How one Ukrainian family is adjusting to life in Minnesota, one year after Russian invasion
MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the first Ukrainian families to arrive in Minnesota is reflecting on their journey in light of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. This comes as one Minnesota nonprofit said it's still in need of sponsors to help more Ukrainians trying to escape.
Vadym and Liubov Holiuk along with their three daughters, 11-year old twins Anastasiia and Alisa and 2.5-year-old Anita became the first family sponsored through Alight to arrive in Minnesota last September. WCCO News was there at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as they stepped off the plane, greeted with signs and balloons from their sponsors Mark and Sharon Norlander of Brooklyn Park.
"We didn't know what we should expect from landing here and how everything will go on after that, but then we met the Norlanders and it was fine," the Holiuks said. "[When our] youngest daughter Anita, got off the plane she saw Mark he was playing with her already at the airport."
"You're a little bit nervous, but it's very exciting at the same time and it makes everything real in a positive way and also in a negative way, that you're seeing the faces of people who had to flee their country because they live in the eastern part that was being bombed," the Norlanders said.
The Holiuks are one of 35 family here from Ukraine with the help of sponsors through Minneapolis-based nonprofit Alight.
Once Alight pairs sponsors with a family, they usually have a couple of months to fundraise and prepare, but because timing, the Norlanders had to move faster than expected.
"We thought that we'd have two months to get ready to find a house, choose a school, get it furnished and we actually just had four days so we quickly cleaned the upstairs for a house and then Mark and I moved to the downstairs basement," said Mark and Sharon.
The Holiuks initially lived with the Norlanders when they arrived where they spent a lot of time getting to know each other and taking turns cooking meals and exploring Minnesota together.
"We're empty nesters and it was really nice to have our house so full, but it didn't feel full," said Sharon. "It just felt full of love and it was really wonderful to go to bed at night and downstairs to hear the little toddler running around the kitchen and living room upstairs and just to be able to walk into the living room and work on a jigsaw puzzle with the twins or learn to play a game, [or] go for a walk. There was just plenty of love to go around."
Since then, the Holiuks moved into their new home about a half a mile away from the Norlanders, but the two families said they see each other often and they've become life-long friends.
"Even now when we tell her Mark is coming, [Anita] is standing at the window and waiting for Mark," the Holiuks said of their youngest daughter Anita's bond with their sponsor Mark.
The Holiuks said they're adjusting well to life in Minnesota and their twins love school. Vadym recently found a job and Liubov is currently working to get her driver's license with help from Mark.
"It was a hard decision for us," said Vadym and Liubov. "It was really hard to be so far from home, but we are happy that we found our second family here the Norlanders and they are making it better. We cannot say anything bad [about people in Minnesota] because we met a lot of helpful people. They were always asking how they can help us. They found us clothing and they helped us and even asked us if we needed anything."
Alight said it's currently helping another 35 families come to Minnesota and while the nonprofit has about 100 sponsor groups, but leaders said they're seeing an overwhelming number of Ukrainians looking to leave and waiting for a sponsor help them do so.
"We are not seeing that war end right now so there are going to be continued needs and continuing to spread that word that sponsors can create that pathway to safety," said Steph Koehne, the private sponsorship lead at Alight.
Becoming a sponsor is both a time and financial commitment.
"It definitely is a time commitment, but what we've seen is that allows for just transformative experiences to happen for both the sponsor and the family and so being able to build out a support system that the sponsor can truly build out the experience as they arrive and make sure that that family is connected to key support services," Koehne said.
Sponsors working with Alight are recommended to fundraise anywhere between $5,000-$10,000 to help provide families with about three months of support – everything from temporary housing, buying food and clothing, signing up for Social Security, getting their driver's license and more.
Koehne said what sponsors get in return is priceless.
"This is a true opportunity to be able to be part of that system that offers that opportunity for a family to come and to make your community, your neighborhood, your home the welcoming place for a family is just life changing," Koehne said.
The Norlanders said the outpouring of support from the community made fundraising efforts to help the Holiuks very easy and they've gained a lot from becoming sponsors.
"I think we were just trying to create a sense of normalcy that they could realize that they are safe here and this temporary home for them is somewhere where they could feel welcomed and accepted and loved," they said. "Realize that it is going to disrupt your life and there are sacrifices involved but the disruption is going to be one of the most wonderful disruptions you've ever had."
As far as returning to Ukraine when it's safe, the Holiuks said "time will tell."
"We cannot say anything for now because now it's totally unsafe to go back there, and we're not sure that we have a place for us to return, so it's a hard question for us, [but] we'll see," the Holiuks said.
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