Olesia and Serhii, refugees from Ukraine, were taken aback by both the warm welcome they received and the expansiveness of Minnesota's Mall of America, the nation's largest shopping mall, when they first arrived in the US.
Olesia told the BBC through an interpreter, "That was an interesting experience! We liked what we saw.". "But what I can really say is that this place is safe and full of kindhearted people. " .
After Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the couple left the city of Dnipro almost exactly one year ago. Soon after, they made their way to Italy, where the couple and their two young children sought refuge in a dormitory with more than 100 other people.
They joined the roughly 109,000 refugees who have found new homes in the US through Uniting For Ukraine, a government program that enables Americans to sponsor Ukrainians to immigrate to the US for up to two years, in December. The program, which is widely regarded as a success, prompted the Biden administration to announce comparable initiatives for refugees from other nations.
Sponsors are required by Uniting for Ukraine to assist in providing financial support for necessities like housing and healthcare, but participants and activists claim the program has resulted in bonds forming between refugees and their sponsors that frequently go far beyond their initial commitments.
We frequently hear that it was a powerful experience that changed lives. According to Welcome's president and chief operating officer, Anya McMurray, it is a remarkably potent gift of safety and security. Using our online platform, we link sponsors and refugees.
She continued, "It transforms the welcomer just as much as it transforms the welcomed.".
John Schrager, a lawyer from Minnesota who sponsored Olesia, Serhii, and a number of friends, agreed with Ms. McMurray's assessment.
According to Mr. Schrager, "I got a new Ukrainian family out of it.". And by pure luck of the draw, I was able to sponsor someone who is an incredible cook.
Another US sponsor, Kelly Wheeler, who lives in Alabama, told the BBC that what started as a modest family effort to aid a Ukrainian woman and her young son quickly grew into an extensive group effort involving numerous other people.
Together, Ms. Wheeler and other Madison town residents were able to offer financial assistance, other donations, and even furniture, to the refugees until their new homes were ready.
She praised the neighborhood, church, and community for their outpouring of support. "You don't do it alone... but all it took was a little bit of publicity and word-of-mouth spreading. " .
Viktoriia Kuznietsova, the woman Ms. Wheeler backed, hails from Melitopol, an occupied city in southeast Ukraine. After the Russian invasion, she was forced to give up a career in law and fled first to Israel before coming to the US in June. Her young son, Artem, who is 7 years old, was with her.
She has secured employment as a cashier at a nearby grocery store in Alabama.
She continued, "I really like it, and it's a new experience.". "The populace is very amiable. They enquire about my origins, as well as my country and me. ".
Despite being thousands of miles and in safety from her native Ukraine with her son, Ms. Kuznietsova added that she can't help but think about it.
She joined forces with other Russian and Ukrainian speakers in Alabama over the winter to raise funds for donations to support the war effort in Ukraine, where her brother is currently a soldier fighting on the front lines.
I have a lot of thoughts about my brother. He's in Donetsk, which is dangerous territory," she said. "I worry about the rest of my family all day long. They are in a hostile area. ".
Uniting for Ukraine's success inspired similar programs for refugees from other nations.
The Biden administration recently announced that sponsors could assist in bringing in 30,000 people each month for up to two years from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the United States.
The Biden administration launched the Welcome Corps program in January with the goal of mobilizing 10,000 Americans to assist 5,000 refugees from around the world in entering the US.
Welcome Corps is a program that allows groups of five or more Americans to raise a minimum of $2,375 in cash and in-kind donations, which will be used to meet a refugee's immediate needs until they can find employment. It was inspired by earlier programs for Ukrainians and Afghans as well as a similar sponsorship program in neighboring Canada that has so far resettled 368,000 people.
Welcome Corps allows approved refugees to connect with sponsors directly, as opposed to using resettlement organizations, as in the past programs.
We're overjoyed, Ms. McMurray said to the BBC. "We believe it is headed in exactly the right direction because it capitalizes on Americans' capacity, willingness, and will to welcome. ".
In addition, Welcome Corps offers a path to citizenship after five years, unlike earlier US programs like Uniting For Ukraine.
The new program benefits sponsors as well as refugees, according to Jocelyn Wyatt, CEO of Alight, a nonprofit that has previously assisted in matching refugees with Americans.
It creates a ton of chances for regular citizens to be incredibly kind, welcoming, and capable of giving newcomers to the nation support and a smooth transition, she said.
But there are difficulties involved in sponsoring a refugee. Cultural and linguistic barriers can be overcome in addition to the increased financial burden on the sponsors.
It's a difficult lift, but it's worthwhile, according to Mr. Schrager. "It's great that I had the chance. It's about them, not about me, and how wonderful it is when people come together.