By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Feelings of sadness and gratitude were palpable as a family of Ukrainian refugees listened to their national anthem during a “Welcome to Muscatine” potluck earlier this month.
“It feels like a dream,” Serhii Luka said through translator Irina Schevchenko, who added, “He is still a little emotional. It doesn’t feel real.” Less than 24 hours earlier, Serhii, his wife Svitlana and twin daughters Vira and Nadiia, 13, arrived in Muscatine, where they will begin a new life. With support from the Muscatine community and World Relief Quad Cities, the Lukas are among the first Ukrainian refugees to resettle in western Illinois and eastern Iowa since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
The family hails from Kotsyubyns’ke, a community between Bucha and Kyiv. Serhii Luka worked as a driver for a civilian warehouse at the time of the invasion. “I was going to work when the shelling started,” he said through a translator. “I heard explosions; the warehouse was destroyed in front of me.” While many of his friends volunteered for the Ukrainian army, Serhii Luka was unable to do so because his daughters have special needs. “I couldn’t leave them.” He assisted by driving vulnerable Ukranians to safety. One of them — Sergei Svidersk — is a friend of Walter Conlon, a member of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine. Svidersk had somewhere to go, but the Lukas did not, so Conlon, a member of the Muscatine Action Committee for Ukraine, worked with World Relief Quad Cities to arrange for the family to come to Muscatine.
Conlon, a retired attorney, is a descendant of Ukrainian immigrants and speaks Ukrainian at “a fourth-grade level.” He didn’t have vacant rooms in his home, so he reached out to longtime family friend, Daniel Stein. “I had a couple of extra rooms, said Stein, a member of Grace Lutheran Church in Muscatine. Stein said he fell in love with Ukraine during two pre-war visits to the country with Conlon. He wanted to help the family resettle and he thought it would help his three children, ages 9-14, “to realize how good they have it.”
Stein said the family “didn’t bring much, just a couple of suitcases.” Less than 24 hours into their stay, Svitlana Luka had already cooked a nice meal for everyone in the household and was asking what her family could do to help. Due to the language barrier, most of the communication so far has been through translation apps.
Stein’s daughter Ava, 9, attended the potluck and told The Catholic Messenger, “We can’t really talk (because of the language barrier) but it’s been nice to have other people in the house. You could tell they were emotional to be safe.”
Serhii Luka plans to work as a truck driver as soon as his work permit is in effect, said Ric Smith, a member of Ss. Mary & Mathias and one of the organizers of the “Welcome to Muscatine’’ potluck. The Ukrainian likely will study for his CDL license at Muscatine Community College. Svitlana Luka will look for housekeeping work in a local hotel. The couple has been invited to attend the college’s English as a Second Language program and their twin daughters will enter school in Muscatine as soon as the family is settled.
The Muscatine community welcomed the Lukas during the potluck at Trinity Episcopal Church on Sept. 2, a change of venue due to higher-than-expected interest, Smith said.
Laura Fontaine, executive director of World Relief Quad Cities, said interest in sponsoring Ukrainian refugees in the Quad Cities area is high but people often don’t understand the amount of effort and training required to help refugees successfully resettle. Most Ukrainian refugees are settling in California or Chicago. “It’s a lot more than just finding a house,” she said.
The Muscatine community proved to be an exception. A group of concerned community members from nearly every sector initially came together in December in hopes of resettling Afghan refugees. They reached out to World Relief Quad Cities, the only refugee resettlement agency in the area. Agencies like World Relief work with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to help refugees access immigration legal services, social services and benefits and to help them flourish, integrate and become self-sufficient.
The Muscatine group “were willing to put in the work to research, volunteer, learn about the resettlement process, learn about who we work with and how things operate, and engage with clients rather than assuming all refugees are the same,” Fontaine said. While the initial wave of Afghan refugees ultimately settled in Rock Island County, Illinois, the organization’s efforts paved the way to welcome the Luka family and other refugees from around the globe, including Ketsia Faraja of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Pascal Ramadhani, a Congolese refugee born and raised in Tanzania.
The partnership with the community, including the HON company’s efforts to hire refugees as employees, is strong enough to support the establishment of a World Relief Quad Cities satellite office in Muscatine. Fontaine believes more refugees will settle in the region in the new fiscal year, which begins in October. “Anything we’ve needed, the community has rallied together,” Fontaine said. “I am sincerely blown away.”