Welcoming Ukrainian Families – Minnesota Women’s Press

Since October 2021, Minnesota has welcomed 695 new people from 17 countries under the U.S. refugee program. Most of these new arrivals came from Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The federal Operation Allies Welcome program brought 1,363 evacuees from Afghanistan to Minnesota from September 2021 to 2022.

The national Uniting for Ukraine program began in April 2022, which seeks refuge for thousands of people. Since then, about 1,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Minnesota after fleeing the Russian invasion of their country. So far, about 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war.

According to Welcome.US, Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks as the top US community to sponsor Ukrainian newcomers through their program. Minnesota-based Alight is part of the effort, connecting dozens of Minnesotans with Ukrainian families seeking safe haven. Alight offers resources and advice for sponsors and families.

One of Alight’s sponsors is Brooklyn Park’s Sharon Norlander, who shared it with Minnesota Women’s Press readers.

Front row (l-) Vadym, Anita and Alisa Holiuk. Back row: Mark and Sharon Norlander, Nastya and Liubov Holiuk. At Coon Rapids Dam shortly after the Holiuks arrived in Minnesota.

My husband and I are both retired from our longtime jobs. Mark was a French teacher and tennis coach at Minnehaha Academy for 30 years. I taught first grade at Edina French Immersion School for 23 years. For the past few months, we have been directors of the Saint Paul Intercultural Institute which is creating a study abroad/homestay program for five universities in Japan. The program celebrated its 25th anniversary, working with over 2,000 students, just before the pandemic hit.

When we got married, we moved to France. Our eldest daughter was born there. We have seen with our own eyes how small acts of kindness have made a huge difference in our lives while living so far from home. When we returned from France, I worked in refugee resettlement with Hmong refugees, running a preschool program while the parents learned English. We went out of our way to interact with people from other countries and to help them concretely.

Our professional careers revolved around building bridges between cultures, helping people develop cross-cultural communication skills, and understanding and teaching languages.

After the pandemic, our largest university in Tokyo canceled its summer program for the third consecutive year. The summer seemed very long to me. We were still a little wary of traveling and were at a crossroads trying to find meaningful ways to spend our time. We were fully aware and horrified of the unrest in many parts of the world. It was then that we learned that Alight was looking for sponsors for Ukrainian families. It was a project that we could both embrace.

We expected a longer time to prepare for the arrival of our Ukrainian family, but thanks to the work we did with Japanese students, we had already acquired quite a few skills and knew how to communicate, distribute responsibilities and solve problems. problems under high stress conditions. situations.

However… being the godfather of a family does not require any particular intercultural skills. Here is what I can tell you about our experience.

What it’s like to host a family of “strangers”

A whole team helped us when we welcomed the Holiuk family of five – a mum, dad, 11 year old twins and a toddler. The team we worked with at Alight have a wide variety of skills to help with networking, organization, problem solving, language teaching and cross-cultural communication.

Best of all, the Holiuks became part of our extended family as soon as they walked through international arrivals at the airport on September 24th. The experience challenged us to reassess what is important to us and reflect on how our actions reflect our values.

I knew we were doing the right thing when Alisa, one of the 11-year-old twins, told me via Google Translate, “I can’t believe this is real.”

Before our family arrived, we created a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help the first few months financially. In four days, we achieved our goal after posting it on Facebook. We received support from former students, family members and people with whom we had professional contacts. It was moving to hear from so many people – many we hadn’t heard from in years. I was grateful to realize that I was part of a bigger “village” and that we were not alone on this journey.

There was a lot of joy and laughter as we went about our life with the Holiuks. We celebrated their ability to communicate as their language skills developed, we shared many first experiences: a birthday, the first day of school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, moving into their own home and Christmas.

What is it to be a host?

In the short term, it is important to meet the basic needs of the family: housing, food and clothing. We quickly went from immediate needs (in our case, a high chair and potty) to immigration requirements (obtaining a health check, a social security number, and access to county services and medical insurance). We’ve also tried to provide them with experiences to help them explore Minnesota and have fun.

Soon we were able to consider longer-term goals: getting cell phone service, learning how the food bank works, preparing for the written driver’s test, and finding a Ukrainian church.

Finally, we were able to set goals for them to become self-sufficient. We helped enroll the children in school, create an English CV, start the job search, find accommodation and enroll in English classes for mom and dad. Every step felt like a victory.

Since December 17, the Holiuks have been living in a rented house. We were provided with all the furniture they needed, as well as a well-equipped kitchen and bathroom.

The twins had their first choir concert at school. Mom has a driver’s license. Dad is actively looking for a job. The toddler sings songs in English.

If you want to participate

According to Steph Koehne, Sponsorship Program Manager for Alight, “We believe that every person can do what is doable when it comes to responding to this humanitarian crisis. It may seem overwhelming to welcome strangers from a faraway land, but we also know that Minnesotans are ready to make a profound difference.

Alight invites all Minnesotans to welcome Ukrainian families who have been displaced due to circumstances beyond their control.

  • The organization offers fundraising tools for people who want to fundraise for a multi-month stay by a Ukrainian family in an Airbnb home.
  • Other sponsors may have space in their own homes to accommodate those seeking a safe haven.
  • Other sponsors provide Midwestern hospitality to help families settle into school, work and daily life.

To find out more, attend an information session. For more details, visit wearealight.org/be-a-welcomer-sponsor-a-ukrainian-family

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