Fleeing war to find salvation in Fern Bay

The unprovoked Russian invasion of the Ukraine has horrified us all but for Ukrainian expats like Inna and Yurii Chuchenko, daily reports from the warzone are especially traumatic.  


On 3 March, as Inna prepared for bed in Phuket, Thailand, she got on her knees and prayed.  

A few months prior the couple had used their life savings to open a travel business aimed at Russian-speaking tourists in Thailand. COVID-19 travel restrictions had begun easing and they were confident of success. Unfortunately, as the situation in Eastern Europe began to deteriorate people again bunkered down at home and Inna and Yurii’s business collapsed before it could become established.  

Because the business failed, the Thai government refused to renew Inna and Yurii’s visa which was just weeks away from expiring. Meanwhile, their family was pleading with them not to return home to Kiev as it was too dangerous.  

Inna, who was five months pregnant at the time, had suffered three heartbreaking miscarriages in the two years prior. That night she spoke to God, and asked God to lead the way. The next day she received a message from a stranger in Australia via Instagram that would change her and Yurii’s life. What happened next, she described to Aurora as a ‘miracle’.  

“I hope you and your family and husband are safe Inna. Please know that we are very happy to provide any help you and your husband need,” Mark Chapple wrote in a message to Inna on Instagram.  

The pair had never met before, but after seeing reports of the atrocities unfolding in Kiev, Mark felt compelled to offer assistance.  

The agricultural worker lives in the Newcastle suburb of Fern Bay with his wife, Jenni. In 2016 he visited Ukraine as part of a work trip and was struck by the kindness of its citizens. Over several months he made connections with people he met in person and via public profiles on Instagram.  

Following the invasion, Mark reached out to about 25 of those people on social media to offer his support.

“Jenni and I had been watching the stories on the news, and felt compelled to do something,” Mark said. 

In the days that followed Mark assisted by connecting some Ukrainians with their fellow citizens who were able to provide transport, temporary housing and welfare checks on loved ones. It was a noble gesture from a person on the other side of the world that made a difference to the lives of many. 

Mark then received a response from Inna. Initially he was unaware that she and her husband had relocated to Thailand. When he visited the Ukraine, Inna was a well-known public figure, having worked as a television presenter. At some stage they began to ‘follow’ each other on Instagram, publicly commented on each other’s posts, but never privately messaged or built a genuine connection.  

Despite this, Mark was eager to assist anyone he could who was suffering due to the war.  His message of compassion could not have arrived at a better time.  

In their initial exchanges Inna conveyed to Mark her concern for her family.  

“Relatives and friends in Ukraine are in basements. We are very worried. Pray for Ukraine,” she wrote.  

Mark and Jenni began speaking to Inna and Yurii via Facetime.  

The two couples, from opposite sides of the world, quickly forged a connection that transcended language barriers and provided a sense of hope for the desolate Ukrainians.  

Within one week of their first exchange, Inna and Yurii had accepted an offer from Mark and Jenni to help bring them to Australia.  

With Inna and Yurii’s Thailand visa soon to expire, the Australian couple knew they were working against the clock.  

“I have spoken with the office of our Deputy Prime Minister,” Mark wrote to the couple. “There is a pathway for you to come to Australia on a humanitarian visa which also gives you an option for permanent residency if you wish…we are prepared to support you in this process - this will help you both.” 

Mark and Jenni nominated themselves as sponsors for Inna and Yurii, and Yurii’s visa application was approved within hours. However, Inna’s pregnancy meant that she had to undertake various biometric screenings that caused significant delays to her application.  

While Mark lobbied government officials on Inna’s behalf, Jenni reached out to Newcastle community groups on social media, requesting antenatal support for when the expectant mother arrived.  

“I was contacted by a midwife who said she would be happy to provide support, and that she knew a Russian-speaking obstetrician who was also willing to assist,” Jenni said. “I felt like I’d won the lottery, tears were rolling down my face knowing that we had invited them into a community that was so willing to support them.” 

On the 25 March, Inna and Yurii arrived in Sydney where they were greeted with open arms by Mark and Jenni who at first did not recognise the weary couple. 

Reflecting on the remarkable journey that led them here, Inna said, “When God shows you the way, you just follow it.”  

Mark and Jenni, who combined have eight children and 15 grandchildren, said their family had been incredibly supportive of their efforts to bring Inna and Yurii to Australia.  Mark’s daughter and son-in-law Lauren and Michael Cousens, who are of similar age to Yurii and Inna, and live only a few streets away, had no hesitation to open their home for them.

As Easter approached, and following Inna’s 20-week ultrasound, the couple were handed an envelope containing the baby’s gender. The envelope remained closed and handed to Jenni. On Easter Sunday, and with Jenni leading the way, the Chapple & Cousens households arranged a ‘gender reveal party’.  

“It’s a girl,” Jenni shared with excitement. Inna and Yurii became emotional as a flurry of pink confetti and the love of their newly adopted family surrounded them.     

Following the gender reveal, Inna and Yurii decided they will name the baby Alice. 

Yurii explained they took inspiration from one of his favourite books, Alice in Wonderland.  

“It’s a story filled with lots of craziness and unexpected twists and turns, which is not unlike our life- particularly these past few months.” 

While the couple still faces a long process to make their stay here permeant and continue to fear for the safety of their loved ones in Ukraine, for now they are embracing the chance to call Australia home.   

“There are so many opportunities in Australia, everywhere we look there are possibilities,” he said.  

The former participant on Ukraine’s Masterchef says he does not know any other Ukrainians currently living in Australia and is keen to share his experiences here with people back home.  

“Mark and his sisters, Nerida & Annelie have property in Quirindi and so we have visited there a few times and really enjoy it,” Yurii said.  

“It seems like a lot of Australians do not like the idea of living in smaller country towns, but to me, they have everything you need to build a happy life for a family. I was so surprised to see that even in the smallest of towns there are medical centres and libraries, it’s amazing and so different to home.  

Jenni, who works for a specialised homeless service in Newcastle supporting people experiencing homelessness, said they felt blessed to have had Inna and Yurii enter their lives. 

“Despite it appearing like a spur of the moment decision, we have never questioned our decision to bring Inna and Yurii to Australia and welcome them into our family.” 

“It was easy to do, it’s been an enriching experience,” Mark added. 

The successful outcome with Inna and Yurii has only strengthened Mark and Jenni’s resolve to help other Ukrainians seeking to flee the war. After recently seeing a couple with a young child post a desperate plea for support and guidance on an online forum, they reached out again. 

As with Inna and Yurii, Mark and Jenni assisted the family with their visa applications. As Aurora went to print, the family had just arrived in Australia with only hand luggage in tow.

At 10.00pm on the 25th May, and following a 30-hour journey from Sofia, Bulgaria, Volodymyr, Julia and daughter Daneliia emerged from the arrivals gate at Sydney Airport. Mark and Yurii were there to greet them. True to their goal to always help others, Mark and Jenni intend to share their home with the refugees for “as long as they need”.  


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Lizzie Watkin Image
Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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