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Refugee Family Settling In To Life In Warren

Father Rick Tomasone, left, is the official person of support for Ukrainian refugees Sasha, Vanya and their mother, Olha. He met them at the Erie International Airport last week. Photo provided to the Post-Journal

WARREN, Pa. — It’s pretty common for people to go to members of the clergy for advice when pondering a big decision.

But there’s no way Father Rick Tomasone could have seen what was coming when a former basketball player he once coached, Slovakian Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova, texted him and asked his thoughts on taking in a refugee family from Ukraine.

The outgrowth of that conversation has resulted in Tomasone, the priest at St. Joseph Parish in Warren, agreeing to be that refugee family’s person of support in their attempt to secure humanitarian parole here in the United States.

He met the family, Olha and her children, Sasha and Vanya, at the Erie International Airport last week. As they settle into a new life in Warren, the Parish family and the broader community have supported the family in some amazing ways.

Tomasone said the text from Barbora came in the wake of the Russian invasion. They both knew what she should do.

“By me telling her that, (I was) making a commitment to help her out,” he said.

He thought that would be setting up a PayPal account and assisting financially.

And it was. A total of $40,000 was raised. He would wire it to Barbora who would provide it directly to refugees or sponsor different things, most recently setting up a kindergarten for 26 refugee children.

But as time passed, the family’s focus started to shift away from returning to Ukraine, even though the children’s father remains in Kyiv and, at this point, cannot leave and join his family.

“They decided the best thing for their family was for them to come to the United States,” Tomasone said. “They were hesitant to come through Tijuana because of the danger involved.” He agreed to go to Mexico to meet them but federal officials opened the Uniting for Ukraine process and closed the port in Tijuana.

With that proces opening, a flurry of paperwork commenced.

“Somebody in the U.S. has to know the name and background information of the people coming in,” Tomasone said. “This family had stayed with Barbora for three months. I knew the name. I could get passport numbers.”

So he had to apply to be their person of support, providing a host of information about the family. They had paperwork to complete from Slovakia, as well. Tomasone said Barbora is fluent in English and was able to help Olha take care of that side of things.

Once the paperwork was completed, it took just a couple days for approval of the application as well as permission to fly to the United States.

A request for humanitarian parole has to be made on American soil so, in laying out travel plans, consideration had to be given to layover times to ensure the family could make it through customs.

Before they left, all of their medical and educational records were translated from Ukrainian to English, Tomasone wrote a cover letter for Olha and Barbora had organized a folder for each of them with all the relevant information.

To stretch out the layover time, Olha and her children flew into Erie via Chicago, arriving shortly after 9:30 p.m. last Thursday. Tomasone was there to meet them.

“It was a big embrace,” he said. They made it back to Warren shortly before midnight.

On Friday morning, they took a driving tour around Warren — Washington Park, Kinzua Dam, Jakes Rocks. Tomasone said Olha called Walmart an “American legend.”

“We had stopped at Tops and got some basic things for them,” he said. “I tried not to help very much. They have to learn how to do some things on their own.”

On Friday night, they came to his house and had frozen pizza.

“They know who Baby Yoda is,” Tomasone said, so they watched part of The Mandalorian as well as Chip and Dale.

On Saturday, they spent more time exploring Warren — Olha told him they have Domino’s in Kyiv — before heading to Erie.

“The waitress (at TGI Friday’s) was so nice,” he said, picking up immediately that he was with non-native English speakers. They also stopped at Build-A-Bear — “they each got what they wanted” and spent several hours on the beach at Presque Isle.

Olha made borscht — beet soup — and they shared a meal on Saturday “which was really kind of neat.”

As the priest at St. Joseph, Tomasone also oversees the elementary school, which Zoomed with Sasha and Vanya earlier this year.

He said there was “a lot of excited chatter” around the school when he announced that their new classmates were coming.

Their classmates that met at Sunday Mass were stunned silent. “They couldn’t say anything,” Tomasone said. “People came up. They were genuinely very pleased to have them there.”

Those Zoom calls, though, appear to be helping the adjustment.

“The first Zoom call when the kids sang the song ‘Shalom,’ it was moving,” he said. “The second Zoom call, it was a lot better than the first…. There was a sense of companionship that had already developed. ‘These were kids just like us.'”

They’ve installed Google Translate on iPads as an assist.

“If there is something they generally don’t understand, they use Google translator and we make it work.”

In addition to the funding already raised locally that, among a host of other things, offset their flight costs, the ways that the community has embraced the family are nothing short of remarkable.

Tomasone said Lincoln Sokolski offered an apartment for them; Hank LeMeur, a parishioner at St Joseph, has guaranteed her a job and benefits at Superior Tire and Christine Kuntz, chair of the church’s finance council an attorney who offered to work on helping Olha secure working papers.

And it hasn’t just been the big acts of kindness that have been noticed.

Tomasone introduced them at Mass on Sunday and “they got applause the whole way up the aisle.”

“There were people when they came to meet them that handed them money,” he said. “There was a couple from New Orleans in town for a wedding. I have no idea who they were but they gave them money.

“We, as Americans, feel powerless in this situation,” he added. Helping in those small ways can be a reminder “that we’re doing what we can.”

Tomasone said that the “hope” is that the children’s father will be able to join them here in the future.

“The apartment building next to theirs got bombed,” he said. “Their kitchen was destroyed. (There’s) not likely much for them to go back there (to).”

Tomasone credited the personal connection with Barbora for helping this process go so smoothly.

He can remain their sponsor for up to two years or until employment is secured.

“She’s establishing relationships with people,” he explained. “I tried to go over and explain garbage pickup and recycling. It was not an easy thing. There are so many things we take for granted that they don’t have access to” or are “just the same way we do things.”

There will surely be challenges ahead, some known and unknown. Others expected. Others not.

Tomasone said they’ll need a family medicine practice, second COVID-19 boosters, tests for tuberculosis.

There will surely be things they need that are, also, both expected and unexpected.

That uncertainty makes the oft-asked question — “How can I help?” — very difficult to answer.

“We’re kind of taking this one day at a time,” Tomasone said. “We don’t know what we need until we need it.”

One of those known needs will be access to a vehicle.

“They’re from Kyiv,” Tomasone said, a city with public transportation offerings. “Olha has never driven a car. Eventually we are going to have to take” her through the driver’s license process and secure a vehicle. “I’m kinda keeping my eye out for a used car that is reasonable and reliable.”

He said there are “a number of things” that the government is assisting with but the response from this community is also making an impact, helping the family transition to life here.

“It’s the people of the town that have generally been very kind,” he said. “The people around Warren that we’ve encountered have been generally hospitable, going out of their way.”

For Tomasone, a text message for advice has grown to facilitating this family’s future in a small town 5,000 miles away from the war that has upended their lives.

“Did I know what to expect? Not entirely,” he said. “It was just the idea of “Ok, let’s just go with what we need.”

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