Ukrainian families spend first Christmas, new year resettled in Illinois

Northern Illinois is a beacon for thousands of war refugees from Ukraine.

Nastya, 7, sits in the window of the apartment looking over an area of Dixon. Once the family made contact with a local group in Dixon, it took just a couple month to move the family over.

Oksana Yabkovska and her husband, Oleg Yabkovskyi, are spending Christmas with their children in a downtown Dixon apartment after fleeing Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

Their journey to the northern Illinois city took nine months and didn’t end until a few days before Thanksgiving.

They aren’t alone. Thousands of Ukrainians will spend Christmas and enter the new year in Illinois for the first time.

“It will not be the new year and Christmas in the circle of your relatives because the greatest happiness is when you are at home,” Oksana Yabkovska said.

The United Nations Refugee Agency Bureau of Europe reported this month that there are 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Thousands of those refugees have settled in the U.S.

According to RefugeeOne, the largest resettlement agency in northern Illinois, the region is expected to take in about 21,000 Ukrainian refugees. RefugeeOne has helped facilitate 1,000 of these resettlements since February.

Zachary Dmyterko, RefugeeOne communications manager, said the wave of Ukrainians seeking asylum or the ability to temporarily resettle in the U.S. required the agency to increase the Ukrainian-speaking staff from one to 25 case managers.

“At a certain point, we were seeing 100 Ukrainians a week just ourselves. And [we] expanded to three additional satellite offices just to better serve the Ukrainians who are going out to the suburbs,” Dmyterko said.

Dmyterko, whose grandparents came to the U.S. as refugees after World War II, still has family in Ukraine. He said the weight of knowing members of his family are in a war zone has been “difficult” to carry at times. Earlier in the year, he traveled to Ukraine, bringing over medical supplies and checking on his family.

“I definitely came in to see family, and it was intense,” Dmyterko said. “I do worry about them. I check in with them. They said they wanted to stay, and I really respect that. I mean, that’s their home. That’s where they were born.”

RefugeeOne provides a range of services that Dmyterko said helps to “create new lives of safety, dignity and self-reliance for refugees.” The organization, established in 1982, meets people at O’Hare or Midway airports in Chicago and works with a group of volunteers to arrange for an apartment, raise funds for furniture and get the family settled.

“About 90% of our clients become self-reliant within six months,” Dmyterko said. “That means they’re able to pay for their own rent. We usually cover about the first four to five months. They’re able to land a job.

“We help them in this regard by offering them free English classes, which are held constantly throughout the week, except for weekends, and then also providing employment services. So we help them get their work authorization cards. We help them by placing them with certain agencies we’ve partnered with in the area.”

A financial sponsor is required for a person from Ukraine to temporarily resettle in the U.S. That sponsor could be a family member, a church congregation or a group of friends and supporters.

“So they need somebody in the U.S. who’s saying, ‘Yes, we’re willing to take on the financial responsibility of hosting this family,’ ” Dmyterko said. “If they can get that, they can go through the process. Usually, they are very easily approved right now.”

RefugeeOne supports the people they help resettle for up five years with additional resources and citizenship services.

A woman resettling in Illinois from Mariupol, Ukraine, has worked with Dmyterko since she arrived.

“It was just her and her son,” Dmyterko said. “They had kind of a sponsor here who had been a friend of the family, but her parents did not make it out of Ukraine. They did not survive. Her husband did not make it. She came to the U.S., just her and her son and a backpack.

“She has nowhere to go back to. Her apartment building was demolished from shelling. There’s really nothing left for her. So she’s now looking to re-create her life here. We’ve helped her in all the steps that we could.”

Welcoming Ukrainians to Dixon

A local sponsorship group that’s sprung up in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion is the reason Yabkovskyi, 39, and Yabkovska, 33, made it to Illinois.

Sitting on furniture provided to them through the sponsorship group, the married couple laughed when asked what their journey to Dixon was like. They said the ordeal was enough to fill a book.

They said they knew Russia was going to escalate the war before Russian armed forces invaded a large swath of Ukrainian territory Feb. 24, but they hesitated to leave their extended family and home until bombs were falling near them.

“We left on the first day of the war when a bomb hit our airport,” Yabkovska said. “Then, without even thinking we grabbed everything the children needed and started leaving.”

The family left their home in Burshtyn, Ukraine, and went west toward Hungary. But when they reached the border crossing that night, Yabkovskyi was ordered to remain in the country and fight the Russian invasion because of a compulsory draft.

Yabkovska had to leave her husband in Ukraine while she and their three children – Nastya Yabkovska, 7, Roman Yabkovskyi, 3, and Bohdon Yabkovskyi, 3 – traveled by bus through Hungary.

“Almost every family that we see, most of them are women and children because unless you’re a father of three, you’re not exempt from the draft and, therefore, can’t leave the country,” Dmyterko said. “Very recently that’s loosened, but up until now it’s been just women and children and fathers of women and children.”

Oleg plays with his twin boys. Just a month after arriving, Oleg got a job as a welder Allied-Locke in Dixon.

While Yabkovska and Yabkovskyi were living with his mother in Italy, Ukraine passed a law that allowed men with three children to leave the country.

“It was necessary to cross the border with the children,” said Yabkovska, meaning that she had to bring her children closer to violence to free her husband from it.

After rendezvousing with her husband, Yabkovska and their children crossed the border into Poland and took a flight back to Italy. After some time, however, they realized there wasn’t room for them at Yabkovskyi’s mother’s house, and Yabkovskyi’s job carrying large hunks of meat at an industrial meat packaging facility didn’t pay enough for them to get their own place.

Eventually, Yabkovska heard from an acquaintance who’d moved to England and suggested that her family move there as well. Yabkovska said the family didn’t wait long before moving but afterward found themselves living in an area lacking public transportation and, without a car, they struggled to provide for themselves.

Nastya, 7, and twin brothers Bohdon and Roman, 3, spend time in the apartment furnished by a sponsorship group.

Still looking to find a community where they could successfully provide for themselves after seven months, Yabkovska and Yabkovskyi connected with Doug Lee of Dixon, a member of Welcoming Ukrainians to Dixon who sponsored the family’s resettlement.

“I didn’t believe it when he answered me,” Yabkovska said. “In fact, we thought it was not possible and that it was some kind of raffle.”

Lee said he connected with the family in October and had a travel authorization for each of the five members of the family filed before the end of the month. The travel authorizations were approved within eight days, enabling the family to travel to Dixon on Nov. 22.

“The whole thing, less than two months from before we started and they’re here,” Lee said. “It’s unbelievable for a federal government program.”

Lee stressed that although he’s the sponsor, the family’s being supported by the entire Welcoming Ukrainians to Dixon group, as well as the wider community.

“We feel like we won the lottery with this family,” Lee said. “It couldn’t be a better match. The community has embraced them. It’s unbelievable. Toys, appliances and membership to the local YMCA have been donated to the family.”

Doug Lee, is a member of Welcoming Ukrainians to Dixon who sponsored their family’s resettlement in the city.

Lee said the group he’s affiliated with had been told to not expect anyone they help to be able to work for at least six months after resettling because work authorization and getting a Social Security number were part of the same application process.

“The day I went to the airport to pick them up, the federal government changed the rule and said a travel authorization could work as a work authorization, so Oleg could work immediately,” Lee said. “It’s just complete luck. That’s a game-changer.”

Less than a month after moving to the U.S., Yabkovskyi secured a job as a welder in the Dixon area.

‘Life continues’

It’s been five months since Kateryna Shcherbina and her two children arrived in McHenry after fleeing Ukraine.

With everything going on in the war in Ukraine, Shcherbina said keeping spirits up this holiday season is paramount.

“I’ve seen them put Christmas trees in the downtown of towns,” she said. “Life continues.”

In Ukraine, many Eastern Orthodox Christians calculate Christmas based on the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, so they celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, Shcherbina said. For her family, as well as others, they celebrate Dec. 25 as well.

When comparing Christmas in Ukraine with Christmas in the U.S., Shcherbina, speaking as someone who described herself as an Orthodox Christian, said their Christmas back home is less commercialized.

But there are plenty of similarities, including decorations and gift giving, she said. A Christmas dinner, which includes Ukrainian cuisines such as Kutia, is tradition too.

In total, the spirit of the holiday remains the same, Shcherbina said.

Sean and Renae Haley, who are fostering Shcherbina and her children at their home in McHenry, said part of their role is to help the family find Ukrainian goods, including food. Another part is showing them U.S. traditions. Halloween, Thanksgiving and now Christmas have been part of that.

Some of that has included baking, crafts and decorating the tree, Renae Haley said.

“This is kind of back to the future for us,” Sean Haley said. “We haven’t had young teenagers in our house in a long time.”

Julia Bulii, 22, and her 7-year-old daughter came to the U.S. in April. They are renting a house in Joliet, leaving behind her parents in her hometown of Kyiv.

Bulii said her parents stayed in Kyiv because of her grandmother.

“My mom takes care of her,” Bulii said. “She cannot stay alone.”

Bulli said that one week “after war happened in Ukraine,” she went to Poland and worked as a teacher’s assistant and waitress to save money to emigrate to the U.S.

Bulii said she went to Virginia first because she knew people there, and then she came to Illinois, which has a larger Ukrainian community.

She can’t predict how long she’ll stay here.

“That’s a hard question,” Bulii said. “I don’t know when war will stop. And I want to be safe – with my daughter.”

Although Bulii usually celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, she plans to celebrate Christmas with her daughter Dec. 25.

“Because it’s a celebration,” Bulii said. “Because it’s happy.”

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby covers DeKalb County news for the Daily Chronicle.