Uniting for Ukraine refugees settle in Youngstown, Ohio
It’d been more than 20 years since Zina Lerman of Youngstown saw her aunt Klara Isakova; 15 years since she had last seen her cousin Sergey Isakov and his wife, Iryna Isakova.
And until just recently, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever see them again.
The Isakovs arrived in the United States last week as some of the nearly 9,500 Ukrainian refugees granted humanitarian parole to live in the U.S. as of June 10 through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Uniting for Ukraine program, which promises to resettle 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.
Zina said her family asked her to visit before the war. “I said, ‘Next year; next year.’ I’d hoped it would happen this year,” she said Tuesday, fighting back tears. “I didn’t think I could see them again.”
She and the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation co-sponsored the Isakovs’ parole, and formally welcomed them to Youngstown on Tuesday at the federation’s Levy Gardens Assisted Living facility.
Iryna, her husband and mother-in-law were garbed in white, embroidered in a traditional Ukrainian style. It matched Iryna’s beaming smile.
“I feel like [I am] somewhere in heaven, to compare the days in our country,” she said.
But she found it difficult to talk about the fighting in Ukraine, which has dragged on for nearly four months.
“War is war. People die every day, from both sides,” Iryna said.
“The main problem: Innocent people are dying. This war is wrong,” since there is no reason for it, she said.
‘You don’t know what will happen next’
Iryna, 60, lived for the past 30 years in Khmelnytskyi, the city where her husband and sons were born.
It’s an inland city of about 275,000 people along the Buh River in western Ukraine, more than 600 miles from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — where much of the hardest fighting has taken place — and a six-hour drive from the Polish border.
When the Russians invaded, Sergey and Iryna took about a dozen friends into their flat for a week before they left for other countries — Poland, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, she said.
They fed them and slept on the floor while the guests used their beds. But “it was not a party,” Iryna said — when sirens rang out, they turned out their lights. “We sat with candles and shut windows and talked. We discussed our life — our future life.”
Zina was in constant contact, she said during a federation luncheon in April, and lost sleep over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
The Black Sea came under blockade. Food became scarcer. The Isakovs eventually heard explosions nearby. “You don’t know what will happen next,” Zina said.
The family made good use of the food stored away in their root cellar, Iryna said Tuesday.
In the first days of the invasion — which “were the most difficult,” Iryna said — they sent money, clothes and goods such as homemade jam to the Ukrainian independence fighters and eastern refugees.
Mahoning Valley residents donated nearly $50,000 and more than 300 pounds of supplies, which Youngstown Area Jewish Federation leaders delivered to refugees amassing along the Poland-Ukraine border in April.
Some were housed in hotels, said Nancy Burnett, advisory board chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who was part of that humanitarian trip. But others were in “huge warehouses that have nothing but cots lined one after another, with simply a blanket and whatever else those refugees could bring with them,” she said Tuesday.
Burnett and others who spent the first week of April in the Polish border village of Medyka watched as women and their children crossed the border, hand-in-hand.
“They weren’t crying. They were confused and they were scared because they didn’t know what was next — because they had just escaped and now a new portion of their lives was about to begin,” Burnett said.
On Tuesday, Zina thanked American donors and refugee sponsors.
“Ukrainians need help today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow will be too late for some people, because every day [there is] killing,” she said.
They traveled for five days
In early April, President Joe Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, intended to grant up to 100,000 Ukrainian citizens and their family members two years of humanitarian parole in the U.S.
Melissa Bateman, the federation’s director of community engagement, said she and Zina spent days working on applications for Klara, Sergey and Iryna. They were approved 10 days later.
Their bus ride from Khmelnytskyi to the Polish border took 20 hours, Zina said. They stayed briefly in a hotel in the Polish capital of Warsaw before flying to Chicago, then to Pittsburgh International Airport, where they landed on June 14 after five straight days of travel, she said.
Zina was waiting for them with balloons of yellow and blue — Ukraine’s national colors.
“It was a family reunion for everyone,” she said.
As of June 10, the U.S. has received more than 52,000 applications from stateside supporters who have pledged to provide the refugees with financial support during their parole, according to Homeland Security information provided by the federation. Nearly 32,000 of those refugees have been approved for travel, and nearly 9,500 of them have entered the U.S.
Nearly 1,900 of those landed refugees are being supported by Ohioans, 1,000 of whom live in the Cleveland metropolitan area. Ohio has the ninth-most refugees paroled through the program of any other state. Pennsylvania has the seventh-most.
The federation last week set up the Isakovs with Medicaid, and next week will help them apply for Social Security benefits, said Ken Bielecki, executive director of Jewish Family and Community Services.
‘Generations of help’
Zina emigrated from Ukraine to Youngstown in 1992 with her husband and daughters, Victoria and Tamara. They were sponsored by Zina’s sister, who had arrived years earlier, and the federation. They were some of the 450 immigrants resettled in Youngstown between 1989 and 1995, amid the collapse of the former Soviet Union, said Andrew Lipkin, CEO of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation.
When Tamara was young, she “didn’t know much” about Judaism, she said Tuesday.
“We weren’t allowed to practice it. We weren’t allowed to talk about it,” she said. Since then, the federation has “reintroduced us to our true religion and heritage,” she said.
Zina now works in accounting for the federation, and is “paying it forward,” Lipkin said.
Her twin sons live in Cincinnati and Columbus, she said. Her family has since added four grandsons, including Tamara’s two boys, 3 and 5, the oldest of whom will start attending Boardman Local Schools next year, Tamara said.
“I’m very grateful that we now have four generations of family in Youngstown, which is a big deal for us,” Tamara said Tuesday, calling out to the past federation leaders who have helped assemble her family in the states.
“This is generations of help.”