Ukrainians find home in Maine despite war’s uncertainty
Escaping the Russian invasion, nine families from Ukraine have settled in Auburn, creating a community in a city built by immigrants even as their own future in Maine remains an unknown. Oleg Opalnyk, a building contractor from Ukraine, has brought at least 40 families to Maine, including 13 children and 94 Ukrainians. He is hosting the families in two apartment buildings that he owns, and is renovating a third with plans to fill several more units with refugees. The new residents are homey, older houses in the city's central neighborhoods, while many fear they soon could be forced to leave the U.S. due to temporary immigration protections that will run out in a matter of months. OpALnyk is helping the families settle in, learn English, find jobs, enroll in school and become part of the community. He has met many of the families since childhood, and has vetted them for their ability to make it in the United States.
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AUBURN — Olesia Poliancheva heard frightening news from neighbors when she returned home from a family birthday party one day last June.
Russian soldiers had been to her condominium in Kherson, a port city of 280,000 people in southern Ukraine. A top police investigator, she wasn’t surprised they were looking for her. Other police officers had been killed, their bodies dumped in marshes outside the city.
She knew she had to leave. With her 12-year-old son by her side, she drove through 26 checkpoints in Ukraine, then took a bus to Bulgaria and flew to Amsterdam.
“I didn’t know whether I would survive,” said Poliancheva, 41. “I could have been killed at any checkpoint.”
Poliancheva is one of at least 40 Ukrainians, including 13 children, who have settled in this central Maine city since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. An additional 94 Ukrainians have been brought to Maine by refugee resettlement agencies, and others have been privately sponsored, pushing the total estimated Ukrainian population in the state to about 200.
Poliancheva and her son, Milan, are among nine families sponsored by Oleg Opalnyk, a building contractor who came to Maine from Ukraine in 1999. Opalnyk, 46, is hosting the families in two apartment buildings that he owns, and he’s renovating a third with plans to fill several more units with refugees.
They are homey, older houses in the city’s central neighborhoods. Welcome signs and U.S. and Ukrainian flags hang by the front door. Inside, the apartments are freshly painted white with new flooring and updated fixtures. Kids spend evenings in easy chairs on the second-floor landing. The basement is filled with furniture and clothing dropped off by local residents.
Opalnyk is helping the families settle in, learn English, find jobs, enroll in school and become part of the community. Several of the men work for Opalnyk on a construction crew headed by his younger brother, Andrii, so their limited English isn’t an issue. Many of the women, including Poliancheva, have professional degrees and are studying English so they can start working as soon as possible.
Opalnyk, who lives in Pownal, smiles at the suggestion that a “Little Ukraine” is blossoming in Auburn, population 24,000. One of the “Twin Cities” of Lewiston-Auburn, it’s a former mill town built by waves of immigrants in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“It is very important to have community,” he said, “because people can get depressed and overwhelmed if they are alone and isolated in a new country.”
As the newcomers strive to rebuild their lives in Maine, they miss loved ones and worry about the future of their homeland. Many also fear they soon could be forced to leave the U.S. because they are here under temporary immigration protections that will run out in a matter of months. Some feel the tug to return to Ukraine and help in the war effort. Opalnyk, one of the interpreters for this story, understands this yearning.
Like many Ukrainian Americans, Opalnyk wanted to return to his home country last year to join the fight. His wife, Tracy, a Massachusetts native he met when they were both working in Moscow, talked him out of it.
“She said I could help more by bringing people here, so that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “In Ukraine, I would be taking a life. Here, I am preserving life.”
As the fighting continues, more families come to Auburn each month, part of the diaspora from a war that has displaced about 14 million Ukrainians and left 18 million in critical need of humanitarian aid, according to U.N. officials.
As many as 100,000 soldiers have been killed in both armies, with about the same number injured, and at least 8,000 civilians have been killed and nearly 13,300 injured, based on various estimates.
Families hoping to flee the turmoil contact Opalnyk online, finding him and his donor-supported organization, No Tears Ukraine, through Facebook, Instagram and Google.
Some of the families he has known since childhood. Others he met for the first time at Logan Airport in Boston. He vetted them all for their ability to make it in the U.S.
“They all want to work hard and be successful here,” he said.
Viacheslav and Lidiia Marar arrived in Maine in February by way of Slovakia with seven of their 10 children, ages 2 to 22. Two of their oldest children are living elsewhere in the U.S. and one son is a soldier in the Ukrainian army.
“We had to come to safety because of the killing, the constant bombing, the constant sirens,” said Lidiia Marar, who is pregnant with the couple’s 11th child.
“Nobody else could help them because they’re such a big family,” Opalnyk explained.
The Marars lived in the western city of Khmelnytskyi, population 274,000. Viacheslav, 53, was a school maintenance worker and Lidiia, 42, was director of the local post office.
They were relieved when Opalnyk greeted them with hugs at the airport, then delivered them to a well-stocked apartment with a simmering pot of borscht, a traditional Ukrainian soup made with beef, beets and other vegetables.
“We are happy to be here, but we are sad that our son is still fighting the war in Ukraine,” Viacheslav Marar said. “We’re praying for the chance to have the whole family together again.”
The Marar children will be enrolled in Auburn schools. The younger kids seem to be making the best of their new surroundings, playing with toys and happy to see visitors in their cozy apartment. The older siblings are polite and reserved.
“I’m so happy to be here, but I miss home,” said Valentyna, 14, hiding a rush of tears in the bend of her arm.
Viacheslav Marar plans to join Opalnyk’s Ukrainian construction crew, using his carpentry skills to frame walls, hang Sheetrock and install flooring. He is grateful that most of his family is finally safe. He makes Opalnyk smile and blush when he calls his sponsor and interpreter “Super Oleg.”
“I thank him and I thank God so he can continue to do this for other people,” Marar said.
“I’m a go-to person for everything until they get on their feet,” Opalnyk admits. “I’m paying it forward.”
The families sponsored by Opalnyk are united by their Christian faith. They are Baptist, Orthodox and Seventh-day Adventist, but “it’s all the same book,” he said.
Most attend weekly church services held Saturday mornings by Opalnyk’s 68-year-old father, Pavlo, a Seventh-day pastor who came to Lewiston two years ago from Vinnytsia, population 370,000. He also leads Bible study classes on Sunday evenings. Both are held in a community room set up in one of the apartments.
His talk on a recent Sunday was about Creation. He spoke with authority, Bible open in his hands, to about 15 people. His son, Oleg, and his wife, Nadia, sat beside him on a sofa. The gatherings are social as much as spiritual events, when community members catch up on what’s happening in each family.
“We serve tea after and have cake if it’s someone’s birthday,” Inna Cherednichenko said. “When the weather is nice, we drive to the ocean or to the mountains just to spend time together. In the summer we go for a picnic.”
Her Baptist faith is precious to Cherednichenko, 35, who came to Maine last summer with her husband, Valentyne, 34, son, Tymofii, 11, and sister-in-law, Tetiana, 24.
Cherednichenko found her faith when she was 13 and an American church group brought her to Minnesota for life-saving surgeries for a disabling spinal curvature. The group raised money to establish a church in her family’s village. Her faith was bolstered again when she gave birth to her son, defying doctors who said she would never have children.
“That’s why I never give up,” she said.
A schoolteacher in Cherkasy, population 280,000, Cherednichenko is now a case management coordinator with the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, a resettlement agency in Portland that is providing support to Ukrainian refugees. She’s also something of a “house mother” to the other tenants, so she’s pretty much on call all the time.
Her husband, who ran a shop where he bought and sold used iPhones, works on Opalnyk’s construction crew. Tetiana, who was a teacher in Kyiv, now works as an interpreter for Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services, a resettlement agency in Lewiston.
In the months following the invasion, they hid for two weeks in a root cellar at her father’s fruit tree farm, then spent four months in Italy before traveling to Maine. Like most of the Ukrainians Opalnyk has sponsored, they came as humanitarian parolees, which means they have a little more than a year left in the U.S.
“We cannot say whether we will be here after that,” Cherednichenko said. “I don’t know what will happen. Nobody knows.”
“Go home where?” Opalnyk said. “Half of Ukraine is destroyed. They can’t go back. It’s a war zone. There’s a genocide happening.”
Confusion about their immigration status is widespread among Ukrainians and their U.S. sponsors.
“It’s challenging because they’re just starting to get acclimated to being here, and even for us it’s hard to untangle and figure out what needs to be done,” said Oleksandra Lesya Stasiv, 47, a family law attorney in Yarmouth who has been assisting Ukrainian refugees. She first came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1990 as a Rotary high school exchange student.
Nearly 118,000 Ukrainian refugees have come under the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian parole program, which allows them to stay up to two years, according to U.S. immigration sources. Thousands more have entered as parolees via other immigration channels, including the southern U.S. border. Some who have been continuous residents of the U.S. since April 11, 2022, can apply for Temporary Protected Status, which shields them from detention and deportation through Oct. 19, 2023.
Participants in both programs are eligible for work permits and certain support services, according to immigration sources. Both must leave the country when their protected status expires, although they may be allowed to reapply in some circumstances if the humanitarian threat continues and the protections are extended.
They also may apply for asylum or other immigration benefits. People may be eligible for asylum in the U.S. if they have experienced or face potential persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
“War alone is not a reason they accept for asylum,” Cherednichenko said.
A majority of Maine’s congressional delegation favor the current immigration policies and continued support for Ukrainians coming to the U.S. as long as the war continues. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, didn’t respond to questions from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram about Ukrainian immigration policies.
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, a descendant of French-Canadian and Greek immigrants, said he hopes his city’s newest arrivals get to stay.
“The Ukrainian people are already contributing to our community,” Levesque said. “Our schools are very welcoming. The children have a grasp of English coming in and they are thriving.”
Brothers Dmytro and Pavlo Shakhov, ages 12 and 8, are among the Ukrainian children attending Auburn schools. They arrived in January with their father, Oleksandr Shakhov, 38, and mother, Alona Shakhova, 33. Oleksandr grew up with Opalnyk and attended his father’s church in Vinnytsia.
The Shakhovs came to the U.S. because Pavlo has serious health issues that require regular medical treatments and traveling to the hospital in Kyiv had become too dangerous, especially with regular power outages.
They miss their spacious townhouse, where the boys shared a large bedroom filled with toys and furniture built by their father, a home renovation contractor. In Auburn, he works on Opalnyk’s construction crew. The boys sleep in bunk beds set up in the living room of their sun-filled one-bedroom apartment. Blankets turn the white bedframe into a fort.
The snowy weather reminds the boys of home.
“They run down the street to the playground and dig tunnels and jump from the piles of snow,” Alona Shakhova said. She had a home business in Ukraine, baking and decorating cakes for birthdays, weddings and other special events. She hopes to put those skills to work in Maine.
“Everything,” she said when asked what she misses about Ukraine. “It’s good and safe here, but really I want to go home.”
Olesia Poliancheva, the police investigator, and her son, Milan, arrived in Auburn last summer and have settled into a busy routine. She drives regularly to Massachusetts, where he’s a goalie on a Boston youth hockey team that grooms talented players for the pros. She’s also taking two English courses, with classes four days a week. She hopes to land a job that makes the most of her multiple degrees and experience in chemistry, teaching, law and criminal justice.
“I want to learn English because I want a good job,” she said. “I’m doing everything I can to have a good life here.”