Some Ukrainian refugees find new homes in Maine with help from a fellow expat

AUBURN, Maine — On a warm spring afternoon, Halyna and Petro Terzi stepped into their new apartment in Auburn, Maine, for the first time. A small group of fellow Ukrainians was there to greet them.

Carrying blue and yellow balloons and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic, the couple walked into their sunny bedroom overlooking the back yard. They’ll be sharing this apartment with another Ukrainian family who arrived several weeks ago.

With a tired-looking smile on his face, Petro lowered himself into a soft armchair next to the bed and let out a deep sigh. His daughter, Alina Terzi, who’s lived in Maine for several years, set down some of her parents’ luggage.

“They are so happy they’re like ‘Praise the Lord we are — we’ve arrived,’ ” she said, translating her father’s comments in Russian.

The Terzis are from Odessa. They fled their home in late February, several days into the Russian invasion. They went first to Moldova, then to Poland. There, volunteers with the Seventh Day Adventist church connected them with a family in Warsaw, who hosted them while the couple waited for the U.S. embassy to process their visa applications.

The Terzis eventually secured tourist visas, which allow them to stay in the United States for six months. But they plan on trying to stay longer — whether by applying for asylum or by seeking family reunification with daughter Alina.

The official refugee resettlement program in the United States is overseen by the federal government and involves a lengthy application process that includes referral from the United Nations and interviews with American immigration officials. The whole process can take up to two years.

But thousands of Ukrainians have already arrived in the United States, on tourist visas, through the Biden Administration’s new expedited sponsorship program, or by presenting themselves to immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Arriving without the help of a refugee-resettlement agency means many Ukrainians rely on family members or volunteers to secure basic needs — including housing.

That’s the case for the Terzis. They came on tourist visas and moved into a nondescript two-unit rental property in Auburn that’s become an unlikely hub of a DIY resettlement operation.

Oleg Opalnyk is the person holding this operation together.

Opalnyk is also from Ukraine, and has lived in Maine since 2001. He runs a construction business and invests in rental properties.

Opalnyk said that after seeing the destruction the Russian army was inflicting on his home country, he wanted to go back.

“When the war started I wanted to go to fight,” he said.

But he talked himself out of that idea.

“And I made this decision that I would probably help more people to protect and give them a head start here in [the] U.S. rather than going and fighting,” Opalnyk said.

In mid-April he gave that head start to a family of five who already had a relative living in Maine. He paid for their airfare and is housing them for free.

Soon after, he welcomed a second family — Olha and Yurii Kutniak, along with their 11-year-old-son. They’re now sharing their apartment with Halyna and Petro Terzi.

After fleeing Ukraine, the Kutniaks originally planned on going to Missouri, where they had a connection through their church community. But when they arrived in the United States after crossing the southern border, those plans changed.

Speaking in Russian, Kutniak said at the border they met a Ukrainian volunteer from a local Seventh Day Adventist church, who also happened to be a friend of Opalnyk’s. The volunteer suggested they consider Maine instead, and told them to call Opalnyk.

Kutniak said the phone call went so well that they changed their plans on the spot. They arrived in Maine on April 21.

Their 11-year-old son is starting school, and his parents are focused on getting their work permits, with guidance from Opalnyk.

With support from his family and his Seventh Day Adventist church, Opalnyk has also helped the families with everything from furnishing the apartments to enrolling the kids in school. He said it’s a full-time job — but a job he’s happy to be doing.

“It’s overwhelming, you know, from time to time, but at the same time, you know, it’s — I’m very thankful that I have this ability to help,” he said.

Including the Terzis, Opalnyk is now supporting 11 Ukrainian evacuees. And he’s already preparing to welcome two more families.

Opalnyk says he’ll let them stay as long as they need rent free, but is hoping that once they get their work permits they’ll be able to start contributing to the cost.

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