It had been over 20 years since Zina Lerman of Youngstown had seen her aunt Klara Isakova; 15 years since she last saw her cousin Sergey Isakov and his wife, Iryna Isakova.
And until recently, she wasn’t sure she would ever see them again.
The Isakovs arrived in the United States last week as some of the approximately 9,500 Ukrainian refugees were granted humanitarian parole to live in the United States beginning June 10 under the United States Department of Health’s Uniting for Ukraine program. internal security, which promises to resettle 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia. invasion.
Zina said her family asked her to visit before the war. “I said, ‘Next year; Next year.’ I was hoping it would happen this year,” she said Tuesday, fighting back tears. “I didn’t think I’d be able to see them again.
She and the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation co-sponsored the Isakovs’ parole and officially welcomed them to Youngstown on Tuesday at the federation’s Levy Gardens assisted living facility.
Iryna, her husband and her mother-in-law were dressed in white, embroidered in a traditional Ukrainian style. It matched Iryna’s beaming smile.
“I feel like [I am] somewhere in heaven, to compare the days in our country,” she said.
But she struggled to talk about the fighting in Ukraine, which has been going on for nearly four months.
“War is war. People are dying every day, on both sides,” Iryna said.
“The main problem: innocent people are dying. This war is wrong,” because there is no reason for it, she said.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen next”
Iryna, 60, has lived for the past 30 years in Khmelnytskyi, the town where her husband and sons were born.
It is an inland city of about 275,000 people along the Buh River in western Ukraine, more than 600 miles from Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region – where most of the toughest fighting has taken place. took place – and a six-hour drive from the Polish border.
When the Russians invaded, Sergey and Iryna took a dozen friends to their apartment for a week before leaving for other countries – Poland, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, she said. declared.
They fed them and slept on the floor while the guests used their beds. But “it wasn’t a party,” Iryna said – when the sirens sounded, they turned off their lights. “We sat with candles and closed the windows and talked. We discussed our life, our future life.
Zina was in constant contact, she said at a federation lunch in April, and lost sleep over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
The Black Sea is under blockade. Food has become more scarce. The Isakovs eventually heard explosions nearby. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Zina said.
The family made good use of the food stored in their root cellar, Iryna said on Tuesday.
In the early days of the invasion – which “were the most difficult”, Iryna said – they sent money, clothes and goods such as homemade jam to Ukrainian independence fighters and refugees from ‘East.
Mahoning Valley residents donated nearly $50,000 and more than 300 pounds of supplies, which Jewish Federation leaders in the Youngstown area delivered to refugees amassed along the Polish-Ukrainian border in April .
Some were staying in hotels, said Nancy Burnett, chair of the advisory board of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which was part of the humanitarian trip. But others were in “huge warehouses that have nothing but beds lined up one after another, with just a blanket and whatever these refugees might bring with them”, he said. she said on Tuesday.
Burnett and others who spent the first week of April in the Polish border village of Medyka saw women and their children crossing the border, hand in hand.
“They weren’t crying. They were confused and they were scared because they didn’t know what was coming next – because they had just escaped and now a new part of their life was about to begin,” Burnett said.
On Tuesday, Zina thanked American donors and refugee sponsors.
“Ukrainians need help today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow will be too late for some, because every day [there is] kill,” she said.
They traveled for five days
In early April, President Joe Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, intended to grant up to 100,000 Ukrainian citizens and their family members two years of humanitarian parole in the United States.
Melissa Bateman, the federation’s director of community engagement, said she and Zina spent days working on applications for Klara, Sergey and Iryna. They were approved 10 days later.
Their bus ride from Khmelnytskyi to the Polish border took 20 hours, Zina said. They stayed briefly in a hotel in Warsaw, the Polish capital, before flying to Chicago and then to Pittsburgh International Airport, where they landed on June 14 after five consecutive days of travel, she said. precise.
Zina was waiting for them with yellow and blue balloons, the national colors of Ukraine.
“It was a family reunion for everyone,” she said.
As of June 10, the United States has received more than 52,000 requests from American supporters who have pledged to provide the refugees with financial support while they are released on parole, according to Homeland Security information provided by the federation. Nearly 32,000 of these refugees were allowed to travel and nearly 9,500 of them entered the United States.
Nearly 1,900 of those admitted refugees are supported by Ohioans, 1,000 of whom live in the Cleveland metro area. Ohio has the ninth highest number of refugees paroled under the program of any other state. Pennsylvania has the seventh most.
The federation set up the Isakovs with Medicaid last week, and next week will help them apply for Social Security benefits, said Ken Bielecki, executive director of Jewish Family and Community Services.
“Generations of Help”
Zina emigrated to Youngstown from Ukraine in 1992 with her husband and daughters, Victoria and Tamara. They were sponsored by Zina’s sister, who had arrived years earlier, and the federation. They were among 450 immigrants resettled in Youngstown between 1989 and 1995, amid the collapse of the former Soviet Union, said Andrew Lipkin, CEO of the Youngstown-area Jewish Federation.
When Tamara was young, she “didn’t know much” about Judaism, she said Tuesday.
“We were not allowed to practice it. We weren’t allowed to talk about it,” she said. Since then, the federation has “reintroduced us to our true religion and our heritage”, she said.
Zina now works in the federation’s accounting and “pays it forward,” Lipkin said.
Her twin sons live in Cincinnati and Columbus, she said. Her family has since added four grandsons, including Tamara’s two boys, 3 and 5, the oldest of whom will start attending local Boardman schools next year, Tamara said.
“I’m very grateful that we now have four generations of family in Youngstown, which is a big deal for us,” Tamara said Tuesday, calling on former federation leaders who helped bring her family together in the United States.
“It’s generations of help.”