On the day Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Mariya Manzhos made a video call home. It was 10:30 p.m. in Boston. The news spoke of explosions rocking the capital city of Kyiv, where her parents still lived. It was 5:30 a.m. there when her mother answered. “Mom,” Manzhos said from 4,500 miles away, “the war has started.”
Manzhos has long straddled two cultures, belonging to “both and neither,” as she recently wrote in a personal essay for The Washington Post. One — Ukraine — is very much on the world’s mind, following the monthslong Russian invasion that has pummeled but not broken her homeland. She carries bits of Ukraine with her — a notebook with her favorite poems, “whispered to myself like little prayers.” When she gets homesick, she writes.
A recent U.S. citizen, the longtime journalist is sought after right now for her essays and the insights she formed in a country now under siege. A polyglot who speaks Ukrainian, English, Russian and French, she sometimes translates Ukraine’s stories, told in videos and interviews. And though she’s been in the United States for two decades, the war is her story, too.
As days passed, the 37-year-old plotted with a childhood friend also living in the U.S. to get both their parents safely here. They obsessively checked schedules and pondered checkpoints, talking to people who’d made the journey and others who offered to help.
These nights, though, Manzhos sleeps more snugly because her two-bedroom-and-an-attic apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, holds those she holds most dear: husband Zach Davis, children Ari, 9; Beata, 5; Esther, 2; and her mom and dad, Nataliya and Oleksandr Manzhos, who did safely leave Ukraine in March.
Words are her craft, her desire to help others tell their stories, too, which is why she and a friend co-founded Kleio, a storytelling service that helps individuals and families tell and capture their life stories.
Her own American story began when her father, a physicist, converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1991. Two years later, he baptized his wife and only child into the church. At 17, Manzhos left Ukraine to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, then worked for several years in the U.S. in jobs that didn’t ignite her passions. She had a hankering to go back home and seek a path, but was torn; she had a beau in America.
He went to Ukraine with her, and they eventually married there. She joined the English-language Kyiv Post — which some staff later left to found the upstart Kyiv Independent, now the stalwart that helps those in and out of the war zone figure out what’s really going on — where she wrote stories like why Ukrainians are obsessed with sushi. But when her immigration paperwork came through, the couple moved to Boston, where Manzhos worked in local news and went to journalism school at Boston University.
Deseret talked to Manzhos about war, prayers for peace and choosing to be an American.
Deseret News: How did you become a journalist?
Mariya Manzhos: I’ve always been a writerly person. But I’ve also been curious about the world and enjoyed talking to people and trying to figure out what lies behind what we see. I was back in Ukraine after graduating from BYU and spending about four years in D.C. working at an international nonprofit, when my husband saw an ad in the Kyiv Post looking for a lifestyle reporter. I had a blog recounting my own experiences and thoughts, and I presented that as proof that I knew how to write. The job was basically to go around and observe. I was an insider who spoke the language, but I was also an outsider after spending about 10 years in the U.S. So I could see the culture with fresh eyes. But people there weren’t particularly open or warm. Generally they are more skeptical and a little more guarded.
DN: Do you still have people in Ukraine that you worry about?
MM: I am an only child and my parents are here now. But all of their life is fully there. They have an apartment. And my mom has a sister who has a family, including a cousin I grew up with who’s like my sister. They left Ukraine, but I’m in touch with my cousin and I have friends from school that I’m in touch with. I also grew up a Latter-day Saint and some of my friends from church are still there. I’m close to them. Then there are Ukrainian friends who are here — people who are going through the same experience that I was with family back home.
DN: What was it like getting your parents out of Ukraine?
MM: I had help from one of my oldest friends, because we were evacuating our parents at the same time. We were on the phone all the time during those first weeks, talking about the best route to take, all the practical things — basically, checkpoints and how long it takes to get from one place to the next, where hotels were available and where they could sleep overnight. And where to get a train. There were so many uncertainties, nobody knew exactly what to do. There was no scripted guide, “How to Evacuate.” It was chaos. There were all these people asking the same questions over and over, everybody looking for help for their relatives. It was just constant information messaging management all day long, trying to figure out the logistics.
DN: Did they get any help over there?
MM: People came out of the woodwork. There were a few members of my church who my dad knew from when he used to be a church leader in Donetsk 20 years ago and just some guys who ended up being in the field. And they were like, “We know what’s happening on the ground,” and then called my parents and explained where to go. They ran into some other church members at the border, and there were some people that called and coordinated. I’m very grateful for everybody who offered help — logistical, financial, and just asked how they were doing. There was a lot of that.
DN: Do you talk to your 9-year-old about the war?
MM: We’ve been playing this song at our house that’s become a kind of national anthem of the war. He’s very musical, he sings in the choir and he’s been trying to figure out how to sing it. He doesn’t speak Ukrainian, but he found the words in English. It’s hard to grasp something massive like war and all the deaths. But he can see my mom being anxious and worrying about things like her plants and her house. Even the song — my mom tears up when she hears it. Just to see the way that people he loves are experiencing this war, even though he might not understand it, and I think he understands more than I probably give him credit for. Still, we’re so assimilated to life here. I feel like sometimes he forgets that he is half Ukrainian. I’ve been thinking more about how to talk to him about his identity, who he is and what that means to him as I’ve been wrestling with that question, to help him know that he has these roots and give him some prompts that can get him thinking about his family being multicultural.
DN: Are you doing anything to help Ukraine?
MM: I’ve been helping with translations of Ukrainian videos and messages, primarily for The Washington Post. Although it’s not volunteer work, I feel like I’m contributing my skills to helping the world understand what’s happening. I just started helping out with an organization, Global Disaster Relief Team, that is doing incredible work to help refugees in transit. Right now, a lot of my time also goes to helping my parents get the medical care they need. I set up appointments, accompany them on doctor visits to translate and help them get their meds.
DN: How does your multicultural identity figure into daily life?
MM: I’ve just recently become American, but I’ve never voted in the presidential election and I feel like my knowledge of American history is awful. So I’m not a great American. I’m also Ukrainian, but I don’t live there. I’m not fully either of these identities, but each of them is part of me imperfectly, like being a mom and a person of faith. And each is a relationship. If you want to maintain that identity, you have to nourish it. Neither gets enough attention, but I do feel like both make me a richer person. I’m grateful to have a voice in a country where anyone can be part of the solution to whatever problem they see as the most urgent, where people constantly wrestle with how to best create an equal society. But I connect to America most on a local scale. One of my favorite places to take my kids is called Lincoln Park. It’s nothing more than an excellent city park, but it magically brings together people of all ages, nationalities, races, backgrounds. Children play right next to skaters, musicians and dog walkers. It’s where the idea of America feels the closest to me.
DN: Any last word?
MM: We should trust the experiences of others — trust that what the person is going through is real and is deserving of respect and care. We’re sometimes too quick to dismiss other peoples’ experiences if they don’t match our own, or to find a way to justify their struggle if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Instead, we should just listen, trust and respond with love.”