Host parents pray for their former foreign exchange students from Ukraine

Liz and Mike Linnenbrink are in communication with two men in the Ukraine who were foreign exchange students who lived with them more than a decade ago.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DONNELLSON — When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Liz Linnenbrink got on Facebook to check on the wellbeing of two Ukrainians who were foreign exchange students in her family’s home more than a decade ago.

The first student, Irakli, 36, spent the 2002/03 academic year at the home of Liz, her husband Mike and their five children. The second student, Vlad, 28, spent the 2010/2011 academic year with the Linnenbrink family, members of St. Boniface Parish in Farmington. Mike is also a deacon candidate for the Diocese of Davenport.

Liz, who chose not to share the young men’s surnames as a precaution, said both responded to her Facebook messages. Irakli, a lawyer in Kyiv, told her that no matter how the situation turns out, “you don’t know how much I love all of you and think of you all the time.” Vlad, a computer programmer, told Liz he is in Poland and his parents are in eastern Ukraine.


“I’m worried about Irakli. His dad worked for the government and the government is now the enemy of Russia,” Liz said. She is not so worried about Vlad since he has left Ukraine. She and Mike pray for the safety of both men and for their inner peace, while also praying for peace for Ukraine and an end to the war.

Her messages to Irakli included hints that he and his parents would be welcome to stay at the Linnenbrink home if they can make their way to Iowa. “We’d love to see your mom and dad. Bedrooms are ready and waiting,” she wrote. Through the years, she has been in touch with Irakli and Vlad through Facebook. In earlier years, the Linnenbrinks exchanged letters with Irakli and a phone call once a year. He returned for a visit to their home four years after his foreign exchange experience.

Liz and Mike chose to welcome the foreign exchange students into their home all those years ago because they wanted their own five children to have a broader view of the world by getting to know people from different cultures and life experiences. Culturally, it was difficult initially for both Ukrainians to adjust to life in another country, so far from home, Liz said.

The family grew especially close to Irakli, who spoke excellent English and studied hard. “He seemed so grateful for all we did for him and what we offered,” Liz said. “He was a joyful person; for him, everything was ‘wow, cool, that is so awesome.’’’ Irakli and Matt, the third of the family’s five children, became friends; both were around the same age and attended Central Lee High School.

The Linnenbrinks invited Irakli to Matt’s wedding six years ago, but he was unable to make it, Liz said.

Vlad, who stayed with the Linn­en­brinks eight years later, presented more of a challenge, Liz and Mike said. Vlad and their youngest son, Ben, were the same age and while they didn’t become close, Ben willingly served as Vlad’s chauffeur.

In the beginning, both Ukrainian students attended Mass with the Linn­en­brinks, although neither one was Catholic. Irakli was Christian and missed the liturgy he was accustomed to at home. Vlad was not familiar with the Church and chose not to join the family for Mass, Liz said.

The Linnenbrinks’ lived experience with Irakli and Vlad makes the crisis in Ukraine personal. “We can put a face on the Ukrainian people through these two kids,” Mike said. “We assumed none of the Ukrainians wanted to be invaded and go to war. That’s what we were thinking as we watched things build up toward the invasion. When it happened, Liz said we should find out where these boys are.”

Now Liz and Mike are praying and contributing even more to Catholic Relief Services as their response to the crisis. “I pray that if they need to get to safety that they know there is room in Iowa,” Liz said. “Our kids have moved out. We have some space.”

Where to give to help Ukraine
By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Various Catholic agencies are collecting donations to aid with the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, as people flee to escape Russian bombing and shelling. Here are some places to donate. This list is not exhaustive.

The international Caritas confederation is collecting funds to help Caritas Ukraine. In the United States, that is through Catholic Relief Services: Internationally, you can donate through

The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia also has a link:

Two pontifical agencies also are taking donations for Ukraine: Catholic Near East Welfare Association,, and Aid to the Church in Need, Internationally, Aid to the Church can be reached at

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