Joya Breems – Staff Writer
This summer, five Sioux Center churches worked together to host Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the war in their homeland. The resettlement committee at Covenant CRC located a house, and the church community flooded it with donations of furniture, food, and eventually fellowship. Covenant collaborated with Samaritan’s Purse, an organization dedicated to rehousing refugees. Covenant is currently hosting Illia and Olga Riazantsev, and their 4-year-old son George.
The refugee resettlement committee at Covenant originally formed to house refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Those refugees were housed on military bases until they could be dispersed into more permanent housing throughout the country. The committee located a house families from Afghanistan could stay in on March 11, 2022. Refugees could potentially arrive by March 12.
“Finding a house was the golden key,” Verlyn DeWit, the committee leader, said.
But Covenant was too late; other organizations had already rehoused all Afghans living on the bases.
Within several days “the whole house was furnished with donations from Covenant,” says Rhoda said, a member of the Covenant housing committee.
Rhoda cataloged pages of donations, a microwave, bedding, area rug, and even a sewing machine.
When news of conflict between Ukraine and Russia began to surface in May, Covenant and Samaritan’s Purse pivoted to hosting Ukrainian families instead. After all, a home was already prepared for them.
Mark McCarthy, another member of Covenant, stepped into helping how he could. A professor of history at Dordt University, McCarthy is also fluent in Russian. Most Ukrainian refugees come from areas where Russian is the dominant language. McCarthy studied in Russia for several years following the Soviet collapse, which is where he learned the language. McCarthy drove to the airport with DeWit to greet Illia and Olga, welcome them to Sioux Center, and translate for them. Illia has a decent understanding of English but is still working on speaking fluently.
“I was somebody for them to talk to without having to think,” McCarthy said.
By August 2022, the Riazantev’s had settled into their new home. George attends Stepping Stones Preschool. The family continues to practice English. They often ride their bikes around town, and they’ve become acquainted with their neighbors.
“They even watch their neighbor’s cat when she’s at work,” Rhoda said.
The transition hasn’t been without challenges. Nikita, Illia and Olga’s 17-year-old son chose to stay in Poland.
“How do you leave behind everything you know? It must be disorienting,” McCarthy said.
Another challenge is documentation. The Uniting for Ukraine program allows refugees to come to the U.S. but does not provide them with documents to work.
“We let them in, but how will they sustain themselves?” McCarthy said.
Sioux Center is also home to the Kuchyk family. Adel Kuchyk is a university student who traveled to the U.S. before the war as an exchange student. They are from Melitopol.
Her brother, Maxim, remembers the phone call his sister received from their dad when the conflict began:
“You should probably get out of Ukraine.”
Maxim met up with Adel at the eastern border of Ukraine, and together they drove to Poland, and then Lithuania. Adel’s host family in Texas helped her and her brother to get to the U.S.
“God made huge things happen for us,” Adel said.
They waited at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We were in a very big line of Mexican people,” Maxim said. “Someone asked, are you from Ukraine? Follow me. So, I followed.”
Their hometown in Ukraine, Melitopol, is occupied by the Russians. Adel and Maxim’s father is still in Ukraine, driving families from Melitopol to neighboring countries to help them escape.
Adel, her fiancé, and her brother Maxim spent five months in Texas, with Adel’s previous host family. Maxim used that time to study English, and Adel and Michael got married. They moved to Sioux Center so Adel can study journalism at Dordt. Maxim is a first-year student at Unity Christian High School.
Although Maxim realizes there are more career opportunities in the U.S., he still misses home.
“I just want to go back; I miss the old stuff,” Maxim said.