A little over a year ago, Liudmyla Yakovenko was living in the Ukranian city of Cherkasy, three hours southeast of Kyiv, when the air raid sirens went off.
She called her husband, a chef in Albuquerque, in a panic. For four years she had been working on immigrating to America, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost a year ago, pressed the issue.
“My wife had been stuck in Ukraine for four years,” said Marc Anthony Salazar. “And I needed a huge intervention.”
The intervention came from Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., whose office worked on behalf of Yakovenko, who fled to Romania in the early days of the war. On Tuesday, Salazar and Yakovenko attended the State of the Union address as Stansbury’s guests.
He called Stansbury the couple’s “lifeline.”
“Everybody was scrambling, everybody was scrambling for safety and trying to come up with a life-saving plan,” he said. “I think we’re fortunate. But there’s a lot of families out there. … If Melanie (Stansbury) wouldn’t have intervened at the time the war started, there wasn’t a clear path.”
Stansbury said some of her office’s work included getting the needed documents to the American Embassy in Romania and streamlining the immigration process because of the emergency situation.
Salazar made several trips back and forth to Romania to see his wife.
Three months after Stansbury’s office intervened, Yakovenko arrived in America, where she has settled into life in Albuquerque. She’s growing fond of local customs — green chile, Dion’s pizza and watching prairie dogs off the interstate.
The couple has been married for four years after meeting as part of Salazar’s work training and mentoring chefs for a Ukrainian hotel company.
Yakovenko’s parents and sister with children still live in Ukraine.
“They have everything in Ukraine. It’s not easy to change all (of your) life,” she said. “I was alone in Ukraine. I was preparing to go to America for four years. … It was hard for me, but I was prepared.”
A trained gynecologist, Yakovenko plans to work on perfecting her English before trying to get licensed here.
When she was a little girl, Yakovenko said she had a recurring dream about the White House in America. She gazed at the building in person on Monday, and on Tuesday was going to watch the president speak before Congress.
Part of the reason Stansbury chose the couple as her guests was to show that America continues to stand with the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian government.
And, the congresswoman said, because it’s a great love story.
“It’s a story of love and resilience, and the triumph of the human spirit in a time of war,” she said.
Other guests invited by New Mexico’s delegation
My special guest for President Biden’s State of the Union address tonight is Charlene Bencomo, Executive Director of @BoldFutures. pic.twitter.com/NpRdBPAsOP
— Martin Heinrich (@MartinHeinrich) February 7, 2023
I'm so excited to welcome Carrie-Leigh Cloutier as my guest from Nuevo Mexico for #SOTU2023.
Carrie-Leigh does amazing work every day for abused and neglected children with CASA. ¡Bienvenidos! pic.twitter.com/Wue8k7e9Mj
— Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (@RepTeresaLF) February 7, 2023
During my first district visit, I visited the Gillis Farm in Arrey. They’ve been farming the Hatch Valley for generations and continue the legacy of agriculture in NM-02. As a member of the Ag committee, I’m excited to announce that Dale Gillis will be my #SOTUAddress guest! pic.twitter.com/JySHJhHnNT
— Rep. Gabe Vasquez (@RepGabeVasquez) February 7, 2023