Two Ukrainian families moved to Lexington, supported by the newly-founded Hosting Ukrainian Families

Two Ukranian families moved to Lexington, supported by the newly-founded Hosting Ukranian Families

Jack Evans, Staff Writer

Lexington residents have welcomed two new families into the community.

Hosting Ukrainian Families was created in April when Lexington resident Jerry Nay received a phone call from a friend who wanted to assist Ukrainians displaced by the ongoing invasion. The program provides aid and shelter to Ukrainian families that have come to escape the war. 

On Feb. 24, 2022 the armies of Russian President Vladimir Putin crossed into the sovereign territory of the Donbass region of Ukraine. The invasion – considered by the U.S. military to be the largest invasion in Europe since the second World War – has since destroyed countless homes and communities and displaced upwards of fourteen million Ukrainians, according to a recent U.N. report.

Providing humanitarian aid is not new to Nay. He hosted Congolese refugees in 2011, and he provided assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La., in 2005. 

Nay jumped into action by contacting the Church World Service – a non-governmental organization (NGO) that he previously worked with. Nay admits that projects like this one are a “huge task” and require extensive work. However, he was determined to bring these Ukrainian families to safety.

 After vetting from the government, Nay finally learned of the two families his organization would be hosting: the Odemchuks and the Strezhyborodas. The families communicated with Nay and the organization at-large via cellphone while they were still living in warzones. 

Nay recalls having a conversation with one of the families when “a piece of shrapnel from a Russian missile fell in their backyard,” he said. 

Eager to get them to safety and moved by the impact the war had on the families, Matt Fogo – a member of Hosting Ukrainian Families – paid thousands of dollars to purchase airline tickets for both families. 

 “They only arrived with backpacks,” Nay said. “The families had left their lives and traveled thousands of miles with the contents of said backpacks being their only possessions.”  

The families soon learned that The Georges – a local hotel in Lexington – would provide both housing and work for them as they adjusted to their new lives in Virginia. The mothers of the families worked in housekeeping and one of the fathers worked in hotel maintenance. 

The other father, who was a truck driver in Ukraine, worked on getting licensed for driving in the U.S. While the families have now left The Georges to live in a 4,000-square-foot home provided by the organization, Nay is grateful for The Georges.

“The Georges were very helpful,” Nay said. “They were the first to put them to work while their paperwork was being processed.”  

The Lexington community has also stepped up to help these families. Hosting Ukrainian Families received numerous “unsolicited contributions,” Nay said. 

According to Nay,  the local elementary and middle school has provided “paramount” assistance to the children of the Ukrainian families by giving them extra help with their studies and teaching them English. Also, the faculty and student bodies of local universities have volunteered “scores” of expertise in accommodating the families, Nay said. 

The administration at Washington and Lee alone has provided a bus to pick up the families, free-of-charge, and gave the families computers.  

“That’s how Washington and Lee has always been,” says Alexandra Brown, professor of religion at Washington and Lee. “This is a great little town for people in need.”

 The families have been struggling with the language barrier they’ve faced since arriving in Lexington. “The language has been the biggest challenge,” said Brown. She explained that the families have a  “backlog” of things they need to complete but are unable to until they have better English comprehension. 

While Hosting Ukrainian Families is providing as much English-learning assistance as they can, Brown said that the committee responsible for teaching the families English is “overwhelmed.” 

Tetiania Kozachanska, ’26, a Washington and Lee freshman from Ukraine, has been assisting the families by teaching them English through the English for Speakers of Other Languages program (ESOL).

“I feel that these are my people,” she said. Kozachanska elaborated that she feels a deep connection with the refugees and sees it as her duty, and her privilege, to help these families. 

“I feel like I’m teaching my own family,” she said.   

Despite the many community efforts to help, Nay is still concerned about the families. 

“I worry about the children of Ukraine,” he said. Nay is a combat veteran of the Vietnam conflict. “I saw children becoming casualties of the war, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Kozachanska shared Nay’s sentiment. “We are traumatized by this war,” she said.

Because of these concerns, Nay says that members of Hosting Ukranian Familiesare “very careful and mindful of any semblance of trauma that may come up” – especially regarding the children of the two families. The organization has a team of medical experts prepared to treat and assist the families should any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder surface.

Despite these concerns, members of Hosting Ukrainian Families remain optimistic for the future of the two families. Nay believes the families will “go very far in life, back in Ukraine,” he said. The families as “very religiously-oriented, hard-working people,” and the children are “lovely and very intelligent,” Nay said. 

Nay believes that the “resolve, love of decency and love of country” that the families, and Ukrainians as a whole, possess will “preserve them” through the end of the conflict, he said.  

Brown said the contributions these families made to Lexington should also be recognized. 

“I’d like to say thank you to these folks from Ukraine,” she said. These families could have gone “anywhere,” but they chose to come to Lexington, Brown said. 

Hosting Ukrainian Families is actively seeking volunteers as the organization prepare to host a third family on Dec. 6. For those interested in helping, there are several ways to get involved. 

You can reach out to the “extracurricular activities committee,” one of 15 committees the project runs,  to help teach the children how to play sports. Students trained in ESOL can provide additional language-learning assistance to the families. The elementary and middle school are also looking for more tutors.  

Ultimately, according to Nay, the best way to get involved with the organization is “very simply, being buddies with the children,” he said.