After fleeing the besieged country, Ukrainian refugees find refuge in Jersey City

Zoia Tomash did not want to leave kyiv.

She was president of an association of retired energy industry workers in Ukraine, some of whom were disabled and could not leave the country. But as grocery stores ran out of food, drugstores ran out of medicine, and her granddaughter, Natalia Ioffe, administrator of the Jersey City Board of Education, kept pressing her, she realized the time had come.

Get out while you can, she told herself. She took off at 8 a.m. on March 5.

She first traveled to Ternopil, near the Polish border, in a convoy of about 50 people in cars painted with “women and children” on them, organized by a church there. From there, 83-year-old Tomash and the others had to walk across the Polish border.

It was freezing cold and snowing, Tomash recalls. Her phone died and she had no way of telling her family where she was.

Tomash waited several more hours at a camp just across the border in Poland before catching a train to the town of Rzeszow, where she met American relatives and flew to New York.

Tomash said throughout the trip that her main fear was getting lost. At several points during the convoy, the truck she was in broke down and she was afraid that she would be in an unfamiliar region of Ukraine with no transportation.

Now Tomash is living with Ioffe and “trying to tell me that I’m on vacation” and that I’m going back to Ukraine soon, she said in Russian, with Ioffe as a translation.

Tomash is now just one of dozens of Ukrainians in and around Jersey City finding a way to get by in a new country while living with the uncertainty of seeing their home country invaded and destroyed by the Russian forces.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, has left 2,500 civilians dead and forced nearly 4 million people to flee to neighboring countries, mainly Poland, according to the Council on Foreign. Relationships.

To help them, a network of ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian immigrants in and around Jersey City has sprung up in recent weeks around “Ukrainian Jersey City”, a cultural and social club founded about a year ago. and half.

Oksana Condon, one of the group’s founders, managed to get her mother and two younger sisters, aged 13 and 14, safely out of Ukraine when war broke out. Condon has been in the United States since 2006.

The group is now finding refuge for Ukrainians in Jersey City fleeing war, collecting food and cash donations for them, and helping them find work and education as they settle in for a stay in a foreign country that no one knows how long will last.

Condon said the Ukrainian town of Jersey was working with about 28 people in seven or eight families. About half of them came to the Jersey City area because they had relatives living here, but the rest have no connection.

Ioffe said the majority of Jersey City families are here without their fathers because the Ukrainian government has ordered all men between the ages of 18 and 60 to stay and fight.

An example of this is the family of Liudmyla Holovko.

Holovko was surprised out of bed in Lviv in the early hours of February 25 by overheard planes and bombs exploding. Her husband told her to take their 3-year-old daughter and run away.

She first drove to Slovakia, then through the Carpathian Mountains to the Polish border. Queuing to cross, she was approached by a Slovak volunteer who offered her a free nearby Airbnb — an offer she couldn’t pass up after traveling nonstop, not even eating, for nearly 36 hours.

Holovko entered Poland and flew from Warsaw to Newark after a trip that took a total of five days. Now she and her daughter live with her sister-in-law, Tamara Syby-Holovko, another major figure in the Ukrainian city of Jersey.

Holovko worries about her husband. He used to own a small auto parts business, but now he’s in the military. Their daughter does not understand why her father could not accompany them.

“(Holovko) doesn’t sleep well,” Syby-Holovko said, due to the memory of what she went through to get to the United States and the relentless fear she feels for her husband back home.

Ukrainian Jersey City’s top priority over the past few weeks has been to find shelter for everyone “everywhere we can put them,” Condon said.

Finding jobs for the refugees is the next priority, but there’s not much the Ukrainian Jersey City can do, Condon said, unless the federal government creates a way to get them work permits. Most of the people Condon works with are in the country on tourist visas.

The Ukrainian city of Jersey helps place refugee children in area schools, connecting them with volunteer doctors to update them on vaccinations and establish a medical history so they can enroll.

Condon said his two younger sisters were allowed to enroll in the Montessori school his son attends until the end of the year, a “huge” help for his family. Going to an American school helped her sisters adjust to their new surroundings.

“The day they went to school, after that day I saw their first smile,” Condon recalled.

Holovko said she feels safe now, noting that the skies here are clear of bombs or military aircraft, and that she is grateful for the help from the community.

But it’s still hard for Holovko to live with the uncertainty of when or if his old life will resume.

The adjustment was also difficult for Tomash. She left friends and behind in Ukraine and following the news to see what is happening with the war has been “painful”, she said.

“I am very grateful to everyone for their kindness and generosity,” Tomash said, “but my soul aches for my people.”

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