What makes a house a home?
For Sharon and Mark Norlander of Brooklyn Park, it’s all about the smiles of a family they sponsor, playing in their backyard on a leafy Minnesota afternoon.
“It’s fun and moving,” says Mark Norlander. ” It’s dramatic. It was just awesome.
“Just seeing their progress is incredible,” adds Sharon Norlander. “To see their hopes and dreams and their horrific story.”
The story of a young family of Ukrainian refugees: Vadim and Luibov Holiuk, both 33 years old; and their three daughters, Alisa and Anastasia, 11-year-old twins; and Anita, who is almost 2 years old.
They fled their home in eastern Ukraine in the spring.
“I am here, I am safe, my family is safe,” says Luibov Holiuk.
But it wasn’t an easy decision, the couple said.
“A lot of Ukrainians are leaving Ukraine and staying in Europe and it’s very difficult for Ukrainians,” says Vadim Holiuk.
“He said the girls were seeing the planes go by and the bombs falling and they were constantly crying, and he knew he had to do something,” adds Sharon Norlander. “That’s when they got on a train and left their home not knowing where they were going or where things would end.”
The Holiuks joined thousands of others fleeing east to Poland by train, staying several months in Warsaw before connecting with A lighta global nonprofit humanitarian organization based in Minneapolis.
Alight partners with a third-party website that connects refugee families with sponsors – groups or families willing to house these families here in the United States
“This is the path for people to find safety and for people to start a new space in the United States,” said Steph Koehne, spokesperson for Alight. “It’s a big commitment because you’re there as the first point of entry, that first point of connection. You meet someone at the airport, you help them enroll their children in school, you help them navigate the job market.
In September, the Holiuks arrived in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. They were the very first Ukrainian refugee family sponsored by Alight to arrive in Minnesota.
The group says it aims to help 100 Ukrainian families, helping them settle here.
“We see the United States as a very good country for us and for our children,” Vadim notes.
The Norlanders will sponsor the family for at least several more weeks, giving them a temporary home, sharing meals and establishing a loving friendship.
“It’s the kind of thing that will challenge you,” says Mark Norlander. “It can get in your way and upset your schedule a bit, but in a very rewarding way.”
But in recent days, with Russian forces attacking Ukraine’s infrastructure – including its power grid and using drones to attack civilian targets – the Holiuks worry about their family still there, especially as Winter.
“We were afraid that our family would stay in Ukraine,” says Vadim Holiuk. “In Ukraine, very cold temperatures in the Donetsk region where we live. They don’t have gas and they only have electricity.
He explains that most people in this area use gas for cooking.
Meanwhile, Vadim Holiuk says he’s not sure if his family will return to Ukraine.
He notes that they speak with relatives, including two grandmothers, every day.
Vadim Holiuk adds that he wants to find work. He is an electrical engineer and Luibov is also an engineer, but there is a three-month wait for work permits from the federal government.
The twins plan to start school next week in Champlin.
“They are happy because they are free,” exclaims Vadim Holiuk. “This place, this country is safe.”
For their part, the Norlanders say they hope they can help build a new future for their host family.
“So it seems like we’ve been preparing our whole lives for this mission to accept them into our home,” says Sharon Norlander. “Get them to safety and help them dream of what their life could be like in the future.”
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