Help “Team Odessa” welcome a family of Ukrainian refugees (Updated)

Above: Residents are asking for support to help a refugee family from Ukraine transition to life in our area. (image cropped from fundraising page)

I previously shared news about “Team Odessa” seeking support for a Ukrainian couple with two young daughters that fled Odessa at the start of the war and is now relocating from Poland to the US.

With most of the family set to fly in next week, I’m sharing an update, a follow up request, and details from my family’s recent interview with Nataliya*. 

The family’s Visas came through. Right now they are very busily preparing for Nataliya and the children to move to Southborough over Thanksgiving weekend. Due to allergies in the Southborough family hosting them, her husband Oleksiy will remain behind with their three large dogs until Nataliya can line up a new place for them to live (but within the 90 day window).

It should take Nataliya 3 to 6 weeks to receive a work authorization permit. They are hoping that between her in demand IT skillset and English fluency, she can quickly land a job. But since it is typically a quiet hiring period, that could take about 2 months.

To help the family make the transition, Team Odessa is seeking donations to cover minor living expenses until they can find a job, cover the deposit on a home to rent, and help them buy an older model vehicle for their family. (The couple have Ukrainian drivers licenses and international permits.)

Tax deductible donations can be made here through the non-profit WelcomeNST.

Speaking over zoom, Nataliya shared details about the impact the war had on her family, how they have dealt with it, and their plans for the future.

Life before the War

Although Nataliya spoke positively about her experience in Poland and hopes for a new life here, she also fondly recalled the life they had before the war — one many would be envious of.

Her husband owned his own business and she worked in IT. Their income was good enough to allow them to travel, and they especially enjoyed skiing vacations. With both sets of their parents close by, they spent time with family almost every weekend (alternating homes). Their house was just steps up from the beach where they could swim all summer. They hadn’t realized how important the sea was to them (even the blowing winds in winter) until they had to move away from it.

Fleeing the War zone

The family lived in a home in Odessa overlooking the Black Sea. Around 4:00 am the morning of February 24, 2022, Oleksiy and Nataliya were woken by the sound of a nearby blast. They were confused as to what the noise was, but the possibility of a bombing didn’t occur to them. When they turned on the TV, they were shocked to hear the President announce that war had begun.

Leading up to the bombing, Nataliya said they didn’t really believe it could happen in the 21st century. Russia and Ukraine had long been “together”. Many people live in one country and worked in the other, and many families had close relatives (parents/children) in the other country.

Russia began its invasion by shelling Odessa from warships in the Black Sea. Nataliya and Oleksiy realized their home had no protection from attacks, and Ukrainian forces were mainly gathered around Kyiv to protect the capital. Within 30 minutes of talking it through, they decided to evacuate.

Thanks to Nataliya’s company, they had a place to go. The company offered 3 months of shelter for workers and their families (even their pets) who wanted to relocate to the Krakow office. By 3:00 pm that afternoon, the couple had packed up all they could for them and their girls into their three suitcases.

Their only car was in the shop for repairs, so her father gave them his. Her parents also agreed to temporarily take in their three large dogs. They then drove to Moldova, the closest border. What was normally a 2 hour drive took 13 hours on a road jammed with others seeking refuge. She described bumper to bumper cars sitting in a single lane, with cars packed with people and animals. Adding to people’s need to flee was the news that starting the next day, male residents wouldn’t be allowed to cross the border.

The family traveled to Poland through Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, only stopping in a few places just to sleep and grab food along the way. Once in Poland, they were able to take advantage of the offered shelter. But the couple soon realized that some living in the shelter wouldn’t be comfortable around large dogs. So they searched for a new place to live.

Nataliya said they were very fortunate to find a house with a landlord who welcomed kids and pets. Nataliya was then able retrieve her dogs.

It wasn’t easy at first because, since they didn’t know the language. But it is similar to Ukrainian and Russian, and Nataliya indicated she worked hard to learn it. Although her youngest daughter had been the most stressed by their move, she was also the quickest at being able to communicate with other children even before she knew any Polish.

The children, now ages 5 & 10, have settled in and made friends. And the family has built a life with many Polish friends. Plus, they have been able to enjoy visits from both Nataliya’s and Oleksiy’s parents and Nataliya’s grandmother.

So, why pick up and move to the U.S.?

Nataliya told me that a year ago, “Mike”, a Southborough resident she knew through work, offered to host her family if they were looking to relocate. At that time, the couple were unsure what path to take for their future, though Nataliya leaned towards leaving. As time went on and the Ukrainian war had no end in sight, one day Oleksiy decided they should pursue the offer.

Although she didn’t specify, the Team Odessa website explained:

Oleksiy had a shipping business that was dependent on the port and Nataliya worked in IT. When the war started in Februrary of 2022, bombs from Russian warships could be heard and felt all around them. The port was closed and a warehouse housing Oleksiy’s shipments was destroyed. . .

As refugees they’ve struggled to find decent jobs

Looking to the long-term future, the couple weren’t secure living in a country bordering Russia and Belarus. They didn’t want to have to relive another invasion and sudden evacuation. (It was clear from her comments, that their uncertainty that Poland is safe from invasion was influenced by their prior confidence that Russia would never attack Odessa.)

Nataliya told me that they chose Massachusetts after talking with Mike and researching different options. Originally, she was thinking about a state that was warm and near the ocean, so Massachusetts was low on their list. But more importantly, they wanted a state with good education opportunities and a good healthcare system. Finally, having someone that they know here, even just to talk to for advice, was also a big part of the equation. When Mike confirmed his family was still willing to offer their help, they quickly decided to make the move to Massachusetts.

At first, the news was difficult for her daughters, especially the oldest, to accept. But they assured that moving didn’t mean giving up friendships. She could still talk to her best friend whenever she wanted. After a week of talking, her oldest said she was ready to move. And by a couple of weeks ago, her youngest had already packed her bag. Oleksiy and the girls have been taking English lessons to prepare for the change.

In talking about her daughters, Nataliya was clearly amazed by how much they have grown through their experiences. Back in Ukraine, she said the girls were sheltered and seemed insecure. Dealing with the new situations they were thrust into had helped them become really confident.

Visiting her former home

Nataliya described what it was like to go back to Odessa, when she fetched two of her dogs from her parents. (The other had been sent earlier to Romania where she retrieved it.) She made the drive alone.  She noted that the region is now safer than other areas of the country either occupied or under attack. Businesses are still open and people are living fairly “normal lives” during the day. But you still have to be ready that an alarm could sound at any moment, warning you that if you don’t find shelter you could die.

When she was driving, an alarm sounded. She stopped the car and froze, not knowing where any shelters were. (Looking back, she still didn’t have words to “express” how that felt.) She watched other people for clues for what she should do. They were “so calm” because they knew where to go.

During the time she was there, curfews were from 6:00 pm – 9:00 am. People were instructed to remain inside with lights out. She described the “dead” darkness and quiet of the city as adding to the fear.

*Note: for security purposes I’ve been asked to refer to the couple by aliases “Nataliya” and “Oleksiy”. I’ve also been asked to keep the host family anonymous, so I created the alias “Mike”. Thanks to Cass Melo, my oldest child, for taking the lead on most of the interview.

Updated (11/14/23 4:01 pm): Somehow, I didn’t include the donation link

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