LANSING, Ill. (March 5, 2023) – Svitlana Syrota woke up early on a February morning last year in Poland to a text from one of her friends in Ukraine. The text shared this simple message: The war has started.
“I looked at the news and thought, ‘No, it’s not true,'” said Svitlana, who grew up and raised her children in Rivne, Ukraine, until 2018, when her family moved to neighboring Poland.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, 2022, and has resulted in at least 200,000 combined casualties. Estimates out of Kyiv, Ukraine, have put the civilian death total at over 9,000, including 453 children.
Moving away from an embattled home
Svitlana and her husband Ivan moved their family from western Ukraine to Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland, in 2018. Svitlana said moving over 500 miles west allowed Ivan to be closer to the rest of Europe, where he often worked as a truck driver. It also distanced the family from Ukraine, where the Syrotas were concerned that Ivan would be recruited for the military.
After the initial shock of the Russian invasion — which caused Svitlana to “cry and pray” — she spent much of her time helping Ukrainian refugees: securing beds, offering food, and working with her church to help families in need.
“Many people opened their hearts and their doors to other people. … For the first two months, I helped Ukrainian people coming to my town,” Svitlana said. “I understood that it was my work to help people, my responsibility. Christ helped me, so I need to help other people.”
As the war escalated, compulsory military recruitments became more common. Ivan, who at age 39 was firmly in the age range for military service, decided with his family to leave Poland. An organization called United for Ukraine sponsored the family in their journey to the United States.
Landing in Lansing
The Syrotas left Poland on November 10, 2022, with only five bags — one for each member of the family — Svitlana, Ivan, 11-year-old Matvii, 9-year-old Ester, and 7-year-old Aviia. Also making the journey across the Atlantic was the family’s terrier, Jackie.
A Ukrainian-run ministry called Love Cradle International aided the Syrotas as they arrived in America. They quickly connected the family with The Welcome Network, based in Hammond, Indiana.
The Welcome Network is a Christian organization that takes its inspiration from the Bible verse Matthew 25:35, which says in part, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
“We provide housing, immigration services, help with applying for healthcare benefits, work authorization cards, and help to find work, as well as connecting with local churches,” said Jared Alleman. Alleman is the Church Engagement and Volunteer Coordinator at The Welcome Network.
In addition to walking side-by-side with the Syrota family to understand their legal status as “humanitarian parolees,” The Welcome Network arranged for the family to stay in their “Welcome Home,” a residence in Lansing that the organization opened in 2020.
The Syrotas’ first prolonged taste of America has been through the lens of Lansing.
A Lansing welcome
“I like Lansing. I do feel welcome here,” Svitlana said. She appreciates the friendliness she’s experienced in the Lansing area in contrast to the increasingly dour interactions she’d had in war-weary Poland.
“When the war started, all the people helped. But now, because many Ukrainian people have come to work in Poland, and there’s no good money, the Polish bosses never increase pay, only decrease it. And Polish people are angry, and the Ukrainians too. It was hard to live in Poland,” she said.
In Lansing, the Syrotas’ experience has been a welcoming one, and the family has already enjoyed biking on the rare warm winter days, maintaining their yard, playing soccer, and having Nerf gun fights in their home.
Ivan insists that the family watch English-only movies, to help develop their ongoing learning of the new language. To the same end, the family also plays alphabet and word games.
The Syrotas attend Living Word Church in Lansing, where they have been warmly received. There, they have received English instruction from volunteers, and Ivan has been financially supported in his goal to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License. The three children have also begun to adapt to school in Lansing.
“It was God that helped us come to America,” Svitlana said.
“I personally, and our church, Living Word, have been so blessed by the Syrotas’ dependency on the Lord throughout their life-changing transition,” said Alleman, who also attends Living Word.
Tears and prayers for Ukraine
When asked about her feelings for the future, Svitlana quickly said, “I don’t know. God provides. I don’t know because when it comes to Ukraine, you can’t know the future.”
Thoughts about what her family left behind — possessions, friends, family, a familiar lifestyle — bring tears to Svitlana’s eyes.
“Ukraine is always on my mind,” she said. “My brother’s wife lived in our town in Poland, and we have many friends there. … And now there’s a new language. I knew Polish because I studied it as a child, but English for me is a very hard language.”
The distance from Ukraine doesn’t make the issues there any less real for Svitlana. She wakes up every morning to check a map app on her phone. It shows red in the oblasts (regions) where attacks occurred overnight.
“I check the app every time I have free time. Every time I see the map is red, I pray,” she said.
She also prays for her brothers, one of whom is currently fighting the war for Ukraine working behind a computer. He is considering going to the front lines for a higher wage.
“I say to him, ‘Ok, but when you die, who’s going to help your family?’” she said.
Safety, provision, and gratitude
Svitlana is grateful to God that her family is safe, and still together.
“My hope is only God,” she said. “Because without God, we are nothing. … I see how God provides for our situation, and how people have helped us. And I see God’s hand over our family and my life.”
Svitlana’s request of the Lansing community is simple: “Pray for Ukraine, and that the war would stop.”
Those wishing to support families like the Syrotas can donate to The Welcome Network by visiting thewelcomenet.org or calling 219-276-3764.