To see a friend, no road is too long. (Ukrainian Proverb)
Kharkiv, Northeastern Ukraine
25 miles from the Russian border
The Russian invasion had begun, and Kharkiv was under attack. Thousands of local families converged on the city’s railway station, desperate to flee the bombing and destruction of their beautiful city.
Two women, a young boy, and a cat named Knopa were among them. They joined the push to get on one of the outgoing trains, tightly gripping each other’s hands so they wouldn’t be separated.
A lost person here could be lost forever.
Despite the bombing, they hadn’t wanted to leave their home. But Olesia had promised months ago—long before anyone thought of war—to take her young cousin back to his parents in Poland after his visit with his grandparents was over. And Olesia wouldn’t leave without her mother Tetiana. They wouldn’t leave Knopa behind, either.
Their small group would need to cross the entire east-to-west expanse of Ukraine to reach their destination in Poland, a thousand miles and three days of hard traveling away. They’d only brought enough clothes for a few days. A few days was as long as they planned to stay. They felt certain that they would be able to return home soon.
From the train window, Tetiana looked back to see a minefield of open suitcases, with clothes, shoes, and other belongings scattered up and down the platform. People were packed into every inch of the train. There was no room for the things that no longer mattered.
“Those open suitcases,” recalls Tetiana, with a slight shudder, “are something that will linger in my memory forever.”
Future Leaders & Future Friends: Tetiana and Jeannie
Sen. Bill Bradley launched the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) in 1993 to introduce students from post-Soviet countries to the U.S. and to lay the foundation for good relationships in the future.
Tetiana was just 15 years old when she became one of the first students accepted into the program and came to live with Jeannie’s family in Michigan.
“I remember thinking she was very tall,” recalls Jeannie, smiling. “I was just so in awe of her bravery. She was a year younger than I was.”
“Being a kid, I was too excited to be scared,” says Tetiana. “My parents in Ukraine were much more nervous than I was.”
Tetiana settled quickly into the busy life of an American high school student. She joined the swim team. She went to prom. She went on frequent field trips with classmates and with the family. Tetiana even became a high school graduate.
“Jeannie’s family allowed me to experience every aspect of student life in the United States,” she says. “But I think my most favorite thing during that year was all the differences that I got to see. It added to the excitement and beauty to realize that diversity is not just something to be aware of, but something to recognize and celebrate.”
Tetiana and her American family kept in contact over the years. First, through letters—Jeannie remembers the excitement of receiving an ultra-thin international envelope in the mail. Later—when Tetiana had access to the internet—through emails, and then Facebook and Instagram.
Jeannie’s family had often discussed visiting Ukraine but had never finalized any plans. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Jeannie and Tetiana had not seen each other for nearly 30 years.
Uniting for Ukraine
Throughout early 2022, Jeannie anxiously followed the news reports coming out of Ukraine. She knew Tetiana and Olesia had made it to Poland and that the cousin was successfully reunited with his parents. She knew that mother and daughter and Knopa the cat were living in a cramped, cold house with family. Both women were working, but Tetiana—an English teacher—was unable to find a teaching position. They were scrimping and saving as much as they could to send money back to Ukraine to help the war effort.
“They were safe in Poland,” says Jeannie. “Things were not horrible, but they were stuck. And I could read the news and see that they were not going to be able to return home anytime soon.”
The Biden administration announced the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian parole program in April 2022. It allows Ukrainian nationals who have a U.S. sponsor willing to provide financial support to live and work in the U.S. for a period of two years.
“With Tetiana’s English skills, I could see that there would be opportunities for her here,” says Jeannie. “And we had a finished basement just waiting for them.”
Jeannie knew about ILJ affiliate Justice for Our Neighbors Michigan because they had helped her church sponsor an Afghan family. She contacted Marcelo Betti, staff attorney from JFON Michigan’s Traverse City office, for assistance.
Marcelo expertly guided them through the process step-by-step, correctly explaining how it would all unfold and answering all their questions—even the ones they didn’t know to ask.
The hardest part now was navigating the air travel from Poland to their tiny airport in Traverse City.
Marcelo did a thorough job on Tetiana and Olesia`s work permits. He efficiently took care of every step of the procedure: helping fill out the applications, tracking the process, and ensuring that the necessary appointments were kept. Tetiana and Olesia’s work permits arrived very soon after their arrival.
“I honestly was hoping they would come and rest for a while,” says Jeannie. “But they were determined to work right away.”
Olesia had been a college biology student in Ukraine, but she put her studies aside for full-time employment. She runs a kitchen at a local coffee shop.
Meanwhile, as Jeannie predicted, Tetiana found a position that uses her skills and abilities. As a career advisor for Michigan Works, she relies on her own personal experience to help job seekers, including Ukrainians and other recent arrivals.
“I am so fortunate to be able to help people,” she explains earnestly. “When I meet refugees or other immigrants, I always tell them about Justice for Our Neighbors.
“I think JFON,” she adds, her voice trembling slightly, “is just like Jeannie’s family…her family 30 years ago and her family today. They are doing something that makes me realize the truth of a phrase I have heard many times before. I thought I understood it, but now it is absolutely real to me…that God is doing the good work with other people’s hands.”
There is no Road too Long
It’s a beautiful and heartfelt sentiment, a seemingly perfect ending to this story. But Jeannie isn’t having it. Tetiana and Olesia’s story, she reminds us firmly, is not over yet.
“I am very grateful that they are here. It was risky; they only have a two-year approval, and it comes with complications. But they are doing their best in a cruddy situation. They are incredibly resilient and are finding joy wherever they can.
“But we know they want to go home. So that’s our goal, too. And then we will finally get to visit them in Ukraine.”
“Yes,” Tetiana nods. “It is a beautiful place. When things are back to normal, you will come.”
“Maybe we’ll buy a retirement home there,” counters Jeannie. “Who knows?”
The two friends share a smile for a moment before Jeannie turns serious again.
“I think Americans don’t consider that things can happen, that things can change,” she says. “But I’m not so naïve that I can’t see that I may be in need someday.
“And I know for certain that if the tables were turned, Tetiana would say to me, “Come. I’ll share what I have.”
As the sun sets and hills grow dark,
as the birdsong ends and fields fall silent,
as the people laugh and take their rest, I watch.
My heart hurries to the twilit gardens of Ukraine.
From an untitled poem, Taras Shevchenko, 1847.