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Pursuit of Happiness: After life in Ukraine, Naples artist doesn’t take freedom for granted

Pursuit of Happiness: After life in Ukraine, Naples artist doesn’t take freedom for granted

EDITOR’S NOTE: We who were born in the U.S. take our freedoms, our opportunities, our education as a birthright. It is not always that way for others around the world. Today through Saturday we offer stories of people who came in search of something — and found it in the U.S., and specifically in Southwest Florida.

In 2001, Olena Kovtunenko found herself staring into an ethical abyss. Further, the TV station she had built in Marhanets, Ukraine  — learning how to write contracts, buying camera equipment, even designing studios and hiring reporters — was about to drop into it with her.

Kovtunenko was getting a clear and increasingly pointed message from the investors who had backed her: You will help elect our candidate with your coverage.

Olena — who has remarried and is now Olena Skiba — recalled her fears, harpies fluttering through her head, fanning her inner turmoil. Journalists were being killed in former Eastern bloc countries. She had two children at home. And she had a staff who trusted the judgment of this art teacher turned TV executive.

“For my journalists, I was a good leader. They knew that if I think it’s wrong I never will do it,” Skiba said. She was incredulous that the station’s owners would insist she support their candidate.

“I knew he was a mafia guy, that he’s not good for the town,” Skiba said. She confronted her bosses: “How do you do it? Do you have shame?”

The response was classic mafia marching orders: “We pay you good. It’s not your business,” Skiba recalled her bosses telling her.

For her, the craziness of the 1990s in her native country had turned menacing. In the end, she left it for the stability of a nation she felt would not be so vulnerable, so uncertain.

An art teacher becomes a TV exec

Today, living in Naples, Skiba has returned to her painting, and her family sounds like American Gothic: “We’re all so busy — to get us in one room at the same time is impossible,” she conceded, laughing at the idea of a family portrait.

She manages Gallery 104 for the Naples Art Association, and she and her husband are helping her son, Alex, move into his first home. Their daughter, Irene, works at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Life in America was the furthest thing from her mind when Skiba decided to parlay her art skills into building a museum in her country after the Soviet Union’s 1991 departure. She entered an investors’ shark-tank contest looking for entrepreneurial aptitude — and won.

The “investors” were former government operatives, the only people who still had money after the Soviet-operated bank had been looted, Skiba said.

“That mafia started to look for some smart people who could open some businesses,  because they had a lot of money but they didn’t know what to do (with it),” she explained.

The investors liked her talent for research, her carefully designed business plan and her determination. But they didn’t want her museum. They posed a surprise alternative offer: “How about a TV-radio company? Try.”

The challenge was intriguing; the salary was good for Skiba, who was bringing up her two children alone after the death of her husband. So during the 1990s, she built and served as executive director for two Ukrainian TV stations.

Skiba recalls both with pride: “I looked at a lot of TV companies and how they worked and their technology. Believe it or not, I bought cameras and all the equipment, which are even working now. It was high-tech at that time.”

She trained journalists who now work in Kiev and persuaded her daughter’s then-boyfriend to pick up a TV camera. He has since, she said, become one of the country’s best cameramen, working with its former president, Petro Poroshenko.

“I had never thought about a move. I had a good job. I had the children. I didn’t have any idea to go somewhere. I didn’t want to change my life completely like has happened,” she recalled.

She meets a boyfriend — and mafia pressure

Skiba had met a new boyfriend, Stan Skiba, while on a visit to Poland to videotape a vacation piece. He was American and spoke no Ukrainian. She spoke Ukrainian and knew no English. She remembers their first date, in Poland:

“My team, they told me, ‘Take a notebook, a pencil,’ and they got a dictionary for me,” she said, smiling broadly at the memory. “It was all dictionary and conversation with hands.”

But as the vice began to tighten from her employers, and Skiba’s relationship with Stan Skiba began to deepen, she knew things would have to change. Finally, even Stan was urging her: “Just quit.”  He offered to help her financially and to bring her and her 16-year-old son to the U.S.

“My daughter was 22. She was at the university, but my son was 16, a crazy age,” Skiba said.

Her family, however, thought she was the crazy one: “My mother, my brother told me, ‘What are you doing? You lost your job. You’re taking your kid,'” Skiba recalled. But Skiba would be able to hold her head up and keep her son from the political wilderness in her home country. Stan Skiba began processing visas for both of them.

He remembers forms, forms, forms. And fingerprints, fingerprints, fingerprints. It took two years to bring Olena and her son to the U.S.

“It’s a lot of documents and a lot of time,” he said. “But you’ve got to stay with it.”

Both say the application takes more patience than expertise, and they don’t sympathize with immigrants who enter illegally: “People who want to sneak across, that just doesn’t work,” Olena Skiba declared.

Immigrating adult children pose challenges

There were setbacks. The couple could not bring her daughter, Irene, who had turned 21 and still was a university student. But by 2008, said Olena Skiba, “I knew Putin was going to invade Ukraine.”

It happened six years later, enough time for Olena and Stan to get her daughter out of the country, if not to the U.S.

Their first hope was the Czech Republic. “My wife was flying over to meet her in Prague,” Stan recalled. “And then, a week before, the Czech Republic announced it is not taking foreign students any more.”

The three scrambled to find another place while her daughter still had her EU student visa. “We had to keep her in school,” Stan said. Irene eventually began doctoral studies in Wroclaw, Poland.

Eleven years after Olena Skiba’s arrival, Irene also was able to join them in the U.S.

Skiba has become a U.S. citizen, and her son has dual citizenship, which has its own Catch-22, the family learned.

“When he turned 18, we had to stop taking him back to visit the family in Ukraine. He’s eligible for the draft there, and they could pull him out at the airport,” Stan Skiba said.

A TV exec returns to art

“It was a cultural shock, but not in a bad way,” Olena Skiba said of her arrival in the U.S. As a Ukrainian, she had never seen black people. She was startled by the drug-sniffing dogs that prowled the old JFK arrival terminals. And she was dismayed by what she felt was her inadequate command of English.

“For the first year, I felt like I’m a small girl. I can do nothing. Like a dog. I understand everything but cannot explain. Sometimes between me and Stan there was a language barrier, because I had a very limited dictionary (vocabulary). I could (only) explain myself in a very strong way because I had not enough words to make it softer.”

Skiba would not go back to journalism with limited language skills. And of the media in the U.S., she said, “I was disappointed. I see a lot of people on TV, and they are just saying what they’re paid to say.

“I think there are not many real honest journalists left,” she said.

Within 16 years, however, things have fallen into place.

Skiba knew she could go back to art, and painting has become a big part of her life again; working at the Naples Art Association has reinforced that satisfaction.

She sees the rest of her life in her adopted country. “We love this country. We respect law, and this is a country of laws. They may change every few years, but they govern by laws here.”

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