Ukrainian families flee war and find new homes in Durango – The Durango Herald

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Leaving the families has been the hardest – while finding safety for their children has been the most important

Ukraine’s Ivan and Natalie Portnyi, along with their daughter, Polina, 8, stand outside their temporary home in Durango on October 25. At least two Ukrainian families came to Durango following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

At least two Ukrainian families now live in Durango after turning their lives upside down to escape the Russian invasion that is ravaging their homeland. They left family and friends, jobs and schools behind. And they left the known of home for the wide-open unknown of the United States – in hopes of a better life.

“First of all, we are doing (this) for our children,” said Tetiana Sydorenko, whose English is a work in progress. “I don’t want my children to see all these horrors that are happening in our country right now.”

Tetiana and her husband, Volodymyr, left their hometown of Myrhorod in central Ukraine with their 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, first for neighboring Poland and then for Durango.

Ivan Portnyi and his pregnant wife, Nataliia, and their 8-year-old daughter were already in Poland, having left their home in Dnipro, also in central Ukraine, a month before the invasion. And then, together with the Sydorenko family, they left for Durango.

“It was very difficult to make money in Poland,” Ivan said with the help of a translation app on his cellphone. “And many people say that after Ukraine, Putin and Russia will go to Poland. And my wife is pregnant and I don’t want (my family) to suffer. I start (to) read about this program and find a sponsor was the first step. Then I find a sponsor in Colorado, from Durango. Chip Keller.

Keller, who works as a doctor on the southern Ute reservation, had tried to sponsor Afghan refugees in the past but didn’t because the process was too complex, with tons of paperwork, red tape and no end in sight.

“But anyway, I saw how easy it was and thought it was amazing,” he said. “It’s pretty cool because the web pages where you go to find people are just people posting their own story, and so you immediately connect with someone and start chatting.”

Keller and his family traveled extensively and benefited from the generosity of people, were invited into homes to be fed and cared for, he said. So paying it forward felt natural. He first connected with Ivan. And immediately agreed to sponsor his family.

“It’s kind of hard not to when you’re like dude, it’s a regular family that had a normal life and now it’s destroyed and they’re just looking for a place, especially in the case of a lot of these people, just to have a safe space for their children to grow up,” he said.

The Portnyis were approved for immigration to the United States in less than two weeks, leading Keller to wonder why there aren’t more Ukrainian families here already. If he owned an apartment complex, he said he would fill it with families. But without help, there is a limit to the number of people he can sponsor. So he reached out to a friend, DJ Jergensen, who also happens to be the pastor of Durango Vineyard Church.

“He said, ‘That’s great, let’s get a little group together,'” Keller said. “So we got the ball rolling with a small network of people willing to help. And that’s when Jeff Sutherland (of The Vineyard) stepped in to be Volodymyr and Tetiana’s point person.

Sponsors help pay for the costs of finding and securing housing, connecting families to social services, driving them to appointments and completing paperwork, along with a myriad of other details. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap, especially because the sponsorship program requires Ukrainians not to work until they receive a work permit, and permits take two to five months to come. The Durango families are still waiting.

“And it’s weird because it’s all automatic, nobody gets turned down,” Keller said. “So it’s just kind of red tape.”

The families arrived in the United States on September 22. The sponsors arranged for the two families to take the same plane directly from Germany to Phoenix, but it was up to the families to make arrangements between there and Durango. Ivan hopped online and connected with “a good guy” who offered to drive the families to Durango.

“He loves Ukraine and he says I help you and my company to help you,” Ivan said. “He rented a hotel in Phoenix for one night. And he rented a car. He buys fruits and vegetables for a trip to Durango.

The man works at General Electric in Phoenix and was connected on Facebook to groups linked to the referral program. The company paid for a rental van, fuel, hotel and the employee’s time as he shuttled between the two families for two consecutive days in Durango.

Polina Portnyi, 8, from Ukraine, jumps on a trampoline at her temporary home in Durango on October 25. Polina came to Durango with her parents, Ivan and Nataliia, after leaving Poland. They left their home in Dnipro, Ukraine a month before the Russian invasion. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Durango is beautiful,” Ivan said from the living room of their temporary home on the banks of the Animas River. “We have a nice house. Good people help us here. Lots of good people. When we (arrived) in Durango, I knew one person, now I know a lot of people. They help with the papers, with the cars, with the house and in the house.

As he spoke, news of new drone strikes in Ukraine was reported by a Ukrainian news crew on the big-screen television across the room. He and his wife speak daily with their family in Ukraine. Everyone is fine, but it’s hard not to worry when you hear explosions in the background.

“Every day there are red flags,” he said. “Every day, bombs. Now Iran has drones.

The family chose the United States over Europe to emigrate to because they believe it is easier to start with nothing in the United States than in Europe, where it is difficult to have no money. , Ivan said.

“And my dream in the United States,” he said. “I think it’s better. I think it’s the most free. We feel more free here.

The Sydorenkos also speak almost daily with their families in Ukraine. They too are worried and, like the Portnyis, say the hardest part was leaving their family. But so far everyone is fine.

Like Ivan, Tetiana expressed how different everything is in the United States. Although it was difficult to point out particular differences due to the language barrier.

“People first,” she said. “It’s a very big difference with the Ukrainians. We just meet some really good people who help us get here in Durango. I don’t know, everything is different.

The program allows Ukrainian immigrants to stay in the United States for only two years. Other ways to stay longer may become available in the future, but no one knows for now.

“Nobody knows what will happen in these two years,” Tetiana said. “So we can’t say for sure what we’ll be doing in two years. Right now we see our children’s smiles and know that they are happy here.

Keller said the kids are excited about the schools and the families adjusting to their new lives, but he knows it’s not as easy for them to be away from their home country as they were. imply it.

“It’s easy to talk to them and think they’re fine, they just flipped a switch and they live in America,” he said. “But the trauma, I think, is a little under the surface because sometimes if we talk and the Russian people or Putin or whatever comes along, they tear each other apart and we change the subject.”

A third Ukrainian family is due to arrive in Durango on November 13.

Keller praised the support of local community members who donated everything from money and gift cards to housing, which is the hardest part of the equation.

The Biden administration launched Uniting for Ukraine in April. The program offers Ukrainians a fast track to the United States if they have a sponsor. Since its inception, more than 38,000 Ukrainians have entered the country through this route, and another 75,000 are approved and awaiting travel. Over 109,000 US sponsors from all 50 states support these Ukrainians.

To help with sponsorship or anything else, call (970) 300-5205 or email [email protected] Or visit www.uscis.gov/ukraine.

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