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‘Very hard to leave’: They fled the war in Ukraine and are adapting to St. Augustine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now surpassed its two-year mark. Amid immeasurable devastation that remains to this day, Americans continue to open their hearts and homes to sponsor war-torn refugees.

St. Augustine’s Jerry Jahn and Elizabeth Langland are among many American families sponsoring Ukrainian refugees through , a national initiative that sponsors refugees from Ukraine, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In September 2022, under the organization’s Humanitarian Parole Program, the husband-and-wife team assumed a two-year financial commitment to sponsor the families of two sisters, Liudmyla and Inna. The sisters, who were born in Kyiv and would not give their last names, knew that leaving was imperative for the safety of their families.

Prior to the girls’ arrival to America’s oldest city, the families spoke “extensively” through , an online toolkit initiated by Welcome.US that enables sponsors and refugees to get to know each other before solidifying sponsorship. Conversations and pictures were shared allowing each to feel comfortable with the upcoming, life-changing transition.

Langland and Jahn, along with family and friends, assisted the refugees assimilating into St. Augustine. The families received work permits within four months of their arrival and the children attended school almost immediately. While learning to speak English proved more of a challenge to the adults than the children, the families have successfully integrated into life as Floridians.

Today, Liudmyla (Luda), 46, a former hairdresser who is married to Sergei, works full time at a Publix supermarket. Their son Max, 16, attends high school and plays baseball with dreams of going pro. Sergei remained in Ukraine to serve as a soldier along with their 21-year-old son, Denys.

Inna, 43, a former accountant, works full time at a local bakery while her husband, Grigory, works for . Their 9-year-old daughter, Margo, attends school.

The St. Augustine Record spoke to the sisters and Langland through the assistance of Edwina Eyre, a senior associate at , an award-winning public affairs agency.

A Q&A with the families

The St. Augustine Record: As we welcome you to America, Luda and Inna, please share the story behind your St. Augustine arrival.

Luda and Inna: On Margo’s seventh birthday, Feb. 24, 2022, we woke up to explosions of Russian rockets. Our peaceful and happy life ended immediately. Facing fear, despair, confusion and round-the-clock anxiety, we joined our parents in our country house located outside of Kyiv.

Every day, planes flew over. We could hear the fighting in Boryspil, which was located about 30 kilometers from the house. After learning about the terrible, tragic downfall of Bucha and the horrors the Russian army inflicted on our people during their occupation, our men decided that the women should seek refuge in Ireland to save our children.

The St. Augustine Record: After the Russian forces withdrew from the city of Bucha, , photographs and videos unveiled gruesome details of rape, torture and the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians, soldiers and fighters. Russian authorities dismissed the as fake.

Luda and Inna: On April 3, 2022, Luda, Inna, Max, and Margo left for Poland by train. The Russians had been dropping rockets at train stations in various cities knowing that people were leaving Ukraine en masse. We stayed in Poland for a week, watching the situation in Ukraine get worse. Europe was full of Ukrainian refugees, so we moved to Ireland expecting to wait out the war. Ireland welcomed us with open arms.

The St. Augustine Record: What were you thinking while you were in Ireland and how did you explain moving to your children?

Luda and Inna: We felt fear, despair and confusion. When Grigory joined the territorial defense on the second day of the war, weapons appeared in our country house for the very first time. Every night he carried out the tasks of a military commander to protect us and our area and returned home in the morning to sleep.

We told our children the truth: That our neighboring country started a war, but we’re strong and brave; we’re protected by the army, and we will win soon.

Ireland was an island of safety, expectation and hope for a quick return to Ukraine. But every day we heard threats of Russia using nuclear weapons against Europe and Britain. Again, we had to decide: What country would our children be safe in? The No. 1 great country is, of course, the USA. We found the program for Ukrainian refugees on the Internet. Fate brought us together with Elizabeth and Jerry. They became our sponsors and were joined by Fonda and John. We arrived in Jacksonville on Sept. 7, 2022.

The St. Augustine Record: Was it difficult to leave Ukraine?

Luda and Inna: Yes, it was very hard to leave the beautiful life we had built, our parents, friends, family, homes and a future that we planned in Ukraine. To enter the unknown with children, a small suitcase and worries about how to live was the most difficult decision of our lives.

The St. Augustine Record: What was it like to leave your loved ones behind?

Luda and Inna: Painful. There’s a feeling of helplessness. It was difficult to leave, but we were full of hope that we would soon return. We don’t know when we’ll see our parents, son, husband and relatives. Margo still asks about her kitten and dreams of getting a puppy.

Elizabeth Langland: When Russia invaded Ukraine and the opportunity arose to benefit others suffering under conflict and oppression, my husband, Jerry, and I started researching how we could help. Through Welcome.US and Welcome Connect, we seized the opportunity to these two families. Our dear friends, John and Fonda joined us. We rented a condo for the family, so they could begin their lives in the U.S. with some autonomy.

Luda and Inna: Our life was so carefully planned with time, energy, love, patience and finances. Elizabeth, Jerry, John and Fonda exceeded all our expectations.

Elizabeth Langland: The rewards for sponsorship have far outweighed any financial responsibility by the joy and love our Ukrainian families have brought into our lives. Their presence has broadened our own sense of community and connection with our friends and neighbors. Their love and appreciation have enriched our lives immensely. We share holidays and celebrate all birthdays, American and Ukrainian, enjoy dinners together and learn about Ukrainian traditions and food. They think of Fonda, John and Jerry and me as their American Parents.

The St. Augustine Record: Was it difficult to acclimate to America?

Luda and Inna: St. Augustine has a very pleasant, humid subtropical climate, and it was easy for us to adapt. I can confidently say that Elizabeth, Jerry, Fonda and John played a major role to provide support for our adaption and integration into society.

The St. Augustine Record: Are you happy in St. Augustine?

Luda and Inna: St. Augustine is a magical city where happy people live; a city with a special energy and charm, a city with many historical sites. St. Augustine is a big paradise in a small town.

But we’re happy when get in touch with our loved ones after a seven-day blackout. We’re happy when, after the air alarms sound in Ukraine, we’re sure that a Russian missile didn’t fly into our house. We’re happy to hear the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated the occupied territories of Ukraine. We’re happy to hear the laughter of our children and we’re happy when our children succeed.

The St. Augustine Record: Can you describe the American people?

Luda and Inna: Friendly, sincere, kind, communicative and always with a smile. Although we communicate in different languages, we understand each other very well. Elizabeth, Jerry, Fonda and John gave a reception to recognize the many individuals who contributed to our making a home in America.

The St. Augustine Record: Do the children like St. Augustine?

Luda and Inna: Our children have new opportunities for development and self-realization. Margo was recognized as the best student in her first year of study. She has friends, attends dance classes and performed on the big stage at Flagler College. Max joined the high school baseball team, he was a member of the Ukrainian u15 baseball team, and hopes to become professional. He earned his driver’s license and got a job close to home. He combines studies, sports, work and free time with friends. Our kids love spending time in the ocean and have attended a local surf school. We feel proud and satisfied with their successes.

We inspire, motivate and support our children in their desire to develop. We study American rules, culture, customs, laws and taxes to implement in our lives. We’re learning how to think like Americans. The USA accepted us, gave us shelter, security, help and education for our children. We focus on the positive and the good.

The St. Augustine Record: Will you return to Ukraine?

Luda and Inna: That’s a difficult question we often ask ourselves. We don’t have an answer. The war in Ukraine is ongoing. We don’t know how long it will last. The news is disappointing. As children and civilians die and infrastructure is being destroyed, understanding how we might return home diminishes. Relatives and friends are scattered all over the world: Poland, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Canada and the U.S.

Our efforts and plans are aimed at new achievements in the USA to study, work and become more confident. A new dream was born to us. After there is victory in Ukraine, we want to organize a trip for our American parents and friends to show how wonderful and amazing our country, Ukraine, is.