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How a Ukrainian family adjusts to life in Minnesota one year after the Russian invasion

MINNEAPOLIS — One of the first Ukrainian families to arrive in Minnesota reflects on their trip in light of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. This is because a Minnesota nonprofit said it still needs sponsors to help more Ukrainians trying to escape.

Vadym and Liubov Holiuk, along with their three daughters, 11-year-old twins Anastasiia and Alisa, and 2.5-year-old Anita, were the first family sponsored through Alight in Minnesota last September. WCCO News was there at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport as they stepped off the plane, greeted with signs and balloons from their sponsors Mark and Sharon Norlander of Brooklyn Park.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we landed here and how things would go after that, but then we met the Norlanders and it was fine,” said the Holiuks. “[When our] youngest daughter Anita, got off the plane, she saw Mark, he was already playing with her at the airport.”

“You’re a little bit nervous, but at the same time it’s very exciting and it really makes everything in a positive way and also in a negative way, that you see the faces of people who had to flee their country because they live in the eastern part that was bombed,” said the Norlanders.

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The Holiuks are one of 35 families here from Ukraine with the help of sponsors through the Minneapolis-based non-profit organization Alight.

Once Alight matches sponsors with a family, they usually have a few months to raise money and prepare, but due to timing, the Norlanders had to act faster than expected.

“We thought we would have two months to prepare to find a house, choose a school, furnish it and we actually only had four days so we quickly cleaned the upstairs for a house and then Mark and I moved into the lower basement,” said Mark and Sharon.

The Holiuks initially lived with the Norlanders when they arrived, spending a lot of time getting to know each other and taking turns cooking meals and exploring Minnesota together.

“We’re empty nesters and it was really nice to have our house so full, but it didn’t feel crowded,” Sharon said. “It just felt full of love and it was really great to go to bed at night and hear the little toddler running downstairs through the kitchen and living room upstairs and just be able to walk into the living room and work on a jigsaw puzzle. twins or learn to play a game, [or] go for a walk. There was just enough love to go around.”

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The Holiuks have since moved into their new home about half a mile from the Norlanders, but the two families said they see each other often and have become lifelong friends.

“Even when we tell her that Mark is coming, [Anita] stands at the window and waits for Mark,” the Holiuks said of their youngest daughter Anita’s bond with their sponsor Mark.

The Holiuks said they are adjusting well to life in Minnesota and their twins love school. Vadym has recently found a job and Liubov is currently trying to get her driver’s license with Mark’s help.

“It was a difficult decision for us,” said Vadym and Liubov. “It was really hard being so far from home but we’re glad we found our second family here, the Norlanders and they’re making it better. We can’t say a bad thing [about people in Minnesota] because we met a lot of helpful people. They always asked how they could help us. They found us clothes and they helped us and even asked us if we needed anything.”

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Alight said it is currently helping another 35 families come to Minnesota and while the nonprofit has about 100 sponsorship groups, leaders said they see an overwhelming number of Ukrainians wanting to leave and waiting for a sponsor to help them do so.

Minnesota nonprofit seeks sponsors to help Ukrainian families


“We don’t see that war ending now, so there will be ongoing needs and we will continue to spread the word that sponsors can create that pathway to safety,” said Steph Koehne, the Private Sponsorship Lead at Alight.

Becoming a sponsor is both a time and financial commitment.

“It’s definitely a time commitment, but what we’ve seen is that it just enables transformative experiences for both the sponsor and the family and builds a support system that allows the sponsor to really build out the experience.” they arrive and make sure that family is connected to key support services,” Koehne said.

Sponsors working with Alight are recommended to raise anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 to help families for about three months – anything from temporary housing, buying food and clothing, signing up for Social Security, getting their driver’s license and more.

Koehne said what sponsors get in return is priceless.

“This is a real opportunity to be part of that system that provides the opportunity for a family to come and make your community, your neighborhood, your home the welcoming place for a family that simply changes lives.”

The Norlanders said the outpouring of community support made raising money to help the Holiuks very easy and they have gained a lot by becoming a sponsor.

“I think we were just trying to create a sense of normalcy so that they could realize that they are safe here and that this temporary home is a place for them where they can feel welcome, accepted and loved,” they said. “Realize that it will disrupt your life and there will be sacrifices involved, but the disruption will be one of the most beautiful disruptions you’ve ever had.”

As for returning to Ukraine when it is safe, the Holiuks said, “Time will tell.”

“We can’t say anything for now because it’s totally unsafe to go there right now and we’re not sure if we have a place to return, so it’s a tough question for us, [but] we will see.”

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