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‘Everything is different’: Ukrainian finds new home with Winterville family

Mariia, Grant, Heather Jones, Winterville.jpg
Ryan Shaffer / PRE News & Ideas
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Mariia (left) joined Grant (middle) and Heather (right) in November 2022, after choosing to leave Ukraine out of concerns for her safety.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began almost a year ago, prompting millions of Ukrainians to seek safety across Europe and North America -- including Eastern North Carolina.

Grant and Heather Jones of Winterville took in 29 year-old Mariia in November under Uniting for Ukraine’s sponsorship program. Right now, sponsorship is the only pathway for displaced Ukrainians seeking refuge in the U.S. Grant began looking for ways to help out Ukrainians soon after the war broke out.

“Like everyone else, I saw the horrific images on the television, and I knew that we had the means and ability to take care of them,” he said. “I couldn’t continue sitting there watching this war unfold if I hadn’t attempted.

Mariia’s older sister and nephew left in February for Ireland, but Mariia stayed in Ternopil to be with her grandmother, who she is close with. Mariia and her grandmother decided it would be best for Mariia’s safety to take the 30-hour journey by bus and plane to the U.S. They talk on the phone every day.

“It was hard of course, to leave my family there,” she said. “Not my job, not my apartment, not my stuff. Only my family. It was the hardest thing. But my grandmother and I decided to make this for my future.”

Mariia is quickly adjusting to life in Winterville, though it comes with many challenges. Being immersed in English can be exhausting for Mariia, who spent just over a month learning the language when I met her in December.

“The hardest part for me is the language. It’s unusual for me to speak in English. . . . it’s complicated for me because my brain tires so quickly. I want to go to sleep.”

Grant and Heather have helped with that adjustment. Since her arrival, Mariia has started a job in the deli at a nearby Sam’s Club and enrolled in English classes at Pitt Community College. She is currently studying for her driver’s license and personal trainer’s certificate.

In Ternopil, a city of 200,000 in western Ukraine, Mariia built up a stable career as a personal trainer, designing programs to help people achieve their health and physical goals. But her practice took a hit with the pandemic and war. She says half her clientele fled the country as a result.

Despite being well-versed in human physiology, the personal trainer certification exam is a test of Mariia’s English. She knows the terms in her native Ukrainian and in Russian but is learning the hundreds of muscles and body parts in English.

Mariia has only two years in the U.S., under the Uniting for Ukraine’s refugee parole status.

“I don’t think about the future like five years or longer because I don’t know,” she said. “I have the opportunity to be here for two years.”

Kit Taintor, vice president of policy and practice at Welcome.US, said sponsorship involves providing not just security but also help navigating U.S. customs and adjusting to a new home.

“When you think about rebuilding your life here, the things you need to put in place for a two-year stay are the same things you need to put in place for a five-year stay or a 10-year stay,” she said. “We really recognize the importance of local communities and their ability to help folks like Mariia find a home here and feel safe and find meaningful work.”

Welcome.US is a national initiative that coordinates refugee support efforts between government, nonprofits, and businesses. Mariia and Grant met through the website’s Welcome Connect sponsorship platform. Grant tried many platforms and programs before finally becoming a sponsor late last year.

“It was literally months of me banging my head before I found Welcome.US.,” he said.

Grant and Mariia met through Welcome Connect. From a selection of families, Mariia could choose who she reached out to. Most Ukrainian refugees have resettled in New York, Florida and California. For Mariia, the decision wasn’t based on where she lived, but rather who she lived with.

You have the opportunity to choose the state or city,” she said. “But it’s not for me. I’m looking for the people, not the city.

Welcome.US got its start after the fall of Kabul in August of 2021, helping to resettle thousands of Afghan refugees.

Under United for Ukraine, nearly 100,000 Ukrainians have found safe harbor in the United States -- nearly 1500 of which originated on Welcome.US. There are currently 2,000 active conversations between potential sponsors and Ukrainian beneficiaries on Welcome.US. Taintor says Welcome.US brings together organizations at all levels to maximize efforts that support refugees.

The way that the system was set up didn’t necessarily allow for the scale of the engagement that we knew was possible across the United States,” she said. “We really index on how we create avenues for participation for everyone who would like to get involved, including everyday Americans.”

Welcome.US has since expanded to include sponsorship opportunities for Venezuelans, Haitians, Cuban and Nicaraguans.

Mariia's relationship with Grant, Heather and their two children is joyful and easygoing. Mariia has connected with their daughter, Geneva, who is the same age as Mariia’s nephew.

“I am so happy to be with her, she is so kind,” Mariia said. “I’m glad to spend time with her.”

Sponsoring isn’t for everybody, Grant says, but hosting Mariia has been a positive and rewarding experience for him.

“I’ve just learned what an amazing person she is. She’s funny and whip smart,” he said. “It has been a lot of work, but I’ve really enjoyed my time with it and her. She’s become a family friend.”

Nearly 100,000 Ukrainians have found safe harbor in the United States, and most refugees seek to return home, according to Taintor. Mariia has 21 months left for her refugee status and when the war may end is uncertain. For now, Mariia is holding out hope and enjoying her time in the U.S.

“Everything is different. From language to my job,” she said. “It’s not bad, it’s my new experience. I’m glad to have this.”

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.