Medill Newsmakers: Ukrainian refugees adjust to America, advocate for Ukraine

Ukrainians and others supporters in Chicago protest Russia's invasion. (Seth Humeniuk/MEDILL)

By Seth Humeniuk
Medill Reports

As the war in Ukraine rages on, millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country. Many have made their way to Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, where a thriving community of Ukrainians has stepped up to help them adjust to life in America. Despite all the challenges they face in the U.S., speaking up for Ukraine remains a top priority for Ukrainian refugees.

Transcript

[INTRO VIDEO PLAYS]

Seth Humeniuk: HELLO! AND WELCOME TO MEDILL NEWSMAKERS! I’M YOUR HOST, SETH HUMENIUK. AS THE WAR FOR UKRAINE RAGES ON, STAGGERING NUMBERS OF UKRAINIANS HAVE BEEN FORCED TO FLEE THEIR COUNTRY. THE U.N. HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION ESTIMATES CLOSE TO 7 MILLION PEOPLE HAVE FLED UKRAINE SINCE RUSSIA INVADED IN FEBRUARY. OFFICIAL COUNTS OF UKRAINIAN REFUGEES IN THE U.S. ARE HARD TO COME BY, BUT ONE EXPERT I TALKED TO SAYS SEVERAL THOUSAND HAVE MADE THEIR WAY TO CHICAGO’S UKRAINIAN VILLAGE, WHERE A THRIVING UKRAINIAN COMMUNITY HAS STEPPED UP TO HELP THEM ADJUST TO LIFE IN AMERICA. STILL, ADAPTING TO A NEW COUNTRY AND CULTURE WHILE TRYING TO MAINTAIN THEIR UKRAINIAN IDENTITY IS A CHALLENGE FOR MANY UKRAINIAN REFUGEES. ROMANA BAHRII FLED UKRAINE DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF THE WAR WITH HER MOTHER, BUT HER FATHER WAS FORCED TO STAY BEHIND AND FIGHT. SHE TOLD ME HOW SHE ESCAPED UKRAINE AND SOME OF THE CHALLENGES SHE’S FACED IN THE U.S.

Romana Bahrii: I used to work as a doctor in Kyiv, and February 26, my flat and was bombed by the explosion of the Russian invasion. And I lost my job. It was so dangerous and unsafe in the Ukraine, and I was strongly recommended to escape the war and leave Kyiv as fast as possible. I decided to come directly to the border. So, I traveled by the track, and we went to the Hungarian border. We waited there for two days in the border to cross this one, and finally, we did it. We got to the Hungary. But I should tell the trials that the life in Hungary and in Europe is too expensive for Ukrainian people. So, together with my mom, I continue on my trip to Mexico because I perfectly know that life in Mexico is cheap, cheap enough for Ukrainian people. After some times, the U.S. government gave us an opportunity to go here. I asked my mom if it’s good for her to go to U.S. because we know that the U.S. is too expensive and very complicated, and it would be so courageous to cross the Mexican-U.S. border. After that waiting, we went to the border. We’re told that we are Ukrainian refugees, we need humanitarian parole, please give it to us. We really don’t have ability to live in Mexico, please support us. And I’m so grateful for U.S. government. They really help us and give such ability to live in the U.S. I came here with one backpack, without nothing. I have nothing really. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have clothes. I had some summer clothes, which a Mexican family gave me to live in Mexico. And also, you know, it’s so difficult to start new life without nothing. I don’t have work authorization, and I still didn’t find the work. But volunteering, volunteering centers helped me so much, and the church helped me so much. So, I hope I will get, I will be able to get my work authorization as fast as possible. And continue on my work and to get some money and support my family and support all people who are in Ukraine.

Humeniuk: MANY IMMIGRANTS LIKE ROMANA DON’T HAVE WORK AUTHORIZATION, A PLACE TO LIVE OR A COMMAND OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE WHEN THEY FIRST ARRIVE IN THE U.S. SELFRELIANCE ASSOCIATION IS THE FIRST PLACE THEY USUALLY GO FOR HELP. FOUNDED IN 2020, SELFRELIANCE IS DEDICATED TO PROVIDING UKRAINIANS THE INFORMATION, PROFESSIONAL CONSULTATIONS AND SKILLS TRAINING NEEDED TO ADAPT TO LIFE IN AMERICA. I SPOKE WITH SELFRELIANCE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ROMAN YATSKOVSKYY, WHO TOLD ME ABOUT ALL THE VITAL SERVICES HIS ORGANIZATION PROVIDES FOR UKRAINIAN IMMIGRANTS.

Roman Yatskovskyy: We help Ukrainian people and members in SelfReliance Association. We have so many coming refugee right now. Right now in the coming in the U.S.A., maybe half-million people in the Ukraine, Chicago 3,000 people, 3,000, around 3,000. First in the coming in the Mexico border. Somebody coming in the tourist visa, somebody coming, somebody live this United State before 11, April. We help this people. First in the, providing the Advokat (lawyer) Service. We provide English school. We provide and computer school. So many people looking in the food, looking in the clothes, looking in the driver’s license. They need Advokat service because very important is document, very important, the first. Next step’s looking in the job, looking in the house, rent or live, looking the different area. So many people like to Ukrainian Village because Ukrainian Village have many Ukrainian service. Next point in the looking in the job. It’s difficult because right now, no license in the job, no have license in the job, the license around four, six months, the official application.

[BREAK]

Humeniuk: WELCOME BACK! BEYOND JUST CARING FOR IMMIGRANTS’ IMMEDIATE PHYSICAL NEEDS, MANY IN UKRAINIAN VILLAGE ARE DEDICATED TO PRESERVING UKRAINIAN CULTURE IN AMERICA. ST. NICHOLAS CATHEDRAL SCHOOL IS ONE ORGANIZATION THAT DOES JUST THAT FOR UKRAINIAN CHILDREN, OFFERING LESSONS IN UKRAINIAN CULTURE AND THE UKRAINIAN LANGUAGE. MARIANA DOROSHKEVICH AND LEONA PETROVYCH HAVE BOTH TAUGHT AT ST. NICHOLAS. THEY SPOKE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF PASSING ON THEIR CULTURE TO THE NEXT GENERATION.

Mariana Doroshkevich: Yes, and my name is Mariana Doroshkevich. I’m a teacher, I’ve been working here for a couple of years. I moved to U.S.A. just eight years ago, but I did not have at the time permission to work. So when I did that, I started working here. For community, where it’s mixed families, somebody has just one parent Ukrainian, and it was difficult to teach them fluent in Ukrainian. And Leona was my helper. So, yeah. I’m so proud to be part of this school. But school built couple generations for whom moved to U.S. as the running from the war, and that school is like the piece of Ukraine in abroad, because to continue to be an Ukrainian, we have to have Ukrainian language. I’m so proud when third generations of Ukrainians still can keep this world Ukrainian because this is your identity. This is how God decided to create you as part of some culture. And I am a mom of three daughters, and my third daughter was born here in the U.S.A. and I know how difficult to keep her talking in Ukraine and be as Ukrainian. That’s why I’m so proud for the Ukrainian people who still are sending their kids for that school and that school can still exist, because of us Ukrainian who just keep memory. And be proud of yourself, of your identity, since you are Ukrainian.”

[BREAK]

Humeniuk: WELCOME BACK! IN TALKING TO UKRAINIAN REFUGEES, I NOTICED THAT NO MATTER HOW DIFFICULT THEIR LIFE IN AMERICA, THEIR HOMELAND IS ALWAYS AT THE FOREFRONT OF THEIR MINDS. THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE FOR TAMARA KACHALA. SHE WAS A PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS AT BOHDAN KHMELNYTSKY NATIONAL UNIVERSITY IN CHERKASY, UKRAINE, BEFORE BEING FORCED TO FLEE THE COUNTRY, LEAVING HER HUSBAND AND SON BEHIND. SHE NOW LIVES WITH HER DAUGHTER IN CHICAGO BUT CONTINUES TO SUPPORT AND RAISE FUNDS FOR HER COUNTRY THROUGH HER ARTWORK AND ADVOCACY.

Tamara Kachala: Ukraine in the moment on fire. Everything is on fire. Buildings, infrastructure, whole cities. With your help, I think we can put out the flames, fire and work together. When come refugee, it is another world, with refugee. But is money, it is important. And for me, but I’m economist in management, I can see a future, for this land, for America. But many people come from Ukraine, and you can’t work, you can’t (get) work authorization. You speak a little English. What is in future here? OK, we can’t back to Ukraine, but in Ukraine at the moment: war. What stay here without money. But, OK, American help for people from Ukraine, it is donations but official, legal staying here it is difficult at the moment. OK, I have old daughter here and she helped me stay here. I can picture, paint picture. I can support Ukraine for this picture, for will auction, buy for picture, for support Ukraine. I can study English, I can this possibility here. But another people, without language, without money, it is difficult to stay here in America. I have only tourist visa here. OK, it is problem. I think it is little problem. But big problem, it is in Ukraine, is war. In Ukraine in the moment, it’s difficult time. It is war, it is bombs and rocket, and in the moment in Ukraine, I am alone in this small problem. OK, it is my problem. But it’s important for me. It is help for Ukraine. Help for, develop, it is important. We don’t know when can finish this war. It is important, but I will. Every day, every time. Every minute my life, every life, and I will. I will the support for my motherland. I will support Ukraine.

Humeniuk: THAT’S ALL FOR TODAY. THANKS FOR TUNING IN TO MEDILL NEWSMAKERS! I’M SETH HUMENIUK, AND WE’LL SEE YOU.. NEXT TIME!

Seth Humeniuk is a graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @seth_humeniuk.

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