From Ukraine to Lovell - A story of war and faith

Ryan Fitzmaurice

In the beginning days of February, CaMee Nichols woke up with a jolt.

She turned to her husband Travis in the early hours of the morning and spoke a sentence that would change their lives.

“I think there’s someone we can help in Ukraine,” Nichols said. “Let’s try it.”

The proposition might have seemed outlandish to most, but Travis said he’s long learned that when his wife has a gut feeling, there’s no questioning it. 

“She asked me what I thought, and I learned a long time ago, when my wife has a gut feeling, God is almost always involved,” he said. “That was kind of how it got started.”

More than six months later, Natalie and Dima Nerobeiev, and their 2-year-old child Ethan, sit safely in the Nichols’ Road Nine residence. The Ukranian refugees are safe and secure within the United States for at least the next two years. 

The story of the months in between is one of survival for the young couple after their country was unexpectedly ravaged by war and the efforts of the Nichols to get them to the United States by any and all means.

All due, in part, to a gut feeling.


Natalie and Dima grew up in South Ukraine in the Odessa area, boy the Black Sea. Dima grew up in Odessa while Natalie grew up just outside of it, in a smaller community.

“Odessa has a million people. It’s kind of big” Natalie said. “The city I grew up in is a smaller town. It’s 30 minutes south. It has 75,000 people, but you can walk around
it in an hour.”

Private housing is a privilege very few have in Ukraine, Natalie said. Most live in apartments, sharing compact spaces with many different people. 

“It’s one bedroom or two bedrooms for a family,” Natalie said. “I was growing up with my mom and my sister in an apartment. Very small rooms.”

Many of the apartment buildings, Dima said, including the ones he and Natalie grew up in, were constructed by the Soviet Union, and therefore nearly identical to each other. 

“They are Soviet Union buildings,” Dima said. “The new buildings have better planning and bigger kitchens and living rooms. But, it’s not like here.”

Natalie said there’s a popular comedic movie called “The Irony of Fate” from Soviet Union times where the main character, drunk, ended up confusing an apartment in a different city than his own, due to the apartments being identical in size and furniture.

Dima, older than Natalie, was born inside the Soviet system in 1985. “I remember lines in shops. I remember the Soviet shops with mean clerks,” Dima said. “They were very rude. That’s a real thing. I remember we would stay for hours in line with my mother to buy sausage, bread and milk.”

Upon the Soviet’s collapse, new markets began to establish themselves. The first supermarket in Odessa was built in 1995. In Natalie’s rural town outside Odessa, a supermarket wasn’t constructed until 2000.

“I remember in my area when there was a new supermarket where you can grab any of the items and go to the cashier,” Dima said. “Before that, you told the seller what you wanted, and she would get them. That new market was very popular. It was so new for us to go and grab what you want. I remember the first time.”

But, with a burgeoning free market came a black market taking advantage of the new system. After years of Soviet control, Ukraine faced years of instability, with crime syndicates often operating freely. 

“There were a lot of youths using drugs,” Dima said. “Many people are not alive because of drugs.”

Natalie said the instability lessened as the years went on, but there were tradeoffs.

“There weren’t as many criminals,” Natalie said. “Everyone settled down.”

“But, also the police became criminals,” Dima said. 

What took place after the Soviet Union system was a series of under the table exchanges. 

“You would bribe them, and they would cover you,” Natalie said. “People who did something illegal paid the police to protect them.”

This system was present in nearly every corner of the Ukraine economy.

Both Dima and Natalie worked within the health industry, Natalie as a nurse and Dima as a doctor. Both had small salaries, they said, as it was understood one relied on tips for income.

“You tip nurses, you tip assistants and you tip doctors. It’s very rude if you don’t,” Natalie said. “Everyone knows doctors have very small salaries, as does everyone in the medical field.”

Or, say you needed a government document. You could order it online, and it would be sent over. But, in order to receive it from the government official who had received it, one must hand over money personally.

“In any part of your life this is the system,” Dima said. “You have to give tips everywhere.”

“You shouldn’t have to pay,” Natalie said. “But, because their salary is so small, they cannot resist and they take. They will mess it up if you don’t.”

There were parts of life that were beautiful and good in Ukraine. Both Natalie and Dima talked about how much they missed the Black Sea.

“There was hiking. You could go to the sea. There was the beach, the parks. It’s a vacation spot, so theres’s a lot of night clubs, a lot of restaurants,” Dima said. “We have the city center with theater and opera. The opera in Odessa is one of the three best operas in Europe.

“It’s natural for any person to miss places.”

More than the vibrant city life though, it’s the people they miss the most. The compact nature of Ukraine living results in close relationships. 

“There’s different mentality between Ukraine and the United States. A part of that mentality is that you feel more close,” Natalie said. “When people ask you how are you, they actually mean it. They want to hear it. If they don’t want to hear it, they’re not going to ask you. Not everyone is a friend there, but friends are close.”

Dima and Natalie both worked in the same hospital, and caught each other’s eyes right away.

“She was a nurse in the surgical department, and I was a doctor in the surgical department,” Dima said.

“We liked to talk, and we were discussing books and movies and music, so it was interesting to spend time,” Natalie said. “But, I was the first one to write him to meet somewhere else outside the hospital.”

They began dating in 2015, and married in 2017. Five years later, they would be refugees. Neither saw it coming.


Russia and Ukraine were seen as kindred nations. Many Russians would travel to Ukraine for vacation, many Ukrainians would go to Russia for work. Natalie worked in Moscow for six months. Families often criss-crossed the borders.

“My grandmother is from Russia. My grandfather is from Belarus. They married in Russia and moved to Ukraine when I was 3 years old,” Natalie said. “Everybody has Russian relatives.”

On February 24, Natalie was woken up at 5 a.m. by an explosion. She had no idea that Russia had launched an invasion of Ukraine.

“I thought it was just some teenagers blowing up things,” Natalie said. 

Natalie began getting a flood of text messages from friends in Kiev and the United States telling her that she needed to flee Odessa, that the Russians were closing in. She didn’t believe them at first.

“I was angry at them. Why are you making me nervous?” Natalie recalled.

Already though, outside of Natalie and Dima’s apartment was a long line of cars trying to flee the city but standing still. A logjam had occurred with everyone leaving the city.

Across the street from their apartment was a military academy.

“We saw them preparing and making barricades,” Dima said.

“We saw soldiers lining up and preparing to march somewhere. And Dima said that if they were carrying guns, then it started,” Natalie said. “Usually they train every morning, but they don’t have guns.”

It didn’t take long after that for war to descend on Odessa. 

“There were explosions in different areas and armored cars started to drive the streets. The military was on the roof with their guns,” Dima said. “All the time we heard explosions. Sometimes we saw smoke somewhere. There were sirens all
the time.”

Natalie and Dima, trapped in the city, escaped to a bomb shelter.

There were ten sirens or more a day, according to Dima. 

“A bomb got into the apartment building,” Dima said. “The family died. The grandmother, mother and the child died. The father stayed alive. After that, people started to go to the shelter.”

That was the rhythm of life for the next week, Dima and Natalie rushing to the bomb shelter when the sirens blew, attempting to get food, clothing and other needs in between.

Weeks later, Dima said, the people still in Ukraine stopped using the bomb shelters, resigned to the constant sirens.

Natalie fled with Ethan in only a week, fearing for their safety. Dima, barred from leaving due to being an able-bodied male, would be trapped in Ukraine for six months.

“Of course, it was hard to say goodbye. It was very hard. For six months I didn’t see my wife and child.” Dima said. “Of course, it was hard.”

Natalie and Ethan made their way to Moldova, and learned that Germany would at least have documents that would allow her to re-establish herself elsewhere. With a one-way train ticket in hand, Natalie and her 2-year-old child started making the five day journey to Germany. 


Jentry Young had served an LDS Mission in Odessa just a few years before.

“We were very good friends with Jentry,” Natalie said. “We were having games. We were going with Jentry to ski ranges, to theatre, to different activities and parks. Jentry ate dinner in my mom’s apartment, too. He also knew my sister and my mom. We loved Jentry. He was really fun.” 

While she was making her way to Germany, Natalie received a call from her old friend.

“Jentry contacted me, and we started communicating,” Natalie said. 

Soon after, CaMee contacted Jentry, telling him about her gut feeling that the family needed to help somebody. Jentry instantly pointed them Natalie and Ethan’s way.

“He was super sad. He knew the Ukranian people. He had spent time there,” CaMee said. “He contacted Natalie three days (into her journey to Germany). She was starting to try and find somewhere to go. So at that point we just started researching everything and anything. I knew nothing about immigration. I knew nothing about visas.”

The Nichols knew who they wanted to help. They had no idea how.

“We had a mother and a 2-year-old child on the run, stranded in Europe,” Travis said. “How were we going to get them to safety?”

The Nichols, though, are a family of strong religious belief. They have taken leaps before.

“You learn when you run as far and fast as you can but come a mile or two short, there comes a time when suddenly you’re not breathing very hard, you feel power in your legs. There’s a water bottle waiting on the road just when you need it,” Travis said. “When you do it enough, you see it over and over and over.”

The Nichols were about to put that faith through a great test. 

Read conclusion of story in next week’s issue.