ideas. The friend recommended reaching out to Susan Semmelmann, owner of Semmelmann Interiors.

Loke wrote Semmelmann a short email, introducing Khytrenko and explaining the situation. Semmelmann responded immediately, offering to help, a mindset that permeates her personal and professional life.

“You can always find a little of something to give that goes a long way to help somebody,” Semmelmann said. “That is our mission — the spirit of living is in the giving. That is not our tagline. It’s our life.”

Initially, Semmelmann thought Khytrenko could roll fabrics while finding the right role inside the company. That plan quickly changed as Semmelmann gained a better understanding of her newest employee’s skill set and work ethic. 

“Olga is off the charts smart,” Semmelmann said. “She took basically any desire or need that I had and figured it out.”

Khytrenko’s strength is in creating digital renderings. In the United States, designers and architects usually use computer-aided design software called AutoCAD. Khytrenko used other design software programs and plugins in Ukraine.

Throughout her design career, Khytrenko has taken online classes to become comfortable with multiple software. This  knowledge has benefitted Semmelmann Interiors.

“From the rendering perspective, she has blown us out of the water,” Semmelmann said. “There’s no words that can describe her level of expertise. She’s an expert in her field, which is one of our core values.”

When Khytrenko first started working at Semmelmann, she took English language classes during the evenings, Semmelmann said.

Dima knew English because of his job in Ukraine and now uses the language in his work at an insurance agency. Mira spoke no English before coming to the United States, but has picked it up while in school.

In working at Semmelmann Interiors, Khytrenko has become familiar with what she calls the “American style” of design and how it varies from the work she did in Ukraine. 

“In Ukraine, in most cases, designs are made in the minimalist style,” Khytrenko said. “The USA has its own American style. There is a lot of furniture in the rooms, a mixture of different textures and colors. Large chandeliers, many floor lamps, lots of marble and glossy surfaces.”

In addition to adapting to a new culture, the Khytrenkos have also learned how to live a world away from family.

Khytrenko’s parents, sister and nephew live in the Donetsk region, an unoccupied territory near the front line of the war, and Dima’s parents are in central Ukraine.

“We hope to bring our families to the U.S.,” Khytrenko said. “It’s our huge dream and main goal we are trying to achieve.”

Everyone who has met the Khytrenkos wants to see that dream fulfilled.

“I can only imagine that they must be worried every day,” Loke said. She has kept in touch with the family through texting and outings, including attending a fair together in the summer and trick-or-treating in October.

Being a part of the Khytrenkos’ story has shown Loke how war can affect families and given her perspective on the everyday challenges associated with relocating to a foreign country — like getting a phone line or navigating a different healthcare system.

“One of the things that I really love and appreciate is that they really worked very hard to get on their feet,” she said. “I’ll help them, but then they’ve really taken it into their own hands to make their lives better.”

Semmelmann expressed similar sentiments. 

“We want Olga here for a lifetime,” she said. “I’ll do whatever it is to keep her. I love her and she’s a part of our family here.”

Khytrenko said she and her family hope to one day visit Ukraine again and see their homeland “free and happy, without this horrible war,” but they have found a home in Texas. 

Recently, they moved into a rental house and adopted a Maltese puppy named Buddy. 

“We are no longer afraid of changes, we are always ready to move forward!” Khytrenko said. “Now we know there is a huge amount of people around the world who are ready to help and assist you in any difficult situations.”