Twelve Ukrainian refugees arrived at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Saturday morning, greeted by volunteers with flowers, balloons, Alaska chocolate and tea, as well as freshly baked bread and salt — a Ukrainian tradition for welcoming guests. About 20 more refugees are expected to arrive later this week.
The Ukraine Relief Program — operated under the parish of the New Chance Church in Anchorage— has been working to bring Ukrainians affected by the war to Alaska since March, fundraising to buy tickets and to help refugees integrate once they’re here, said the program director, Zori Opanasevych.
“Yesterday, that moment when families are reunited, and the tears of joy — it’s worth it,” Opanasevych said. “Kids came with balloons, and they were giving them to the people that came in, and it was just a beautiful, beautiful celebration: When people would come out, their family would run to them. There was lots of tears, just happy tears, lots of hugs and kisses.”
Originally, Ukraine Relief Program hoped to hire three charters and relocate about 180 people on each, but volunteers adjusted the plan once the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services launched a new program, Uniting for Ukraine, also known as U4U. Through that program, volunteers are handling the relocations case by case, using commercial flights.
”We are expecting to help hundreds of Ukrainians; our goal is 600 and even more, if possible,” she said, adding that the actual numbers depend on who receives travel authorization from USCIS.
The volunteers plan to continue bringing in as many people as they can throughout summer and into the fall, Opanasevych said.
“We’ve lost passengers that signed up to come here but they died,” said Opanasevych who is originally from Ukraine. “It hurts, and we tear up every time we talk about it, but it just pushes us to work harder. ... When the war broke out, we first went through the emotions of shock, unbelief, anger, sadness — all of the emotions. And then we thought, ‘Well, we can’t just sit here and cry.’”
Overall, one more person relocated from Ukraine last Friday with the help of the Ukraine Relief Program, and about 50 Ukrainian refugees came to Alaska using travel visas and other means, Opanasevych said.
Among the 12 newcomers Saturday were two children, 2 and 7 years old, who received teddy bears, books and gifts.
Volunteers held a loaf of bread on an embroidered scarf to welcome all arriving Ukrainians, who could rip off a piece of bread, dip it in salt and take a bite. Melissa Jones, a manager at the North Star Bakery, made the bread, honoring a longstanding Ukrainian tradition of greeting guests at home.
“As I made the bread, I prayed over it and I prayed for each person that would be taking some of it and that they would feel loved and welcomed and find some comfort,” Melissa Jones said. “What they’re going through is – I can’t even fathom it, it makes me choke up. I can’t do a lot as a person, but if I can do something to make them feel loved and welcomed and part of our state, then that’s what I want to do.”
The volunteers plan to let the refugees settle, then will help them fill out work authorization forms, apply for legal paperwork and sign up for English classes. About 20 more refugees will arrive later this week, flying to Fairbanks and Anchorage, Opanasevych said. They will find homes in Delta Junction, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Wasilla.