Ukrainians in Minnesota pay it forward one year after fleeing war

A woman speaks to a class in front of a map
Iryna Petrus, community outreach manager with the Ukrainian American Community Center, assists during a money management class on Friday, part of an effort to help recent immigrants get settled in their new home in Minnesota. The class is taught by the International Institute of Minnesota.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Updated March 1, 2023 | Posted Feb. 23, 2023

Before many had even spent a full week in Minnesota, a group of newly-arrived Ukrainians soaked up knowledge at a community orientation class inside the Ukrainian American Community Center in northeast Minneapolis.

Iryna Petrus was like them not long ago. Petrus and her daughter arrived in Minnesota last May after stints in Mexico, Texas and New Hampshire living with various host families.

“When I visited Minnesota I became emotional,” Petrus said. 

In Minnesota, she found a bustling Ukrainian community and resources to get her basic needs met around finding work, a place to live, and transportation. Petrus’ 5-year-old daughter, who did not speak English, was also able to play with other Ukrainian children.

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A young boy sits and watches a phone
Two-year-old Artem Syplyvyi quietly watches a video on a phone while his parents, recent immigrants from Ukraine, attend a money management class at the Ukrainian American Community Center on Friday.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

“I am lucky I speak the language,” said Petrus, who studied in the United States more than a decade ago. “Most people do not speak English, especially elder generations.” 

More than 8 million Ukrainians have been displaced by war and are mostly living across Europe. In the United States, the federal government does not notify states when Ukrainians arrive.

Ukrainians mostly are granted Humanitarian Parole status at a port of entry to the United States. People entering the U.S. through the federal Uniting for Ukraine program are required to have a person who filed to be a supporter for them upon arrival.

People sit at tables and listen
Recent immigrants from Ukraine learn about money management class at the Ukrainian American Community Center on Friday. In the front row, left to right, are Alona Libezman, Nataliia Dmyteenko and Artur Rakin.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

The federal government reports more than 2,700 of these applications have been filed by people in Minnesota.

Based on enrollments to local programs, more than 900 Ukrainians have arrived since March 2022 and accessed federally funded services upon arrival, according to the Department of Human Services (DHS). There may be many more who have not accessed any support services.

A man faces the front of a room
Olesksii Butenko had only been in Minnesota for five days before attending a class at the Ukrainian American Community Center on Friday.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Petrus now works as a community outreach manager for the Ukrainian American Community Center through a DHS grant. Even though it took several months for her to gain work eligibility, she considered herself lucky to have the opportunity to work and be able to live on her own with her daughter.

“When you arrive you need food and a place to stay,” Petrus said. “We are feeling a lack of places for people to live.”

As Ukrainians continue to arrive, Petrus also said each individual has a unique set of traumatic experiences from fleeing war and leaving everything they knew behind.

“I have to learn how to be very respectful and supportive,” Petrus said. “It is sensitive to my soul, I sense what they went through.”

Maryna Kyrylkova, her husband and four children made a split-second decision to leave their home near the Ukrainian capital within the first days of the Russian invasion.

“It was like one hour to pack everything we can and just left,” Kyrylkova remembered.

A childhood friend Kyrylkova met when she was 11 years old at a day camp in Ukraine helped her family eventually get to Minnesota. They now live there for free in a house belonging to an older couple that was sitting empty for years. Kyrylkova marvels at the kindness of others.

“I was in need, but I never felt struggling,” Kyrylkova said. “One suitcase and a few bags, but until this moment I have food, everything I need and I really appreciate it.”

A woman helps with paperwork
Ukraine Case Manager Maryna Kyrylkova helps a Ukrainian refugee process paperwork at the International Institute of Minnesota in St. Paul on Feb. 16.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Since October, Kyrylkova has been working as a case manager with the International Institute of Minnesota, serving hundreds of Ukrainians using her English language skills and background in teaching.

While life took an unexpected turn, Kyrylkova said she has found a new purpose and calls it a dream job. Kyrylkova spends her days shuffling through endless paperwork for new arrivals and giving them her unwavering support. 

“It makes me feel needed, stronger, helpful to others,” Kyrylkova said. “I can pay forward for people and I can help them.”

In the evenings, Kyrylkova can be found at her son’s hockey games like many Minnesota moms. She worries about what will happen when the family’s two years in the United States under humanitarian parole winds down, since her children are adjusting well to life in Minnesota.

The best thing to do, according to Kyrylkova, is to keep moving forward and helping others whenever possible.

Both Kyrylkova and Petrus said Minnesota has earned a reputation as a welcoming place filled with resources and a thriving Ukrainian community.

Two woman stand at the front of a room
Instructor Carrie Mann, left, listens as Oksana Hanuschak translates during the money management class on Friday.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

The Twin Cities region is the nation's top metro area for Ukrainian refugees supported by the national Welcome.US refugee program, according to the humanitarian aid group Alight.

Ukrainians are arriving every day and still need a lot of support in areas like finding jobs, places to live and transportation. Petrus said people are welcome to call and share with the Ukrainian American Community Center what they have to offer.

“If you are in a position where you feel like you can help someone, maybe share a room,” Petrus said. “Let’s talk.”

During war and times of uncertainty, Petrus continues to see people helping out in creative ways.

“I am deeply grateful,” Petrus said. “I will never forget it, and I will make sure my daughter never forgets it and Ukrainians will never forget it.” 

Correction (March 1, 2023): The Twin Cities region is the nation's top metro area for Ukrainian refugee sponsorships supported through the Welcome.US refugee program. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Minnesota as second among states for all Ukrainian refugee sponsorships, based on information from the humanitarian aid group Alight.