Over the ten years World Relief Memphis has been in operation, we have had the privilege of serving hundreds of refugees, asylees, and other vulnerable immigrants. Over the past couple of months, we reached out to some of the first families and individuals we welcomed, to our newest arrivals.
As most of us are aware, in February of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin began his invasion of Ukraine. The war that has unfolded has caused yet another humanitarian crisis with little sign of letting up soon. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) currently estimates that there are more than 7.2 million refugees from Ukraine in various European countries and the U.S. They also estimate that there are more than 6.9 million currently internally displaced within the Ukraine. Over the past few months World Relief Memphis has been able to resettle some of these individuals and families. Valentyna is one of those individuals.
A few weeks ago, we were able to sit down with Valentyna and her daughter Olga, who has lived in the states for about 5 years. Through Olga’s interpretation, Valentyna shared about her life back in Ukraine. As she is 69 years old, she has been happily retired for 9 years living on her own in an apartment in the downtown of a large city. “I had everything. I was happy.” She lived a comfortable life with everything she needed within walking distance. “Everything was fine until the early morning of February 24,” the day the army began their invasion.
Because of the time difference between the U.S. and Ukraine, Olga found out what was happening before her mom. “It was maybe 10pm and we start hearing that Putin announced that they are starting the war. It was 4:30am Ukrainian time and I texted Mom “has it started bombing?” and she checked the TV and said “yes, yes it has started.” Although there had been talks of a potential invasion since October of the year prior, no one wanted to believe it. Olga continued to tell us how she immediately told her Mom to get water and non-perishable food, and to think about getting somewhere safer.
Within the first few days, Valentyna had a “to-go” bag packed with essentials which included her important papers she would need for travel. While still in Ukraine, Valentyna described the first few days of the war as chaos. Bomb sirens were going, traffic jams were everywhere, and everyone was rushing to the store and the bank. People began to utilize basements and old WWII bomb shelters at night, but due to her eyesight, Valentyna couldn’t continue making the trips to the shelter every night. “I was tired so I put a pillow and a blanket in the bathtub, like the tornado rule.” Soon people in her apartment complex started to leave. She shared that anyone with a car packed up what they could and left when they felt things were getting worse. That was one thing she could not do. With no car and no family in the area, she would have to find another way to leave if the time came.
As Olga continued to describe the war and the evacuation process, she shared that Valentyna went through all the stages of denial and acceptance. “She had said to me, “You know I’m 69. Whatever happens, happens.” Olga went on to share more of how she had tried to continue to push the urgency for her Mom to leave, but there is only so much you can do on the phone.
After a little over 2 months, Valentyna was ready to leave. “On April 12, her birthday, she just called me up and said, “I don’t know where to go but can you get me a ticket somewhere, I’m just ready to go.” Olga was able to buy her a train ticket to Lviv where she stayed for couple days to rest and then made her way to Warsaw, Poland by bus. For 10 days, Valentyna was able to stay at one of Olga’s old college friend’s places. Next, she traveled to Vienna with another one of Olga’s friends. While there, Olga and her husband had time to plan out next steps.
Since Valentyna needed a visa to come to the United States, the next travel steps were tricky. A few years prior, Olga and her husband had their first child and they had tried to get a visa for Valentyna, but it had been denied and they were worried that it would happen again. Then President Biden announced the U.S.’s intentions to help in the crisis and welcome 100,000 Ukrainians. They were immediately encouraged, although still apprehensive about being able to get a visa quickly enough. Without seeing another option, they all booked a hotel and flights to Mexico to then try to cross the boarder together. It was almost the day to travel when President Biden announced “United For Ukraine” which would allow Ukrainians to apply for humanitarian parolee status. Once they researched the process and used Olga’s husband as the American tie and sponsor, Valentyna was approved and was told she had 90 days to travel.
On May 10 Valentyna finally made it to Memphis. Once here, they quickly realized how expensive this process would be as Valentyna needed regular medical help along with required U.S. vaccines and medical screenings. With no insurance, the bills quickly pilled on. On May 21, things started to look up as another act was passed to provide Ukrainians with the same benefits as refugees during their allotted 2 year stay. This meant that Valentyna could now get a monthly stipend and insurance. They needed to find a place where they could start filing for these benefits. That’s when they learned about World Relief Memphis.
After reaching out via phone and email, they were able to get connected with their caseworker Peyton. Peyton helped show Valentyna all the benefits that she qualified for and got her started on filing for the various programs. Olga shared how big of an advocate Peyton has been for them. They have had to deal with frustrating situations at places like the Social Security office, but Peyton helped them persevere. “It’s been a big help. I don’t know how we’d do it without her.” Olga went on to share that “before we got to World Relief Memphis it felt like no one cared.”
Although she has enjoyed being able to be with family, especially being with her grandson in person, Valentyna’s wish is to return home. In America, and in a city like Memphis where there is little to no public transportation, you don’t know the culture, and you don’t speak the language, it can feel very isolating. Valentyna expressed feeling loss of independence and isolation. Olga commented that “It’s almost like someone with a disability, having to rely on someone else and not being able to leave home without help.”
Accepting that she will at least be here for the winter, Valentyna hopes to be able to return home next summer. Until that day comes, they are all soaking in as much family time as possible. They are even thinking about taking a trip to Alaska as Valentyna has enjoyed watching a show about it on the Discovery Channel.
Although Valentyna’s story is not over, she has already accomplished so much and shown her bravery and determination in seeking safety and advocating for herself. We are so thankful for Valentyna and Olga for sharing their story and allowing us to share it with you. World Relief Memphis has been serving in this city for 10 years because of support from people like you. We thank you for joining us on our journey in making Memphis a more welcoming community.
Writer: Kara Spencer
Communication Coordinator at World Relief Memphis, recent graduate of Harding University, and Memphis native.
Photo Credit: Emily Frazier
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