Katya and Andrii didn’t expect to leave their home and everything they knew behind when their daughter Diana was born a year ago. But when the war broke out in Eastern Ukraine, quickly reaching their home city of Kharkiv, they knew they needed to find a safe place for their little family to live.
They left their home on the first day of the war and made their way westward. “We’ve lived in 25 different places since the start of the war,” Katya said. “First we stopped in the middle of Ukraine and then went further west and finally were on the border. We left Ukraine after three months and went to Poland, Czech Republic. Finally we decided to try to come to the US.”
Coming to the US
For families like Katya’s, the new Uniting for Ukraine program creates a pathway to come to the US through the help of supporters, individuals and families who apply for and agree to take responsibility for the well-being of a Ukrainian individual or family during their parole period, for up to two years. Lawful residents of the US can apply to support Ukrainians coming to the US as humanitarian parolees through this program, as long as they can prove their ability to meet certain commitments of caring for them.
For Katya and Andrii, the US offered the best opportunities for them to continue their careers–Katya as a doctor in internal medicine and Andrii as a car dealership owner who already had connections in the US through his business. For their daughter, the US offered more certainty in a safe future, as they found themselves constantly worried about their safety in Europe. But in order to come to the US, they had to find a sponsor.
That’s when Katya and Andrii met Rob and Claire. Since the war in Ukraine had started in February, they felt like they needed to do something about it. “We sent some donations, tried to book Airbnbs for refugees to stay in, in Eastern Europe, but we really just felt an urgency to do something more direct,” Claire said. “Rob spent hours combing through requests on Facebook, and when he found Katya’s family, he felt like we could really connect with them and that they would do well here in Pittsburgh.”
“We wrote a post on a Facebook page for Ukrainian refugees looking to come to the US,” Katya explained. “Rob reached out because he works for UPMC and thought he could help me with a career in medicine. We had some emails and video calls and finally all agreed to the partnership.”
Both Claire and Katya agreed that even over Zoom, they felt a connection. Claire and Rob filed the paperwork, helped Katya and her family with the plane tickets, and then prepared for them to arrive. “They met us at the airport with bread and salt–a Ukrainian tradition!” Katya remembered. Claire said from the moment they met them at the airport, it felt like family arriving.
New City, New Home
After Katya’s family arrived, they realized that they would need some help connecting to all the services and resources they needed. A community member referred Katya and Andrii to JFCS, where they were able to get her connected to support for legal services and get food from the pantry to get them started. They were all amazed by the food selection available at the pantry and the welcoming nature of the staff. “The staff were welcoming and patient,” Claire said, “from the person at the front desk to the person helping us choose food.”
Katya and Andrii have found other ways to make adjustment to a new country easier, including a chat group for Ukrainians in Pennsylvania, getting familiar comfort foods at the Ukrainian food markets, and slowly connecting with other Ukrainians in the city. They’ve already been able to get bank accounts and drivers’ licenses and are now looking for their own place to live.
Although Katya and her family are grateful for the warmth and safety they’ve found in Pittsburgh, the war still hangs over their heads. They worry for their family members still in Kharkiv and miss the life they left behind. “Bombs are still going every hour,” Katya said, “but the restaurants and businesses are still open because people want to live a normal life.” Andrii added, “We had a nice life. An apartment in the city center, my own business with 45 employees, Katya was a doctor.” But for the sake of their daughter, they are happy to be safe in Pittsburgh and feel confident that they can do well here.
For Claire and her family, the experience has been extremely rewarding. “For anyone thinking about hosting a refugee family, it can seem overwhelming,” Claire expressed, “but now that we’ve done it, we realize that it’s easy to share your home with someone that needs help. Katya and Andrii are doing the hard things. We feel like we’ve gained family.”
“This is what America is made of,” Claire said. “Katya and Andrii are so smart and proactive. She’s a doctor, he owned a business. Though they may not have left Ukraine on their own terms, they came to America excited and positive about life and work here. People like them are the best of America.”