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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

‘It’s Delightful to See Them Thrive:’ Welcome Circle Says Helping Ukrainian Family Has Been a Gift

Before sunrise, six days a week, Roman, a Ukrainian refugee living in Cambridge, rides his bicycle to the Boston office of Gentle Giant, where he works as a mover – his physical endurance, biking miles and lifting furniture every day, the embodiment of an inner resilience that has carried him through the hardships of the past two years.

Not long after Roman leaves for work, his wife, Olena, and their young daughter wait for the bus that takes her to her new school in Cambridge, where she is enrolled in the Sheltered English Immersion program, a small class with children from many different countries around the world who are English learners. Olena then rides public transportation – a once-unfamiliar system she has come to master – into the city, where she takes multiple English classes herself. She hopes to soon become fluent enough to apply for employment here.

One small step at a time, Roman, Olena, and their daughter have built a new life for themselves in the U.S., since leaving their country in June. The family’s success is not only the result of great bravery and determination but a testament to the support system they’ve found in Catholic Charities Boston’s Welcome Circles Program.

Frank Hartmann, the originator of their Welcome Circle, a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, and a parishioner at St. Peter’s Parish in Cambridge, said he and his fellow Welcome Circles were moved by the Gospel and by the regular appeals from Pope Francis to reach out to refugees, leading Frank to step up to find out what they could do in response.

After a few months of preparation, the group learned from Catholic Charities Boston’s Community Sponsorship and Engagement Program Manager, Philip D’Agati, that there was a Ukrainian man, Roman, in need of sponsorship.

Having been separated from his wife and daughter during the war, Roman was looking to move to the U.S. to attain a job so that he could afford to eventually have his family join him in Boston. Through the support of Theo Pritz, a Gentle Giant Human Resources Recruiter, Roman was able to attain a job at Gentle Giant.

Knowing that the family had already been separated for some time, however, the members of the Welcome Circle said they would have been heartbroken to see Roman move to Boston alone and be separated from Olena and his daughter again.

Sure enough, with dedicated fundraising efforts supported by members of the parish and other friends, the group raised enough money to ensure the family of three could move to Boston together.

“I couldn’t believe they offered us that opportunity,” said Roman. “I thought I would be coming alone. I never had heard of a program where they help you like this.”

On the evening of June 28, Roman and his family landed at Boston Logan Airport, where they were greeted warmly by members of the Welcome Circle, who sported colorful handmade signs displaying their names. The family was then led to their new temporary apartment, where the Welcome Circle members had stocked the fridge with staples of Ukrainian cuisine, clean linens, basic needs items, and a bright bouquet of sunflowers – the national flower of Ukraine – to make the new environment feel just a bit more like home.

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“We have just been amazed at how resilient and resourceful this family is,” said Welcome Circle member Lauren Curry, who is a recently retired nonprofit worker.

“The very first day, after all the rigor of preparing for the trip, Roman went to work at 6 o’clock in the morning because he didn’t want to miss training,” said another member of the Welcome Circle, Carol LaCasse, who previously mentored a refugee family. “That’s just the type of person he is.”

Since the family arrived, Lauren, Carol, Frank and the other members of the circle, including Michael Reidy, a consultant in conflict resolution, Barbara Best, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Education, and Rebecca Joyce, a geriatric nurse, have worked tirelessly to ensure they have everything they need, from finding them a long-term apartment of their own, to guiding them through the process of applying for healthcare insurance, to securing a spot for their daughter in a competitive language enrichment program, to helping Olena enroll in English classes and teaching her the public transportation system.

Perhaps more impactful than helping the family navigate this unfamiliar terrain, however, has been the sense of compassion and community the Welcome Circle has offered the family.

Roman said his daughter has been grateful for the opportunity to socialize with other young children through the Welcome Circle, including Carol’s granddaughter and Rebecca’s daughter.

“She has spent a lot of time with them, and they have a lot of fun, even without speaking the same language,” said Roman. “They have taken her to different events, like a St. Nicholas celebration, recently, and we all celebrated Halloween night together.”

While Roman and Olena have also become friends with a couple of Ukrainian families new to the area, Roman said it has been difficult being so far away from their families, who are back in Odesa.

Knowing that Olena typically celebrates her birthday with close family, the women of the circle hosted a birthday party for her at one of their homes.

“It really felt like we were a family that day, with us girls all together,” said Carol. “We used google translate here and there to overcome the language barrier, and we had a lovely time.”

While the Welcome Circle consists of only six members, the compassion that drives their mission has had a domino effect throughout the community, leading other parishioners and friends to want to join in welcoming and supporting the family.

Roman’s bike, for example, which has become his primary mode of transportation, was gifted to him by one of Lauren’s good friends.

“As soon as Roman saw it, he was ready to roll. He started fixing it up, and he rode it home that very night. It’s just lovely to see them all live life so fully in this situation,” said Lauren.

“I am always thinking in the back of my mind, ‘What else can we offer them? How can we make life a little more interesting or easier for them?” said Carol. “It’s just delightful to see them grow and thrive and to see that they’re just like us. They are just like any young family who deserve to have a happy and secure life.”

Learn more about how you can support Catholic Charities Boston’s clients in need this holiday season and beyond here. Part 9 of our Twelve Days of Giving Series, sharing heartwarming stories about people spreading joy and compassion within our community this holiday season.

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