Welcoming Ukrainian Families

Since October 2021, Minnesota has welcomed 695 new people from 17 countries through the U.S. Refugee program. Most of those newcomers were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

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

The national Uniting for Ukraine program started in April 2022, which seeks safe havens for thousands of people. Since then, an estimated 1,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Minnesota after fleeing the Russian invasion of their country. Thus far, an estimated 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war.

According to Welcome.US, Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks as the top U.S. community sponsoring Ukrainian newcomers under their program. Minnesota-based Alight is part of the effort, matching dozens of Minnesotans with Ukrainian families who are seeking a safe haven. Alight offers resources and guidance to the sponsors and families. 

One of the Alight sponsors is Brooklyn Park’s Sharon Norlander, who shared this for Minnesota Women’s Press readers.

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

My husband and I are both retired from our long-time jobs. Mark was the French teacher and tennis coach at Minnehaha Academy for 30 years. I taught first grade at the French Immersion School in Edina for 23 years.  For a few months, we are directors of the Saint Paul Intercultural Institute that creates a study abroad/homestay program for five universities in Japan. The program celebrated 25 years, working with more than 2,000 students, just before the pandemic hit.

When we were first married, we moved to France. Our oldest daughter was born there.  We saw firsthand how small acts of kindness made a huge difference in our lives while we were living so far from home.  When we came back from France, I worked in refugee resettlement with Hmong refugees, directing a preschool program while parents were learning English.  We went out of our way to interact with people from other countries and to help them in concrete ways. 

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

After the pandemic hit, our biggest university in Tokyo canceled its summer program for the third year in a row.  Summer seemed very long.  We were still a little wary of travel and were at a crossroads trying to find meaningful ways to spend our time. We were quite aware and horrified about unrest in many parts of the world.  It was then that we heard Alight was seeking sponsors for Ukrainian families. It was a project that we both could embrace. 

We expected a longer lead time to prepare for the arrival of our Ukrainian family, but because of the work we did with Japanese students, we had already established quite a few skills and knew how to communicate, divide responsibilities, and problem solve in high stress situations.

However … being a sponsor to a family does not require special cross-cultural skills. Here is what I can tell you about our experience.

What It is Like to Welcome a Family of “Strangers”

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Involved in Being a Host?  

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

Soon we were able to look at longer-term goals: getting cell phone service, learning how the food bank worked, 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 to enroll the children in school, to create a resume in English, to begin the job hunt, to find a home, and to enroll in English classes for mom and dad. Each step felt like a victory.

As of December 17, the Holiuks live in a house they are renting. We were gifted with all the furniture they needed, as well as a well-stocked kitchen and bathroom.  

The twins have had their first choir concert at school. Mom has a driver’s permit. Dad is actively searching for a job. The toddler is singing songs in English. 

If You Want to Participate

Says Steph Koehne, sponsor program lead for Alight: “We believe every person can do the doable when it comes to responding to this humanitarian crisis. It might seem overwhelming to welcome strangers from a distant country, but we also know Minnesotans are up to the task of making a profound difference.”

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

  • The organization offers fundraising tools for people who want to raise money for a months-long stay by a Ukrainian family at an Airbnb home.
  • Other sponsors might have space in their own homes to accommodate those seeking a safe haven.
  • Other sponsors offer Midwestern hospitality to help families register for school, work, and everyday life.

To learn more, participate in an informational session. For details, visit wearealight.org/be-a-welcomer-sponsor-a-ukrainian-family