Ukrainian families begin resettling in Maine, with help from local volunteers

On a recent morning, 2-year-old Kateryna Parashchuk chased a mini soccer ball around her family’s new Auburn apartment while her parents, Sviatoslav and Tetiana, chatted in the background.

The Parashchuks hail 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 February 24, her life changed immediately.

Speaking in Ukrainian through an interpreter, Sviatoslav said his boss called him at 6 a.m. that day with a firm instruction: Explosions hit Bucha, take your children and go now.

Sviatoslav, Tetiana and their three children went to western Ukraine to stay with their family. In early March they crossed Poland.

Their goal is to get to Maine and meet up with Tetiana’s mother, who lives in Mechanic Falls.

Meanwhile, here in Maine, Oleg Opalnyk fought the urge to return to Ukraine.

“When the war started, I wanted to fight,” Opalnyk said.

Originally from Ukraine, Opalnyk moved to Maine in 2001. Today he lives in Pownal, runs a construction business and invests in apartment buildings.

Opalnyk said he talked his way out of that initial urge to join the fights, realizing he could be of help this side of the Atlantic.

“So I posted on Facebook: ‘If there is someone who needs to flee [a] shelter, I’ll help you,” he said.

He started with the parashchuks. When he learned the family was ready to come to the United States, he paid for their trip and offered to put them up in one of his Auburn rentals for free.

Like many Ukrainians trying to reach the US, the parashchuks first went to Tijuana, Mexico, and introduced themselves to US border officials. They were granted humanitarian parole, allowing them to stay in the country for up to two years, and arrived in Auburn on April 13.

With support from his parish, Opalnyk furnished the family’s home and helped enroll their children in school, tasks normally undertaken by refugee resettlement organizations.

“It’s overwhelming at times,” he said of the work it took to help the family relocate. “But at the same time, I’m very grateful to have this ability to help.”

Oleg Opalnyk of Pownal stands in front of one of his rental properties in Auburn, where the Parashchuk and Kutniak families live. Originally from Ukraine, Opalnyk plans to host several more families later this month.

So far, only a few dozen Ukrainians have made it to Maine, according to estimates by state refugee coordinator Tarlan Ahmadov. He said some come on tourist visas, while others come because they already have relatives living in the state.

“So they come as a family reunion. So there are several different ways to get here,” he said.

Another way is through a new program that allows people living in the US to sponsor Ukrainians. This program allows evacuees to fly directly here.

Ahmadov said Ukrainians can also get to the US through the traditional refugee resettlement program, but that could 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 had entered the United States from Mexico before the Biden administration cut that route on April 25. They wanted to travel 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 call went so well that they immediately changed their plans. They arrived in Maine on April 21 and moved into the Parashchuk family’s upstairs apartment. Their son is now starting school and Olha and Yurii are concentrating on getting a work permit.

Opalnyk said managing this DIY refugee resettlement is a full-time job, in addition to running his construction business.

But, he said, the inclusion of these families gives him a sense of clarity.

“I know a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t know what my purpose in life is [is],” he said. “Well, start helping people.”

He is now working on converting another rental property to accommodate four more Ukrainian families who will arrive later this month.

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