Ukrainian families begin resettling in Maine, with help from local volunteers
On a recent morning, 2-year-old Kateryna Parashchuk was chasing a miniature soccer ball around her family’s new apartment in Auburn, while her parents, Sviatoslav and Tetiana, chatted in the background.
The Parashchuks are from Borodyanka, a small town about 30 miles from Kyiv. Tetiana is a nurse, and Sviatoslav worked as a dentist in the nearby town of Bucha.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine in the early morning of Feb. 24, their lives changed immediately.
Speaking in Ukrainian through an interpreter, Sviatoslav said his boss called him at 6 a.m. that day with a firm directive: Explosions are hitting Bucha, take your children and leave now.
Sviatoslav, Tetiana and their three children drove to western Ukraine to stay with family. In early March, they crossed into Poland.
They set their sights on getting to Maine and reuniting with Tetiana’s mother, who lives in Mechanic Falls.
Meanwhile, here in Maine, Oleg Opalnyk was fighting an urge to go back to Ukraine.
"When the war started I wanted to go to fight," Opalnyk said.
Opalnyk is originally from Ukraine, and moved to Maine in 2001. He now lives in Pownal, runs a construction business and invests in apartment buildings.
Opalnyk said he talked himself out of that initial urge to join the fighting, realizing that he could be of assistance on this side of the Atlantic.
"So I posted on Facebook: ‘If anybody there who's escaping needs [a] place to stay, I will help,'" he said.
He began with the Parashchuks. When he learned that the family was ready to come to the U.S., he paid for their travel and offered to house them for free in one of his rental properties in Auburn.
Like many Ukrainians trying to reach the U.S., the Parashchuks went first to Tijuana, Mexico, and presented themselves to U.S. border officials. They were granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay in the country for up to two years, and arrived in Auburn on April 13.
With support from his church community, Opalnyk furnished the family's apartment and helped enroll their kids in school, responsibilities typically handled by refugee resettlement agencies.
"It's overwhelming, you know, from time to time," he said of the work needed to help the family resettle. "But at the same time, I'm very thankful that I have this ability to help."
Tarlan Ahmadov, state refugee coordinator at Catholic Charities Maine, estimated that only a few dozen Ukrainians have made it to Maine. He said some arrive on tourist visas, while others come because they already have relatives living in the state.
"So they come as a family reunification. So there are several different paths to come here," he said.
Another path is through a new program that allows people living in the U.S. to sponsor Ukrainians. That program allows evacuees to fly directly here.
Ahmadov said Ukrainians will also be able to get to the U.S. through the traditional refugee resettlement program, but that can take up to two years.
Meanwhile, Oleg Opalnyk is helping another newly arrived family. Olha Kutniak, her husband Yurii, and their 11-year-old son, crossed into the U.S. from Mexico before the Biden administration cut off that route on April 25. They intended to continue on to Missouri.
Speaking in Russian through an interpreter, Olha said a volunteer at the border suggested they consider Maine instead, and told them to call Opalnyk.
Olha said the phone call went so well that they changed their plans on the spot. They arrived in Maine on April 21, and moved into the apartment upstairs from the Parashchuk family. Their son is now starting school, and Olha and Yurii are focused on securing work permits.
Opalnyk said managing this DIY refugee resettlement operation is a full-time job, on top running his construction business.
But, he said, taking in these families gives him a sense of clarity.
"I know a lot of people say, ‘I don't know what the purpose of my life [is],’' he said. "Well, start helping people."
Now, he’s working on remodeling another rental property to accommodate four more Ukrainian families arriving later this month.