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From a war zone to suburban America: Chronicling the journey of Ukrainian refugees

Ukrainian refugees start new life in Florida
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Posted at 5:24 AM, Aug 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 09:36:24-04

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — The mass exodus out of war-torn Ukraine is never-ending. According to UNICEF, "three million children inside Ukraine and over 2.2 million children in refugee-hosting countries are now in need of humanitarian assistance."

There is no end to the Russian invasion launched on Feb. 24.

So many Ukrainian families are desperate to escape and protect their children.

Recently, the U.S. launched the Uniting for Ukraine program. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it "provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members who are outside the United States to come to the United States and stay temporarily in a two-year period of parole. Ukrainians participating in Uniting for Ukraine must have a supporter in the United States who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in the United States."

AMERICAN SPONSORS

Sponsoring Ukrainians fleeing war can be a difficult and scary process. But, some Americans, like the husband and wife team Kelli and Lee Stuart, took the plunge.

During college, Kelli Stuart studied abroad in Kyiv. She minored in Russian and traveled across Ukraine interviewing World War II survivors for her book, "Like a River From Its Course."

She made friends in Ukraine and fell in love with the people. When the war broke out, she told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska that she contacted an American missionary to help her find an orphan she had sponsored years ago. That communication led to something the Stuart family didn't plan. The missionary reached out a few weeks later.

"And she said, 'there's this family of eight from the town of Kiliya that's now at a refugee center here in Romania. They're looking to come to the United States. Do you know of anyone that can help them?'" Kelli Stuart recounted. "And at first we were like, well, not us, we can't help eight people. But then we talked with the pastor at our church and just felt like, well, why not us? These are people that need help, and why not us?"

The Stuarts are already a family of seven. But they felt that they could make it happen with their community's help.

"It was overwhelming and daunting and scary. But our church (Church at Odessa) really partnered with us," Kelli Stuart said. "And so we just started fundraising to be able to support eight people. And that's kind of how we got connected with this family. And since then, we've built a relationship with them over Facebook. And we're looking forward to meeting them face to face and getting them here."

Her husband Lee began communicating with the family via Facebook, sharing pictures and getting to know them. 

"In talking to them, you know, it does get emotional because you see it on their faces. And, you know, they're very proud people who love their country," Lee Stuart said. 

"And we think, what if it were us? I mean, who's to say we won't be the next people with missiles pointed at our heads?" Kelli Stuart asked. "And, what would we want the world to do for us? And so it's just a matter of saying yes. Even if it's scary."

The church and community members raised thousands of dollars to support the family when they arrived in America. A lifeline of donations the Stuart family needed to sponsor them because they are required by the program to declare they would financially support the refugees.

"They've been stuck in the in-between for a little while. And I think they're tired. They are nervous. They're scared about this next step, but I think they're just ready not to be floundering in the in-between," Kelli Stuart said. "They've lost everything."

They were able to rent a home for all eight to live under one roof. For several weeks Kelli and Lee, along with dozens of community members, put in a lot of sweat equity to get the house fixed up.

"I think that it's a blessing for our family, our children who are getting to participate in this process," Kelli Stuart said. "We didn't know about the difficulties facing immigrants and refugees, and we didn't know. And even for us to learn and expand our understanding and our ability to empathize and sympathize with people coming into our country just looking for safety. So that's a gift that not only we're able to offer, but it's a gift to us to learn and grow in our own lives. So we're grateful."

On July 20, six of the eight Ukrainians landed in Tampa and then walked through the front door of their new home. 

Kelli Stuart translated our interview with Snejana Kurbanova, who arrived with her husband Viktor and three children, Roman, 14, Mylana, 11, and Katalin, 3. 

The children's grandpa Misha Horytsia arrived without his wife, Pasha. And, Snejana's sister Gloria Horytsia also remains in Ukraine. Both are approved for travel but waiting on updated passports.

For several years Snejana said the family tried to come to America; in a matter of days and a whirlwind journey, they were here.

"It was shock," Snejana said after Paluska asked how she felt seeing her new home.

"She said they were just amazed," Kelli Stuart said. "They were surprised they weren't expecting this. It's like a whole new world."

Days after the invasion began, Snejana said the family left for Romania. At night the sights and sounds of war filled the sky, their home shaking as the missiles hit their targets on the ground.

"She and the kids were just exhausted because the sirens were always going off, so they couldn't sleep during the day. They weren't able to sleep at night. All the stores closed down, so they couldn't get anything to eat," Stuart translated. "They were sleeping in their clothes because they'd have to go downstairs as soon as they heard the sirens, and she just decided this was no way to live. So they decided they weren't going to stay."

There are ways Americans can help. 

We interviewed Sylvia Acevedo, the Senior Director of Refugee and Employment Services of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.

Acevedo said they're the busiest they've ever been, not just resettling Ukrainians but refugees from all over.

"We started thinking we would resettle 300 refugees this year, and then Afghanistan happened. And we ended up resettling another 240 people from Afghanistan, in addition to the refugees we resettled. And then we have seen an increase in Ukrainians. We have about 100 individuals. And if I include North Port, Florida, (a total of) 150 individuals who approached us and are getting assessed for services."

Last year Acevedo said they resettled 70 refugees; this year, they are already at 700.

"We've doubled our staff. We've brought on new volunteers. We have done a lot of fundraising to help support refugees' needs. And so we're able to serve them," Acevedo said.

If you want to help, you can always sponsor someone or help with donations. But, Acevedo urges everyone to contact them to avoid scams.

"If you have anyone that that is watching your program that is interested in sponsoring a family, they can get in touch with us, and we can put them in touch with the folks that are in D.C., who are matching up potential sponsors with families who need sponsors," Acevedo said. "And we're keeping a close eye on that sponsor relationship and the dynamic between the sponsor and the beneficiary to make sure that the sponsorship relationship doesn't break down or becomes one that involves exploitation."

Acevedo hopes all Americans welcome and help assimilate these refugees into society.

"We all know that refugees adapt quickly and that the community is here with open arms to help, and that's what's gonna make their integration a success," Acevedo said.

The Ukrainian family in Pasco County is excited to start their new life. The kids will be starting school, while the adults start their search to find jobs.

They hope to remain in America and become U.S. citizens.

"She doesn't want Americans to be afraid of sponsoring Ukrainians because there are so many families like her own with children that would like to leave," Kelli Stuart translated. "And, she understands how difficult it is to sponsor, and that's a big ask. But, she would like Americans to share their lives with Ukrainians and how we've been able to do that with this family."

While looking at pictures, Kelli Stuart told Paluska she couldn't imagine life without the new family placed into their lives.

"We want people to know that as Americans, I don't consider ourselves saviors in any way whatsoever. We were doing what was placed before us. We just had this opportunity and took it; it felt risky and scary, but it's been incredibly rewarding for us because they are amazing," Kelli Stuart said.

"We love them. We love to be with them. We've spent almost every day with them since they got here, and we are so grateful. I think for our children, it has been a good perspective to understand that life is hard for many people, and we are blessed. We are privileged here in America, so what we do with that matters. I want people to know that we don't consider ourselves — like we just did what was placed in front of us, and we were scared and had to take a risk."

Refugees from Ukraine.
From left to right: Viktor Kurbanov holding his son Katalin with his wife Snejana standing next to her daughter Mylana, and son Roman with grandpa Misha Horytsia on the end.