Ukraine assistance program changes lives

Oleg and Oksana, their daughter Nastya, and twin boys Bohdan and Roman.

By Doug Lee, Rotary Club of Dixon, Illinois, USA

“Pajama Day?”

Since I’d “met” her in mid-October, Oksana had sent me hundreds of e-mails through Facebook Messenger. I’m pretty sure this was the first one that made me laugh out loud.

We’d just enrolled Oksana’s daughter Nastya in first grade at Washington School in Dixon, Illinois, and Nastya’s teacher had excitedly shared the schedule for the week ahead. When Oksana read Friday was Pajama Day, she was beyond perplexed.

In Ukraine, you see, schools don’t celebrate Pajama Day.

Just three weeks prior, on 22 November, Oksana, her husband Oleg, daughter Nastya, and twin three-year-olds Bohdan and Roman landed at O’Hare airport in Chicago. After the few hours it took us to navigate customs and drive to Dixon, they opened the door to their new apartment. It had been graciously donated by Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital and beautifully furnished and decorated by part of the team that formed to save two Ukrainian families from Russia’s brutal invasion.

Although I’m technically the family’s sponsor, there are 16 of us who have made this project possible. We call ourselves “Welcoming Ukrainians to Dixon,” and one of the younger members created a Facebook page under that name so the community can follow our work and offer support. So far, that support – in cash and in-kind donations – totals close to $50,000.

Starting point

Our community-based team (which includes several other members of the Rotary Club of Dixon, in addition to me) is just one model of how people who care can help those fleeing Ukraine. A family, for example, can open its home to a Ukrainian family. A few families can work together to create a safe haven for refugees. Rotary clubs, churches, and other clubs and organizations can include a welcoming project in their work.

While many models exist for assisting displaced Ukrainians, I can’t imagine a better starting point than Welcome.US, a nonpartisan American initiative to support refugees. Welcome.US has created the Welcome Connect platform to “match” Americans, including Rotarians, with Ukrainians who’ve been displaced by the war and are now hoping to come to the United States. Their website also provides all the resources and information a sponsor needs in order to get started. I completed my registration to become a sponsor on the evening of Columbus Day, 2022.; when I checked the site the next morning, I’d already received inquiries from the two families I ultimately sponsored. The guidance Welcome.US provides has been invaluable as our team has helped these two families settle in Dixon.

The government’s Uniting for Ukraine program works, and it works quickly. We obtained travel authorizations in eight days. On the day Oksana and her family arrived, the government dropped its requirement that Ukrainians obtain separate work permits, instead allowing travel authorizations to serve as work permits for individuals’ first 90 days.

Oleh and Viktoria

Five weeks after Oksana and her family arrived, we welcomed our second couple, Oleh and Viktoria. While our team’s work is far from done, we now occasionally catch our breath as the families acquire vehicles and explore more permanent housing. When we reflect, we marvel at our community’s generosity and how lovingly it has embraced our new friends. We smile at what we’ve helped accomplish in less than five months: jobs for Oleg, Oleh and Viktoria; a CDL class (with full scholarship) for Oleh; Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses; doctor and dentist visits; bank accounts; public aid; rental assistance; transportation near and far; cell phones, groceries and clothes; enrollment in school and dance lessons; YMCA memberships – even occasional nights out. We hug our old friends and family members a little tighter, realizing how foolish it is to take them for granted.  

Taxes and used cars  

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were at Viktoria and Oleh’s apartment helping them complete employment tax forms and reassuring them their new jobs would go well. The topic turned to vehicles, and we apologized for the sorry state of the local used-car market. Oleh then reassured us.

“Please do not worry,” he said, in his better-than-average English. “You are giving us safety. Nothing is more important than that.”

I nearly choked up as I realized the most important thing about our team’s to-do list wasn’t what was on it, but the love that inspires it. I recalled what I say to people who ask what this project means to me.

“I knew this project would change the families’ lives,” I tell them. “What I didn’t know is that it would change mine, too.”

8 thoughts on “Ukraine assistance program changes lives

  1. Pingback: Ukraine assistance program changes lives - Rotary Club of Medford Oregon

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