5 Ukrainians are pictured holding certificates for a driving school offered by the Asian Community and Cultural Center
Ukrainian refugees show off their certifications from a driving school. Photo courtesy of Alina Pestushko

Compared to other refugee aid agencies, Lincoln’s Asian Community and Cultural Center has a unique advantage, according to advocates there: all of their community advocates for particular nationalities are from the area they represent, so they understand their culture and experience.

This can be especially helpful for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, as many do not speak English and had to leave without much preparation. This makes Ukrainian community advocates like Alina Pestushko all the more valuable now. 

“I came also as a refugee and I had the same experience as my community here, so I can understand them, their mental state,” Pestushko said. “I don’t want people from the Ukrainian community or any other community to go through this only by themselves. We are there to support and help them.”

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Alina Pestushko (left) stands with some of the Ukrainian refugees served by the Asian Community and Cultural Center. Photo by Caine Dodson

It’s been over a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but thanks to the efforts of several community programs, Ukrainian refugees have ongoing support through the transition. 

When refugees first come to Lincoln, housing and other necessities are usually taken care of by Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Family Services. Once settled in, services like work training, youth programs, English classes, and other programs to aid the transition for refugees are provided by Lincoln’s Asian Community Cultural Center, through partnerships with organizations like Lincoln Literacy, Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development, and other affiliates.

The Career Ladder is one of the programs offered by the Asian Community and Cultural Center, which gives skilled immigrants and refugee professionals an opportunity to continue their career in America. Law, engineering, teaching, health, and accounting are the main career fields they cover. 

Participants are given a one-on-one meeting to discuss a path back to their career, are connected with a mentor who can help provide industry contacts, and are even given a six-week course to help understand the resources in Lincoln and develop their leadership skills. 

The program served 84 total clients in 2022 and has about 8 to 15 Ukrainians in the program now, according to Joy Oyebefun, Family Resources Coordinator for the Asian Community and Cultural Center. 

For Oyebefun, this program is a crucial part of the transition for refugees.

“It’s important for people to feel like they’re doing meaningful work and that they’re able to pick up where they left off when they come here,” said Oyebefun. “A lot of them just feel like there’s no pathway to do what they want to do, and then they come here and they start to feel hope again.”

The process to be able to continue their career can be grueling – their qualifications have to be evaluated, some have to take exams to be certified in their field, and the state of Nebraska requires transcripts from their home university, which can be difficult to get with a war going on. This is where the Career Ladder program is so useful – they can help gather the necessary documents and make the proper contacts to get a client working again as soon as possible.

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Ukrainian refugees stand with their certifications after completing the Asian Community and Cultural Center’s driving school. Photo courtesy of Alina Pestushko

The Career Ladder is just one of the many programs the Asian Community and Cultural Center offers, however. They also have youth programs, a driving school, a senior group, and other support to help ease the transition for Ukrainians fleeing war. 

All told, the Asian Community and Cultural Center serves over 150 Ukrainian families.

Though the support of the community has made an impact, many Ukrainian refugees still find themselves heartbroken over the loss of their homes.

“The hardest thing for me is to leave the people who are suffering in Ukraine. It is very hard to live even when you are safe,” said Olga Borysovets, who fled Ukraine and came to Lincoln. “It is very difficult to rejoice, knowing that your relatives, acquaintances, friends, and loved ones die there every day.”

Borysovets, through an interpreter, said her city was occupied by the Russians near the start of the invasion, but she remained for six months until the urging of a friend in Lincoln convinced her to leave for her own safety.

“We have no one here, only a friend,” she said. “We want to adapt here as soon as possible. But we want to return back to Ukraine. We are waiting for better times.”

Another Ukrainian, Valentina Zaluzhna, said through an interpreter that her city of Apostolovo was only 13 kilometers from the front line while she was there. She could hear the bombing constantly, she said, which was even heavier through the night. They slept in a cellar to keep safe. A former health worker, she volunteered at the strained hospitals for six months before her daughter insisted she come to America.

“We left only for the sake of seeing our grandchildren and children, whom we had not seen for several years,” Zaluzhna said. “We are grateful that in this difficult time we have such an opportunity to see each other.”

Ukrainian Community Advocate Iryna Rozlach feels the same way. For her, being able to speak to refugees in their native language and relate to their ethnic experience makes their transition into America that much smoother and helps them to not feel so far from home. 

“We can give them tea in the same way we do in our culture,” Rozlach said. These kinds of “slices of home” go a long way in helping to understand their experience, she said.

Even with the difficulties of being uprooted from their homes, many Ukrainian refugees are inspired by how much help and understanding Lincoln has given them.

“I’m grateful to the American people for being such a great help,” said Lidya Savka, 69, through an interpreter.  “When I arrived, I was surrounded by love and understanding. They brought everything we needed.”

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Ukrainians supported by the Asian Community and Cultural Center exploring Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Alina Pestushko

Lyudmila Tahktay, like many Ukrainians, only left home when it became “unbearable” for her. Once she arrived and found the Asian Cultural and Community Center, though, that transition became much easier to deal with.

“I was really amazed with what love and care the American people accepted us,” Tahktay said through an interpreter. “When we arrived in Lincoln, they helped us a lot, and thank God that there are centers like this where we were accepted with such love and open hearts, where they work with us, where we have Alina, who puts her heart and soul into us … Everyone always treats us with attention and understanding.”

Despite losing their homes and moving across an ocean to escape war, some Ukrainians are keeping good spirits for what they still have, like Liubov Vodolazskyi.

“My house is in Ukraine. Russian soldiers live there now,” Vodolazskyi said through an interpreter. “My Luhansk region is occupied and I cannot return. At home I grew flowers and life was calm and wonderful. But for me, where my family is, there is my home.”

Senior double major in Journalism and Economics at UNL