(From left to right) Valentina Zaluzhna, Liubov Vodolazka, Lida Savka, Anna Akulenko, Liudmyla Takhtai and Petro Akulenko sit together in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall at the Durham Museum in Omaha on April. 20. They sit next to a bronze statue of a little girl. Two people, a man and a woman, sit on the right of the statue. The man is wearing a brown collared shirt, a backpack and blue shorts. The woman is wearing a blue top and black pants. The other four women sit on the left. From left to the right, the woman wear a purple top with flowers and purple pants, a black sweater and black shirt with black pants, a gray shirt and jeans, and an orange striped shirt with black pants.
The Ukrainian US Orientation class (From left to right) Valentina Zaluzhna, Liubov Vodolazskyi, Lida Savka, Anna Akulenko, Liudmyla Takhtai and Petro Akulenko in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall at the Durham Museum in Omaha on April. 20. Photo courtesy of Alina Pestushko.

When the Russian forces occupied the city of Kherson, Liudmyla Takhtai remembers mostly the chaos.

Hospitals closed. Food scarce. Police no where to be found. And the port city in southern Ukraine was filled with the sounds of bombs and heavy weapons erupting. 

“I could hardly sleep because of nightmares and constant tears,” Takhtai said in comments translated for this story. “This decision was not easy for me, because all the roads I could use to get out were dangerous. But I heard the news that the Russians will not let anyone out of the city, so I decided to go before it was too late.”

Takhtai is one of many refugees to arrive in the United States and make Lincoln a home. But arriving in a new country came with challenges. 

Alina Pestushko understands these challenges and provided a way to help. Pestushko is an advocate for Lincoln’s Asian Community and Cultural Center, which she said focuses on empowering Lincoln’s Asian community, while sharing Asian culture with the greater community through events and programs. 

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the center decided to form a U.S. orientation class for refugees arriving in Lincoln.

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Over the course of five weeks, students learned a variety of skills and information to help them adjust to their new country. Infographic by Thomas Codo/NNS.

For the students, it’s an opportunity to learn about the country and Lincoln after fleeing from war in their home country. For Pestushko, it’s an opportunity to continue her role as a teacher and learn the refugees’ stories. 

“These classes were formed due to the fact that at the moment, more and more newcomers from Ukraine are arriving here because of the war,” Pestuchko said. “For them, they have cultural and language shock. In order to familiarize them with all the main points in life in the USA, we decided to start this course.”

Pestushko teaches a variety of topics to help Ukrainians adjust to the United States. Pestushko, a college teacher in Ukraine, said she understands how difficult the transition can be. She knows how important it is for newcomers to get basic information and gain a sense of belonging to make life easier and minimize culture shock.

“A lot of people from the Ukrainian community feel lonely and frustrated,” Pestushko said. “They move to a totally new country, some of them not joining social clubs and groups. They are far away from home and other family members. That’s why it’s so important to create a place of belonging for all members of my community and every other community.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in the United States to escape the war.  

Some of those in the orientation class had children who were already living in Lincoln before the invasion. So when it began, they decided to go to them. 

“As a former nurse, I helped people who needed medical care, cooked food and sent soldiers to the front,” said Valentina Zaluzhna in translated comments. “But my city was heavily shelled and bombed, and it was dangerous to be there.

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Valentina Zaluzhna spent 25 years as a kindergarten teacher and lived in central Ukraine with her husband, Oleksandr. But as the war began, things changed, and the two found themselves heading to Lincoln.
Photo courtesy of Valentina Zaluzhna.

“My children live in the United States and they were very worried about me and my husband. So they decided to take us to them, to Lincoln.”

When the Russians occupied the city of Severondonetsk, resident Liubov Vodolazskyi, also decided to leave for Nebraska. 

“My son has been living in Lincoln for a long time,” she said.  “He invited me to live with him because he was very worried that something would happen to me.” 

But these connections are only half the battle. There was also the matter of getting to the United States. 

Before she left her homeland, Takhtai was a teacher in Kherson, which she described as a picturesque place on the banks of the Dnipro River near the Black Sea. The city is also the home of a major ship-building industry with many attractions and a wonderful countryside. 

But that all changed when Russian soldiers occupied the city. 

“The civilian population was left alone with the Russian army,” Takhtai said. “Constant sounds of bombings, tanks and heavy weapons near houses. Closed hospitals, lack of police, constant stay in a basement or a bomb shelter, understanding that no one and nothing can protect you in case of danger. All this had a huge negative impact on my moral and mental health.” 

Terror and intimidation of the civilian population began, Takhtai said.  With food scarce, prices immediately rose, she said. People lost jobs, and many were kidnapped and tortured. 

“I often received news that one of my colleagues, students or their relatives, friends were injured, died, or disappeared,” Takhtai said. “At that time, it seemed to me that I didn’t even have the strength to cry anymore, no matter how scary it sounds now, but I got used to such news.”

The Dnipro River became the front line, Takhtai said. Living conditions under the occupation were wretched, she said. There was no electricity, water, phone services or internet. Bridges were blown up and mines were everywhere. Takhtai said she only went outside when she needed food. But only a few stores remained open, and people often had to wait in line for eight hours. 

Bread, dairy products and fish disappeared from the shelves and weren’t available until the end of the almost nine-month occupation. But Takhtai said it wasn’t just food. She struggled to get medicine because pharmacies were closed.

After four months in occupation, she decided to leave.

But Takhtai said just finding someone to take her was difficult. She said there were a lot of scammers who promised to get people out, but ended up taking their money and deceiving them. Those who did help took a very high price for salvation, she said. Not everyone had the opportunity to leave the occupied city, Takhtai said, only those who had money could. 

“I hate to say I was lucky,” Takhtai said. “I found a guide and managed to get out two days before the total closure of the city and roads. The road was difficult. There were a lot of checks at checkpoints in Russian. They check everything, your suitcases, bags, phone and laptop to detect Ukrainian news.”

However, the one thing Takhtai remembered most is when they drove through one of the occupied villages of Snigirëvka, north of Kherson. 

“There were a lot of cars completely destroyed,” Takhtai said. “There was no road at all, they were not burned, but there were many traces of bullets.”

Even after making it out of the country, Takhtai faced one more difficult task. After more than 32 hours of flights and transfers, Takhtai found herself in the Migration Service office at a Chicago airport. There she waited on the decision on whether or not she would be allowed in the U.S. After waiting several hours, she was allowed to immigrate. 

She soon found herself in Lincoln and the Asian Community and Cultural Center, a place that provides countless opportunities for her and other Ukrainian refugees, according to Pestushko.

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The Asian Community and Cultural Center offers classes in citizenship, English, Asian and culture. It also provides information on health services, food pantries and public libraries.
Photo courtesy of Alina Pestushko.

“We create conditions and opportunities for members to develop relationships and have experiences that will give them a sense of belonging and community,” Pestushko said. “We give new members the opportunity to get to know and see each other while they talk about membership goals and interests. When members can bring their whole selves to the association, they are more likely to feel a sense of belonging.”

According to Pestuchko, the Ukrainians she is helping seem to be making the transition. 

“They really like Lincoln,” Pestuchko said. “Many found jobs very quickly, even without knowing the language. But they understand that the language is important. So everyone goes to an English course to learn the basics as soon as possible.”

The orientation course ended on April 20 with a trip to the Durham Museum in Omaha.

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The Lincoln Asian Community and Cultural Center provides resources and support to help immigrants live better lives. Photo by Thomas Codo/NNS

While the Ukrainians enjoy the opportunities and the city of Lincoln, Pestchuko said, the war in Ukraine is still fresh in their minds. 

“They are still in the process of grieving,” Pestchuko said. “In the beginning, they missed home very much and wanted to go back. Although they understand that it is very dangerous now, they are very much looking forward to the end of the war so they can return home to relatives and friends who stayed there. They like it here, but home is home.”