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Ukranian family finds home in Bloomington after fleeing war

Shypulias 4th of July celebration
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Zhanna Shypulia, right, and her family celebrated their first 4th of July in Bloomington this year.

Zhanna Shypulia has lived nearly her entire life in Ukraine's southern port city of Kherson. She lived there with her husband and their 1-year-old son. Their hometown has become a key battleground since Russia illegally annexed part of eastern Ukraine months into the war.

Shypulia never imaged the war would last months. When Russian trooped invaded Kherson in February, the family packed one suitcase, took her mother and grandmother with them, and drove to western Ukraine to wait out the conflict. They soon realized one week would not be enough.

“In a few days, we realized that it’s more and more parts of our city and region occupied and at that time we realized that we don’t have a place to return. That was a very horrible time,” Shypulia said.

The Shypulias scoured the internet to find another place to go. They were now refugees of war. They moved 11 times before settling in Bloomington, a place the family plans to make their permanent home.

First, they planned to drive to Spain to stay with Zhanna's aunt, but found out there was no more room. Relatives got their first.

Zhanna used her connections as a blogger and online Russian language teacher to put out calls for help. One subscriber offered her five days in Hungary. That bought the family time to get their car fixed. By then it was early March. Zhanna walked the streets of Budapest and, for the first time in weeks, she saw people smiling. That's when the grim reality of what was happening in their homeland started to sink in.

“I was not jealous (of) them. I realized that life is going on, but for some other people, not for our family, not for Ukranians,” Shypulia said.

From Hungary, the Shypulias hopscotched from Spain to Italy to stay with one of Zhanna Shypulia's students. Shypulia said by then, her grandmother was having health problems that made it hard to walk. Shypulia said staying in cold churches and wet basements likely made her grandmother’s sciatic nerve worse.

With no plan in Milan, a friend who also fled Ukraine connected the Shypulias with the Red Cross to help with housing and food. The Red Cross put up Ukrainian refugees in Spain in a hotel that had been closed two years for COVID.

The Shypulias met another refugee family there who told them the United States was accepting Ukranian refugees. Her husband Andrew was ready. Zhanna wasn't, but Andrew convinced her to go.

“It’s safer than in Europe because, who knows, maybe the nuclear war can happen and it will (impact) Europe more than the United States,” Shypulia said.

Shypulia family
Zhanna Shypulia (second from right) and her family entered the United States through San Diego as they fled war-torn Ukraine.

The Shypulias flew to Mexico and entered the U.S. through San Diego where they stayed for a month as their hosts family gave them time to search for a more permanent home.

Shypulia said it was hard to find housing for a family of five, including an infant, especially in California where housing is expensive. Shypulia reached out to the Samaritan's Purse, a faith-based international relief organization. After a series of interviews, Samaritan's Purse offered three locations to stay in the U.S. She'd never heard of any of them.

One was Bloomington-Normal. Shypulia said it seemed the right-size community for them.

“Safety was the most important part at the time because even in San Diego, I was not feeling safe. I said to my husband, there is a military base here,” Shypulia said.

Refugee help in Bloomington-Normal

Bloomington-Normal was an option because Eastview Christian Church in Normal worked with Samaritan's Purse on accepting Ukranian refugees, even if that wasn't the plan at first.

Mark Dossett is community center pastor at Eastview. He said the church explored the refugee program when the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, and the U.S. prepared for a flood of Afghanis into the country. By the time Eastview was ready to sponsor a refugee family, Ukraine had become a humanitarian crisis.

Samaritan's Purse uses donations and federal funding to provide emergency housing and other help to families like the Sypulias who are on humanitarian parole.

“Making sure they have cash for the things they need, but also going through the processes to get linked up with public aid or food pantries or clothing pantries, anything that can help them to minimize the cash outlay they would have to do otherwise,” said Dossett, adding Eastview worked with Home Sweet Home Ministries and Recycling Furniture for Families to help with essentials and home furnishings.

People granted humanitarian parole have one year to live in the U.S. Dossett said Samaritan's Purse then helps the refugees get paperwork so they can get jobs, seek asylum status and eventually apply for a green card and U.S. citizenship.

The Immigration Project is another organization that helped the Shypulias settle in Bloomington. Social services director Sarah Mellor said the Immigration Project has helped with their legal needs and other life needs, such as obtaining a driver’s license, getting furniture and learning how to use the Connect Transit public bus system.

Mellor said it can be overwhelming for refugee families who often don't know where to start.

“The stress is actually like one of the main issues that people are facing because there’s so much on their to-do list and there’s so much they need to do to start their lives back over,” Mellor said.

Family photo at airport
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Zhanna Shypulia and her husband Andrew greet his parents upon their arrival at Central Illinois Regional Airport.

Aside from being a Russian language teacher, Zhanna Shypulia also worked in hotel management in Ukraine. She'd like to find work like that in Bloomington. Her husband is a businessman with an IT degree. Shypulia said they didn't want to stay in Spain, aside from concerns about the threat of nuclear war in Europe, they didn't know the language and feared that would limit job prospects. They both speak English and want to find work in the U.S., but are still waiting on work authorization.

Mellor said immigration paperwork is backlogged and often takes months to process. Since that time, their 90-day sponsorship ended. It also has ended for Zhanna Shypulias's in-laws who joined the family in Bloomington. It's been seven people living under one roof since summer.

Dossett said the church will continue to financially support the family while their immigration status remains in limbo.

“We’re committed to it for the long run, so as long as work authorization isn’t on the horizon, or in place then Eastview is going to be there to make sure (they get help),” Dossett said.

Zhanna Shypulia said the family plans to stay in Bloomington and figure things out. Aside from all the uncertainty about the future, Shypulia said she and his family are happy here and their son, who's now 2, really likes it here.

“The city is very family-oriented. We’ve found here there are a lot of playgrounds. We’ve been here a few months already, but we haven’t visited all of these playgrounds still,” Shypulia said.

The family was looking forward to a trip to Rader Family Farms. They are regulars at the Children's Discovery Museum in Normal.

Future help

The Immigration Project said there's one other family of Ukraine war refugees living in McLean County. It's not clear whether future refugees might find as much help in Bloomington-Normal.

Dossett said Samaritan's Purse no longer assists new refugees, so the program for now is essentially over. Demand for emergency housing may not be over. Thousands of migrants have been bused to Illinois from southern states and Bloomington-Normal leaders have explored ways to help if some end up here.

Dossett said the Shypulias made their transition fairly smooth. He was impressed by how well they've handled all the uncertainty, but he said sponsoring even one family is intense and can be filled with trauma.

Dossett said it's not clear how much Eastview might help if more immigrants sought refuge in Bloomington-Normal. “There’s always going to be places in the world where there’s war or some kind of situation where catastrophe hits and there’s these displaced peoples,” Dossett said. “The way we are looking at it is a learning experience for us to understand a lot of those nuances.”

The Shypulias have learned a lot about the U.S. in their seven months in Bloomington Normal, enough to know they want to make this their permanent home. The Shypulias are taking English as a Second Language classes at Heartland Community College.

Zhanna Shypulia said she's pleased to see all the Ukraine flags Americans are flying to show support Ukraine as it resists Russian aggressors.

Russia has tried to reclaim parts of its former territory, which started in 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Shypulia said she fears her native Ukraine won't be safe even if Russian troops leave.

“I miss it almost every day, but we have a baby and I want to grown up and in safe surroundings. I don’t want him to have this experience of war again because its terrible,” Shypulia said.

Going back to Ukraine also would be a reminder of how many people the Shypulias knew who were killed by the Russians.

Shypulia said she didn't know how well the Ukranian military would do against Russian troops, but also never thought war could break out in her hometown in the first place.

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Corrected: November 9, 2022 at 5:14 PM CST
The Shypulia's son was 1 year old at the time of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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