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Humanitarian program offers protection to Ukrainian refugees in Valley

YOUNGSTOWN — Iryna Isakova painfully recalled spending nearly four months sleeping on the floor of her residence, turning off lights whenever sirens sounded and using candles, and having continual conversations with family members about what their lives may become.

“The first days were the most difficult,” recalled a tearful Isakova, who taught English in Ukraine and was referring to some of her life-altering experiences during the war with Russia in her country.

Neither Isakova nor her husband, Serhii Isakov, and another family member, Klara Isakova, need to worry any longer about becoming war casualties. All three arrived safely in the Mahoning Valley on June 14 after having left Khmelnitzkiy, Ukraine.

They also received a warm welcome from the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation and others during a news conference Tuesday morning at Levy Gardens Assisted Living, 584 Granada Ave., on the North Side.

Other ways Isakova coped with daily hardships associated with the war that began in February included feeding and helping people they adopted before they fled to other safe countries, as well as cooking for them, she remembered.

The three family members arrived in the Valley via the Humanitarian Parole for Uniting for Ukraine program, which was introduced April 21 and allows Ukrainians who fled their homes because of the invasion to have temporary protection in the United States for up to two years. Those who applied were required to have someone in the U.S. act on their behalf as a supporter or sponsor.

The three Ukrainians’ primary sponsor is their relative Zina Lerman, who works in the Jewish Federation’s accounting department and who came to the Valley from Ukraine with her husband and two daughters in 1992.

“Disbelief,” Lerman said when recalling how she felt being reunited with her three family members upon their arrival at the Pittsburgh International Airport. “We’re still in shock.”

The occasion marked the first time Lerman saw her aunt Klara in 22 years, she said, holding back tears. Lerman said she feared that she might never see them.

Before arriving in Pittsburgh, the three had an exhausting amount of travel that included a 15-hour bus ride from Khmelnitzkiy to the border with Poland, and another two-hour ride to Warsaw, where many other refugees received food and other basic essentials. They also were to fly to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, but were re-routed to Toronto because of inclement weather before being able to fly back to Chicago, then to Pittsburgh.

Among those who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference was Nancy Burnett, the Jewish Community Council Advisory Board’s chairwoman, who embarked on a mission trip to Poland in April, part of which was to deliver more than 300 pounds of donated medical supplies to Ukrainian refugees.

During the trip to the Ukraine border, Burnett and Lisa Long, who accompanied her, visited refugee centers in motels and warehouses that had little more than cots and blankets, she said.

“We were firsthand witnesses to this dark period in history. At the Ukraine border, we watched mostly women and children carry only what they could escape with,” Burnett remembered. “They weren’t crying; they were confused and scared because they didn’t know what was next.”

In Warsaw, the refugees received food, shelter and other essentials in tents before moving on, Burnett said.

“It was heartbreaking, but it was heartwarming too, to see how they were greeted,” she continued.

Burnett and Long also did a lot of listening and realized the refugees’ stories of terror were consistent, regardless of their diverse backgrounds and experiences, she observed.

Despite having arrived safely in the Valley, being thousands of miles removed from her homeland poses its own emotional challenges, Iryna Isakova explained.

“It really isn’t easy to leave our country, but the (war) situation showed us the way,” said Isakova, who also expressed deep gratitude toward those who have been helpful, kind and compassionate.

Nevertheless, most Ukrainians have had to struggle for independence and hope to stop “this terrible war in the 21st century,” she said.

The Youngstown Area Jewish Federation is part of the Jewish Federations of North America, which is dedicated to connecting primary sponsors with Ukrainian refugees wanting to come to this country. The local agency also is working to ensure Klara Isakova, Serhii Isakov and Iryna Isakova will have the benefits to which they’re entitled, Andrew Lipkin, the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation’s chief executive officer, said.

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