For the second time in eight years, violence has forced Anatolii and Olena from their home in Ukraine.
The couple fled unrest in the Donbas region in 2014, moving to Kharkiv, the country’s second most populous city. Then after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, they fled to the Netherlands, where they’re staying in cramped quarters with Anatolii’s sister and two children.
Their new home could soon be in St. Tammany Parish. A Lacombe-based church, the North Shore Unitarian Universalists, is sponsoring the couple and another woman, Alena, and will provide housing, transportation, food and other essentials for at least one year.
‘Trying to make a life’
Anatolii, 28, and Olena, 31, who are married, are scheduled to arrive in September and live in a furnished home in Lacombe provided by the church. Alena, 26, is set to arrive from Italy on Aug. 31 and will also live in the three-bedroom home. (Their last names are not published here, for their security while still abroad.)
“They’re all young people, trying to make a life for themselves,” said Gay DiGiovanni, co-chair of the church’s Family Relief Project.
The move was made possible by United with Ukraine, a program that matches Ukrainians with US sponsors and helps them apply for a 90-day travel authorization.
“We got to know their situation, and we just kept communicating. It seemed like a good fit,” DiGiovanni said.
Partners in aid effort
Navigating the waters of sponsoring a family wrecked by war is challenging. The church has been working closely with Kryla, a New Orleans-based organization that aids refugees displaced by the war. Oksana Nimkevych, a Ukrainian American physician who has been living in the US for more than 20 years, helped launch the organization when the war began.
For her, leading humanitarian initiatives for Ukrainians is deeply personal. Her brother is still in Ukraine, along with thousands of other military-age men who must stay behind to fight.
“Bombing is everyday. The sirens go off four times a day,” she said.
Unlike Nimkevych’s brother, Anatolli was granted permission to leave Ukraine because his mother was ill. Three weeks ago, she died in the Netherlands.
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Nimkevych estimated there are 50 to 60 Ukrainian refugees living across the New Orleans area, and he predicts that number will rise. Catholic Charities of New Orleans is the official resettlement agency for immigrants and refugees, providing case management, legal aid and other resources, but it already has heavy caseloads, DiGiovanni said.
The Unitarian church is partnering not only with Kryla but with Family Promise of St. Tammany, a nonprofit that serves homeless families. Executive Director David Horchar said the organization has agreed to help the refugees with essential services, such as obtaining food stamps and health care. “This is uncharted territory for us. But we will help any way we can,” he said. Family Promise also has a day center staffed with caseworkers who can assist with job searches and résumés.
Settling in humid, flood-prone communities along the Gulf Coast was not a random decision. “The people (who) have been arriving are mostly relatives or friends of somebody who knew somebody,” Nimkevych said.
At one Kryla event, Nimkevych met a mother and son who, after fleeing Ukraine, moved in with a distant cousin they had never met. “She invited them to stay with her, even though they only knew each other through social media and hadn’t met a day in their lives. She was the one who actually insisted and bought them their flight tickets,” Nimkevych said.
At another Kryla event, DiGiovanni met Dmytro and Tetiana Yamnichenko, refugees who have been living with their 1-year-old daughter, Emiliia, near Pearl River since June. Dmytro asked DiGiovanni if she and the church would sponsor his 26-year-old sister-in-law, Alena, who escaped to Italy and has been living there for months. DiGiovanni agreed after weeks of email exchanges.
Now the church is preparing for Alena, Anatolii and Olena’s arrival, stocking cabinets, furnishing the house and making it comfortable, but they still need help with other expenses.
“We’ve taken the time to get things in place,” DiGiovanni said. “We’ve got a budget and goals about what we want to do. The government is also offering a lot of training to help us attune to their mental health needs following all the trauma they went through.”