Ukrainian soldier Dimitri Stadnik arrived in Charleston on May 22 with a few hundred dollars to his name and one bag on his shoulder. He had been fighting on the front lines for the past year to protect his homeland against the Russian invasion.
Although Stadnik doesn’t speak English, he can understand it fairly well. He secured an entry level corporate job for himself, and a local family recently gifted him a vehicle. His new life is just beginning.
His close friend of 25 years, Mount Pleasant psychologist Viktoriya Magid, acted as interpreter for Stadnik as he told the Charleston City Paper his story of coming to the Holy City as a refugee of war.
First time in America
As he sat in the sunny Vintage Coffee Cafe in Mount Pleasant, Stadnik said he was still reeling from the massive change of scenery. He has never been to the United States before.
“It just feels to me like two different planets,” he said of Ukraine and America. “It’s a completely different life here. There’s no connection. There’s no intersection. It’s like I came into a different world. I have to adapt to this world now. I feel like I am two different people. It feels like the old me is still there [in Ukraine].
“I didn’t just say goodbye to everything when I came to the States — I had said goodbye to everything when I left for war in 2022,” he said.
Stadnik volunteered as a civilian soldier in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. He joined the country’s armed forces the following month and served until March 2023.
“I said goodbye to my mom, my friends, my skills, my things, my co-workers,” he said.
In his eyes, joining Ukraine’s military resistance was the only logical option.
“How could I live if someone else came to my country to tell me how to live?” he said. “I couldn’t live with that. This is my motherland. I’m a free man, and I will fight for my ability to make decisions. I had no choice, basically.”
A change of fate
Stadnik, 43, said his health started to deteriorate in January 2023 after fighting on the front lines for nearly a year. He lost consciousness intermittently, and his overall physical health was poor.
After he underwent a week of standard medical testing in February, Stadnik got his answer. Doctors discovered he had a cardiac event at some earlier point, he said.
The results of his electrocardiogram (EKG) indicated heart attack-related damage. Doctors said he should not continue as a soldier because the risks were too high. Stadnik was honorably discharged in March.
He called Magid for help. Within the next few months, she helped Stadnik secure a refugee status and completed paperwork with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to declare temporary support of Stadnik.
Now he is forming a new identity for himself as he settles down in Charleston. He is staying with Magid and her family.
“It is extremely difficult because all of my people, my comrades and friends, are still in danger,” he said. “It’s eating at me badly. But I have to live with it. It’s almost like I lost everything again a second time around, but unfortunately I am used to losing everything. On the one hand, it’s horrible and sad, but it’s something I’m familiar with.”
Magid said any American citizen can invite Ukrainian refugees to the country like she did for Stadnik.
“You don’t have to be a relative,” she said. “It’s a new law put in place about a year ago. You have to be an American citizen, and you have to be willing to assume financial responsibility for the individual or family for a few months.”
Adjusting to a new life
Since he landed in Charleston, Stadnik said the language barrier has been a struggle.
“I’m having to learn how to live all over again with different rules,” he said. “I feel like a kid a little bit.”
For him, adjusting to the peaceful environment has felt the most foreign. Stadnik said he first became a civilian soldier in 2014 during the start of the Donbas conflict in eastern Ukraine when Russian forces attempted to further infiltrate the country after seizing parts of the Crimean Peninsula. Also known as the Donbas war, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict has been active since 2014 and is now a part of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. Stadnik was wounded by an explosive in 2014, which he said may have contributed to his current heart condition.
“I’m not used to the atmosphere of a country where there is no war,” he said. “I’ve known war for eight or nine years now. It’s odd. It becomes a part of you when you live with war … You get used to it. I don’t remember what it’s like to live in a country without war.”
News reports aren’t telling him every morning who is dead, what areas have been destroyed and where the current bombings are, he said.
“I’m not used to looking at the news without that. I don’t know exactly how I feel. I feel lost and confused.”
Magid said she recently spoke with Stadnik’s mother Irina who just moved from Kherson to Dnipro, where it’s a little safer. Magid and Stadnik were both born in Kherson, which has been pounded in the war.
“The apartment Dimitri and his mom used to live in — a bomb got dropped on that building. Her neighbor survived and told her,” Magid said. “His mom said, ‘That’s the situation I’m dealing with right now. It’s constant. It’s like day to day you really don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
Magid’s friend Chase Paterno of Daniel Island, the general manager of the North Charleston location of Cintas Uniform Services corporation, offered Stadnik a production associate position that he will start in a few weeks. Paterno and his family gifted Stadnik a car as well. Next on the list is getting him a driver’s license. Magid has served as Stadnik’s translator since he arrived and is also looking into connecting him with English lessons through St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston.
“If I fit in here, I would love to stay here because I just don’t think that I have the mental and physical capacity to save my country again for the third time,” Stadnik said. “I’m just emotionally exhausted and physically worn out.”
Stadnik ended his story with a vivid picture: Cases of Molotov cocktails made by Ukrainian residents were left accessible on lawns so people could defend themselves.
“Ukraine will never surrender,” Stadnik said. “This nation, these people — if they can fight with homemade explosives — I can tell you that this country is never going to fall. It’s never going to give up. So please continue to support us and please continue to help us. And don’t forget about us, because we will be fighting until the last standing Ukrainian.”
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