The most popular theory of the Ukrainian flag design, a banner of a vibrant yellow band under a bright blue band, is that it represents the typical sight of endless fields of wheat under a blue sky. The following is not a story of blue skies over fields of wheat. This is a story of a slight but powerful woman, energized, resilient, a world traveler, a baker, a businesswoman, an asylee from an industrialized city, and above all, a mother who would do anything to provide freedom and safety for her children.
With a stack of photos in one hand and a gorgeous vanilla frosted fruit- cake in the other Inna Stetsenko greeted me with a large smile. “Sorry I could not have you come to my home, my children are having a sleepover!” The photos are the only physical remnants left of a flourishing restaurant that Inna and her husband owned in Donetsk, an industrial city of almost a million people in Eastern Ukraine. Their successful restaurant was named Sky, where Inna baked all desserts fresh daily.
Her mother a professional chef, Inna learned of her own aptitude and passion for making sweet pastry at a young age. “I tried to bake something at ten and I thought to myself, I like to do this. I read all the books and magazines and anything I could find. You know we didn’t have access to Internet because of communism, so I couldn’t look up recipes this way. But then when we finally could use Internet, it was too expensive in my country.” Inna is referring to December 1, 1991, the day when Ukraine voted for independence, after the fall of the USSR. That day, her home country became recognized globally as an independent state, and free information exchange, including the Internet, became available.
While Inna is rightfully skilled at baking more traditional Russian -Ukrainian pastry spreads; -including sweet fruit piroshky (baked or fried stuffed buns) and Napoleon torte (layer cake with puff pastry dough), she prefers to bake a variety of international inspired treats tweaked and perfected with her own personal twist. Today Inna’s éclairs, coconut macaroons, stollen, peach strudel, and pastry puffs are confectionary proof of her creativity, and globe-trotting culinary investigations, including European vacations with her husband.
Fresh, high quality and real ingredients, baked all from scratch, another trademark of Inna’s baking, is what made Sky restaurant a success. This trademark is also, unfortunately, what made their family business a target for corrupt persecution several years ago.
Inna describes the circumstance that led her family to flee Donetsk in 2012, just six months before civil war broke out in the region: “When you start a business and you are successful and other people see it, they want it for themselves. We were doing so well. We wanted to open other locations in the city. There was so much corruption. We can’t solve these problems, and they started to entreat our family. But these people wanted to be owners. But our names were on the papers of the restaurant. Because we lived in post-communist country, people and the government don’t like personal businesses so much. “
In Eastern Ukraine, growing corruption began to pervade both religious and political sectors. The negative influence of this invasive extortion on such varied levels within society became impossible to confront or challenge.
“Every day these people were coming to our house, knocking on our door telling us we have to sign papers off to someone else. It was so scary.”
Donetsk is the unofficial capital of the region closest to Russia, now known as the “lawless city”, where Inna’s parents and older sister still live. The Donetsk People’s Republic, the Russian separatist organization in Ukraine, controls this now half empty city. -Bombs and executions are common occurrences. “Every time I call my family, they say there is more attacks. Nothing good is going on in this place,” she tells me in a whispered tone.
The couple chose to come to the US with what savings they had, and their then three children to seek asylum status, in hopes that their family would one day belong in their new country. “Everyone in the US is an immigrant. Many people will understand how we started. Everyone is from somewhere else. Anyone can come to the US and can become an American. But in other countries, you will never be equal.”
Seeking asylum is both complex and stressful. Without authorization to work, to take English classes or apply for any sort of assistance, the process is neither short nor guaranteed. Applications can take a year or longer. Inna’s story proved to be more complicated than she expected, as she found out immediately after coming to the US that she was pregnant with her fourth child. “ It was so crazy, I didn’t think it was really happening, and we had such big stress. We didn’t have insurance or ever understand what people were saying and I knew it cost so much to go to the hospital to have a baby.”
Her husband now works day and overtime for Uber, so Inna can stay at home with their four children, the youngest being only two and a half years old. ” I want to make sure they have enough love,” she genuinely stated. She bakes when commissioned to by a Greek restaurant in Renton, a connection she made after her 6 week training and apprenticeship experience with Project Feast. And when not at home, she has been busy attending Ventures’ Business Development Training. This Seattle based organization holds the mission to empower future aspiring entrepreneurs with limited financial resources, like Inna, through micro-enterprise training and access to capital. Both she and her husband have high hopes of opening another bakery café, this time in Seattle.
Before we part ways, I thank her for sharing her story and ask how her children feel about their very changed lives. After assuring me that they are each adjusting in their own way, she adds, “There’s something our children just don’t understand. We have done this all for them.”
To commission Inna for pastries please contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.