‘We are so grateful’: In Stoughton, a growing Ukrainian refugee effort and a gaping need

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STOUGHTON, Wis. — At least four Ukrainian refugee families fleeing the war in their home country will have a semi-permanent home in Stoughton thanks to the expanding efforts of a 7-month-old volunteer organization, the Stoughton Resettlement Assistance Program (SRAP).

One family, Slava and Natalia Romashchenko, are lavish in their praise when asked what those efforts have meant to them.

“We are so grateful,” they say with the help of Ukrainian interpreter Peter Sokor, whose own family is also one of those helped. “We cannot imagine if we didn’t meet those people.”

A budding volunteer effort

Kay Weeden’s interest in helping with refugee resettlement efforts actually began last fall when she volunteered with the Red Cross at Fort McCoy, helping 13,000 Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover with their temporary stay at the military base before moving on to permanent homes.

“I’m an immigrant myself,” she explained. “I came from England many years ago and just waltzed into the country.”

She and two friends also interested in the effort organized first in December, with a goal of helping Afghans resettle in the Stoughton area. Months later, Russia invaded Ukraine and residents fled the country by the millions to Poland and other neighboring countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 9 million people have left Ukraine since February 24 this year.

Suddenly, people were asking her if she and her newly-founded group could help.

“People are asking us if we have housing for Ukrainians–and we do,” she explained. “So we took one family and then another, and now we’re resettling another two families in the next two weeks.”

The group is now fifteen volunteers strong, with three co-coordinators including Weeden forming the steering committee. Several of them are either refugees themselves, or have loved ones who are. They just completed a lengthy 501(c)(3) application process, and are still working to build a website.

Weeden says they’re partnering with the Lutheran Social Services based in Milwaukee, one of Wisconsin’s six official resettlement agencies who partner with the federal government to help refugees find permanent housing, jobs, and other needs. In addition to the four Ukrainian families they’re currently helping, they’ll also be resettling several single Afghan refugees passed to them by LSS, Weeden said.

Many of their Ukrainian families so far have come through the help of Maria Llewellyn, a Ukrainian nurse with SSM Health whose family lives in Oregon. News 3 Now profiled her work in May of helping families leaving Ukraine and connecting them to temporary housing in the Madison area. Now, SRAP partners with her to provide the longterm housing and other resources for the families she connects with.

“We kinda stumbled upon each other,” Weeden said. “It was amazing that she had the need and we had the ability to meet that need right then and there.”

Many Ukrainian refugees, however, don’t qualify under current restrictions for refugee aid available to others — and the process to get a work permit is longer and complicated.

“They’re just waiting and waiting and there’s nothing they’re allowed to do,” Weeden said. “There’s not refugee resettlement benefits that are afforded to them as would be for [others].”

Families helped

Both the Sokor and Romashchenko families fled Ukraine as the war was beginning, going to a few different countries like Poland and the Czech Republic before ultimately passing through the Mexico border to the United States and Wisconsin.

The Romashchenko family fled with the help of the UkraineTakeShelter website, built by two Harvard students soon after the invasion. On the site, refugees could be connected to host families — which is how the Romashchenkos found themselves in Stoughton.

“They now study English,” Sokor translated for Slava in an interview. “They try to understand life here.”

In Ukraine, Slava had been a truck driver. Here, he’s unable to work yet without a permit — and can’t get over how expensive everything is in the area. They’re eating mainly with the help of food pantries, and living in the apartment that SRAP got for them.

Their 15-year-old English-speaking daughter, Lira, was able to attend some school while here — and was blown away by everyone’s kindness.

“I have never seen in Europe or Ukraine [such] kind people,” she said.

How you can help

The group has about $10,000 on hand in donations, which will get their four families by on rent for a month or two. Clothing and furniture donations have poured in, but they’re short on cash: Weeden estimates they need $50,000 minimum to help four families with rent, transportation, and immigration expenses for the next year.

Their GoFundMe has about $5,300 raised at the time of this article’s publishing. Other community organizations, like the Stoughton Area Community Foundation and the United Methodist Church are all chipping in as well.

There’s other ways to help: The group is also short on beds and mattresses for the two families coming in next. Plus, gift cards for their local grocery and general shopping locations are needed: Walmart, Aldis, and Pick ‘n Save. For coordination, the group can be contacted also at their Facebook page.

Photojournalist Brian Mesmer contributed to this report.