Helping her homeland: Local Ukrainian-born nurse embarks on journey to help refugees in Czech Republic

MADISON, Wis. — As her country has been torn apart by Vladimir Putin’s army, Maria Llewellyn hasn’t been content just sitting comfortably in the United States, watching it all unfold.

“Realistically, I understand that I may never go back home,” said Llewellyn, now a nurse in the family suites at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison.

Maria left to marry her husband Ben in the United States in 2009. Ben left his native California to work for Epic Systems in Verona, and that’s what brought them to the Madison area. Maria, trained in education, re-tooled her career and became a nurse.

Five years later, Putin’s armies tore Crimea away from Ukraine. In anticipation of February’s attack, Maria, and her friends and family members made arrangements to help some people get out of the country before the invasion started.

Amazingly, Ben and Maria were able to cobble together enough contacts and financial resources in Europe to help seven families escape to safety.

“There was always a family that we somehow found,” Maria Llewellyn said. “We started raising financial support because it costs money to stay places to buy food and they had practically nothing.”

It didn’t stop there. One family, who they didn’t even know in Ukraine, introduced themselves to the Llewellyns from overseas, and soon after were on their way to the Madison area. The Sokors have three daughters, ages 11, 10 and 7, and now share the Llewellyns home for the time being.

“For us, we don’t feel like this has been a burden or a drag,” Ben Llewellyn said. “Just having the resources and being blessed with that to open our home and having them in, for us, this is a privilege.”

Yet for this couple who has given so much already, it hasn’t been enough for Maria. The pull of her homeland made her want to get as close as she could to help families in need.

That meant flying to the Czech Republic, in the tiny remote town of Nova Paka, about an hour from the Polish border. There, tucked away just to the west of the Carpathian foothills, are some 70 Ukrainian families, wondering what will come of their lives.

“People are just so hungry for encouragement, you know, their life has been just shattered,” Maria Llewellyn said, “and a lot of them do not know what the next step for them is.”

Many are looking for whatever jobs they can find, unsure if their future will include a return to Ukraine.

“What we really want is to help people to find a way to rebuild their lives,” Ben Llewellyn said, “and for a lot of these families, that means finding work that is meaningful and finding a safe place to raise their children.”

The couple left this week with over 200 bags full of essentials, donated by Maria’s employer. The bags included everything from water bottles to toothbrushes, first aid kits and hand sanitizer. The families will also be happy to receive something a little more intangible.

“You know, if they just need a hug and someone to cry with them, or just listen to them, whatever we can,” she said, “we’re just open, we do not know what exactly they will need.”

For Maria Llewellyn, you get the sense she needed this trip as much as those families needed her. The pain she feels for her homeland is real.

“When my friends were crossing the border, I was thinking, ‘Can you bring me just a handful of Ukrainian soil?’ because I think I would probably never touch it again,” she said.

Ben and Maria are also bringing along their two young sons to learn as much as they can about their Ukrainian heritage.

“It’s about showing them that part of the world. I want them to remember it. It’s not just about the hostility,” she said.

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It’s about helping others and so much more.

“Just going there, and seeing my people in person, hugging those children, it’s almost like going back home,” she said, “but home is not really the land. It’s the people.”