Imagine deciding to leave all you know, to settle in a new country, and to learn a new language.
Walter Marchuk did just that 20 years ago when he and his wife left Ukraine and settled in Harrisonburg. WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports in the last installment of our series, “Becoming American.”
[Sounds of cars driving]
Cars whoosh along Virginia Avenue in Harrisonburg as a heavy October rain falls. Inside VA Auto Sales, it’s pretty quiet: a few phone calls, a few odds and ends.
[Walter Marchuk talking on the phone]
Fall is here, remarks Walter Marchuk, staring out the window. Now slower times replace the late summer busy season at his used car dealership. The day he set foot in Harrisonburg, he had no idea that this is where he’d eventually find himself. It was all kind of a blur for Marchuk, who was just 23, had just flown in an airplane for the first time ever and whose English was limited to a few words. Marchuk arrived with his wife, Anna. They’d been married the previous fall, and had been granted refugee status on account of religious persecution. Some relatives who’d previously come also made an economic argument for moving here.
MARCHUK: Yeah, in that time we had a difficult situation in the Ukraine. They just told me here it’s more jobs, better pay, better life. I said, ‘OK, I’ll try.’
The couple was sponsored by Park View Mennonite Church. Ervie Glick, a retired professor who was active in its refugee program, recalls that Marchuk’s relatives here gave them an immediate support network.
ERVIE GLICK: It was pretty limited what we needed to do. There was a three-month support – money for their rent and food. And the church found them a place to live and furnished the apartment, got them immediately on their feet.
Soon after their arrival, the Marchuks had their first child, a daughter. Like many new immigrants, Walter’s first job was in a poultry processing plant.
MARCHUK: That was like a boot camp. That was a very hard job, so I was a little bit disappointed for a short period of time. I stayed there for I think five or six months.
His soon found a better job as an electronics repairman, then opened his own auto electronics business, and eventually, started his dealership.
MARCHUK: VA Auto Sales opened in July, 1998.
Along the way, he pieced together an English curriculum:
MARCHUK: I took some classes. I never had enough time to study, but yeah, I guess I pick up my language from school, from the newspaper, from the radio, and just from everywhere, wherever I’ve been.
He bought a house. He became a citizen in 2000. The family kept growing. The dealership did well. Marchuk now has five children. His oldest is finishing up at Eastern Mennonite University. His youngest is just two.
GLICK: I think he’s just exemplary as a new citizen, and as a husband and father. His kids do well in school. They’ll do well. I don’t worry about them. It’s a tribute to his living out the American Dream.
Very early on, he felt like he’d lost something here, left part of himself back in Ukraine. That didn’t last long, though.
MARCHUK: After one year when I was living here I visit Ukraine. And I was totally disappointed. It was not changed, but in my eye, everything changed, and turned to the worst side.
Once a year, Marchuk still returns to his hometown of Vinnytsia, a few hours southwest of Kiev in an area still untouched by fighting in Ukraine. He goes to visit an orphanage that’s supported by some families at his church. Ukraine was where he was born, but Marchuk is quite certain that this is where he belongs. He feels it strongly when his return flight lands, and he slaps his passport down at the customs desk.
MARCHUK: First thing that they say is ‘Welcome home’ and you feel like you’re home.