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Oro Valley couple sponsor former student in Uniting for Ukraine

Yuliia Dzvonyska, far right, a refugee from the Ukraine, with her sponsors Barbara and Jeff Schlieper. The couple sponsored Dzvonyska through Uniting for Ukraine, a federal government program in which U.S. citizens can sponsor a refugee. Barbara was stationed in the Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2003-2007. Jeff taught at a local university and Dzvonyska is a former student.

Ukrainian Yuliia Dzvonyska calls her mother every morning from her northwest-side apartment in Tucson.

Hearing her mother’s voice on the phone or seeing her on her laptop brings her comfort and calms her nerves. She knows her country is being bombed in a war that began in February when Russian troops invaded Ukraine, destroying lives, cities and towns.

Dzvonyska relives the wailing sirens — warning residents of air raids — that could last for hours while families gather their backpacks filled with clothing, medicines, water and food and make their way to a bomb shelter. Others, especially elderly and those with physical disabilities, move to the safest place in their homes and wait out the warnings of missile strikes.

These images remain — images that come to life in daily newspapers and newscasts that Dzvonyska reads online or sees on television.

So the morning calls to her family in Kropyvnytskyi are a lifeline for Dzvonyska. Once she talks to her mother, she then may speak to her father if he is at home and not working for the city of Kyiv’s transit system as a bus driver. He travels to Kyiv and works usually seven days straight and then gets a week off.

Dzvonyska hears their voices, and sometimes her grandmother’s voice, and it is reassuring. They are alive.

It was difficult for Dzvonyska to leave her motherland, but her mother insisted. Her father and grandmother strongly agreed. They wanted the best for the 34-year-old who speaks four languages and was the purchasing manager for an agricultural business that sells goods and machinery. They wanted her alive and safe, even if it meant moving across the globe.

Uniting for Ukraine

In April, the United States announced Uniting for Ukraine, a two-year program for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion. Uniting for Ukraine is a key step toward fulfilling President Joe Biden’s commitment to welcome Ukrainians fleeing the war. The program provides a pathway for up to 100,000 Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family to come to the U.S. and stay temporarily, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. The Department of Homeland Security administers the program.

The key is that Ukrainians participating in the program must have a private sponsor in the U.S. who agrees to provide them with financial support such as paying for their travel here and providing them with housing. Organizations or groups can help the sponsor with funds. Government officials will vet each sponsor to make sure they have the finances to support the Ukrainian participant, and also conduct security background checks to protect against exploitation and abuse. Ukrainians must also meet certain conditions, including vaccinations and other public health requirements, vetting and security checks.

Recently, Arizona received nearly $600,000 in federal funding specific to eligible Ukrainian humanitarian parolee for federal fiscal year 2022, and does not include monies issued directly to local resettlement agencies, said an official with the state Department of Economic Security. Based on federal projections, Arizona is expecting to resettle 401 Ukrainians this federal fiscal year and 134 in 2023. About 75% will resettle in Phoenix and the remaining 25% in Tucson. According to local resettlement agencies, so far they have more than 40 Ukrainians who were eligible for benefits.

In May, Biden signed the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act for Ukranians eligible for federal Office of Refugee Resettlement benefits and services, including cash, food and medical assistance. The law provides $40 billion in additional aid to address the current crisis, including $900 million for additional refugee services and supplemental assistance through the Office of Refugee Resettlement that is being allocated through grants and contracts with resettlement agencies and other qualified organizations, said the state official.

Stepping up

Dzvonyska arrived in Tucson nearly three months ago through Uniting for Ukraine, after she was sponsored by her former English teachers she met 15 years ago in her native Kropyvnytskyi, a city in central Ukraine.

Barbara Schlieper, a longtime English teacher in a suburban school district in New York state, joined the Peace Corps in 2003 and went to work teaching Ukrainian teachers how to teach English. She also spent time in classrooms teaching students. Barbara’s husband, Jeff Schlieper, who also was a teacher and later went to work for AT&T and other communication companies in technology and finance, followed his wife to Ukraine where he taught Business English and English at a university. The couple also speak Ukrainian and Russian.

The Schliepers now live in Oro Valley and traveled often to Ukraine. “That experience changed our lives. We lived in another culture very different from our own, and the people took us into their hearts,” recalls Barbara Schlieper. When the war broke out, she remembers her and her husband looking at each other and asking, “what can we do?”

“We felt very helpless, as many Americans feel. But as soon as the program (Uniting for Ukraine) opened, we decided to offer our help to former students,” she said. “We can’t fix the war, but sponsoring Yuliia is something we can do.”

It was easier for Dzvonyska to accept their sponsorship because she is single and has no children. The couple researched the program, as did Dzvonyska, and both began the process online, explains Jeff Schlieper.

Leaving home

Dzvonyska began her journey out of Ukraine in March, saying farewell to her parents and grandmother. She traveled with a friend and as thousands were fleeing Ukraine traffic jams slowed movement to a crawl, taking days to make their way to the western part of Ukraine. They made it to Lviv and then to Wroclaw, Poland, standing on a train packed with passengers making it difficult to move or breathe. Stops along the way were a welcome break to get off the train, walk and breathe fresh air. Volunteers handed out clothing for children and offered hot food, cookies, tea or coffee to help passengers stay warm in the cold air, recalls Dzvonyska.

After days of travel, the two stayed in a hostel for two nights before leaving for Oldenburg, Germany, where they lived with a family for three months.

“When we arrived, it was perfect spring weather with daffodils in bloom and the sun shining. The city in northwest Germany is very green, clean and the people are friendly. It is an old city that was historically preserved,” says Dzvonyska. Oldenburg Castle is home to part of the State Museum for Art and Cultural History, showing regional artifacts and European paintings.

In their minds, Oldenburg was their new home. They registered as refugees and each opened a bank account to receive cash assistance from the government. They enrolled in German classes at a school, and explored the city on bicycles and learned the transit system. They took fitness classes at a sports complex, and many Germans spoke English and wanted to know about their lives. Dzvonyska had good days when she woke up calm, but then there were bad days when she was nervous and anxious, thinking about the war and her family. The fitness classes helped her deal with the anxiety. She stayed busy and cooked Ukrainian soups, salads and fish, sharing lunches and dinners with the family, an architect and his three children.

Dzvonyska stayed busy and read news reports on her laptop about the war and Ukrainian refugees. Then her life changed again when she read about the U.S. government’s program, Uniting for Ukraine. She and the Schliepers contacted each other and they became her sponsor and paid her travel expenses to Los Angeles.

Jeff Schlieper met Dzvonyska in June at the Los Angeles airport where she was processed through U.S. Customs, and they stayed with Barbara’s sister who lives near Redondo Beach. The next morning was the first time Dzvonyska was on a beach, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Then she enjoyed shopping at a supermarket with a large Hispanic foods section where they bought ingredients to make tostadas for dinner, and the next day they traveled to Tucson where she lived for a short time with the Schliepers before they moved her into an apartment.

“We are focused now on getting her self-sufficient,” says Jeff Schlieper. “You learn a lot more when you are on your own.”

The couple is paying the rent, and she is waiting to get work authorization, which can take six months. She was approved for government benefits of $250 a month for food assistance, $500 a month for expenses, and she qualified for medical benefits. She is learning to ride the bus to get around the city and go grocery shopping, and she applied for and received a library card.

Dzvonyska is not accustomed to Tucson’s heat or the desert. She comes from rolling farmland with humid summers and cold winters, much like Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. But, she is amazed when she looks over the Santa Catalinas, watching the sun come up. She finds the sunrise and sunsets peaceful. She also enjoyed the monsoon rains and finds desert lizards captivating.

“The hardest for me is being here and knowing that my family is back in Ukraine. I have my American family here who support me, and the people here have been so kind and friendly. But, I love Ukraine and I really miss it,” she says as her voice cracks. “I don’t know when everything will settle in Ukraine, or what opportunities I will have in Ukraine. It will take years to rebuild.”

The young woman says she will work on staying positive because she does not want to fall into a depression. She will learn to speak English better and learn as much as she can about Americans and their way of life.

At some point, Dzvonyska can explore her options for establishing residency status, whether she applies for asylum, a permanent resident card, or return to Ukraine, says Jeff Schlieper.

Since Dzvonyska speaks English, she is ahead of those Ukrainians who do not know the language. She also speaks her native Ukrainian, Russian and German. She enrolled in an online English as a Second Language class at Pima Community College to improve her skills, studying four days a week, two hours a day. “She is a sponge. She is adjusting extremely well,” says Barbara Schlieper, who routinely meets with her for a weekly Zumba class on Sunday. Afterwards, they may go shopping and buy groceries to cook a late lunch or dinner, spending the day at Barbara and Jeff’s house.

Dzvonyska says she plans to go on future outings with members of the Ukrainian American Society of Tucson, and is willing to translate for Ukrainians who do not know English.

Support available

Dave McKeehan, a volunteer of the Southeastern Arizona Ukrainian Care Network, has released the Ukrainian Sponsorship Guide for Arizona, an unofficial resource to assist private sponsors of Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war and coming to the United States under the Uniting for Ukraine program.

Under the program, individual people can sponsor a Ukrainian humanitarian parolee, and they or the parolee must provide transportation to get to the United States. The sponsor must provide housing, and care for individuals or families. Eligible participants can apply for government benefits, including cash and food assistance, and medical care. They also can apply for work authorization.

McKeehan said the guide, which is updated monthly, can help sponsors with information about government benefits for eligible Ukrainians, and help to enroll children in schools, and explain how to get a driver’s license and Social Security card.

The sponsors take on tasks normally assigned to Tucson resettlement agencies, which are expected to help sponsors and Ukrainian humanitarian parolees with their cases once federal funding is released to the agencies to do the work.

The guide is available in English, Russian and Ukrainian at: tucne.ws/1lb9

To learn more about the Ukrainian American Society of Tucson and the care network, including volunteering, contact McKeehan at 520-289-4475 or dave.mckeehan@gmail.com and ihor.kunasz@comcast.net.

Here are more resources:

For a newsletter about Ukrainian gatherings and activities for individuals and families, email aileen.a.wong@gmail.com

To obtain official information about the Uniting for Ukraine program, go to uscis.gov/ukraine

Resettlement agencies in Tucson that can offer benefit information to sponsors of Ukrainian humanitarian parolees are:

Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, 520-748-2300 or lss-sw.org

Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Southern Arizona, 520-795-0300 or jfcstucson.org

Catholic Community Services, 520-623-4555 or ccs-soaz.org

International Rescue Committee, 520-319-2128 or rescue.org/united-states/tucson-az

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at cduarte@tucson.com or on Twitter: @cduartestar


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