MATTHEWS, N.C. — It’s been months since Russia invaded Ukraine and millions of people have fled the war-torn country.
North Carolina expects to receive anywhere between 2,200 to 2,700 Ukrainian refugees by the end of September, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
A local educator is stepping in and assisting families who have been displaced.
The word "welcome" is printed on the sign that greets refugee parents when they drop their kids off at the Lastovetska Learning Center. It's located inside Good News Church in Matthews.
It is helping families like Oxana Dolgopolov's, whose lives have been disrupted by the war.
“Right now, it’s very difficult,” she said. ”People lost homes and lost work. I even don’t have work.”
“I have one suitcase with a child. That’s all,” said Nata Piatygina, another Ukrainian refugee. “I have no home. Not much in savings and I’m in a foreign country.”
A seat inside the center is on the house for refugee children. Principal Lilia Lastovestka co-owns the center with her daughter Eliza.
“I couldn’t stand by when the war started in Ukraine and do nothing. So that’s why we decided to help,” she said.
Lastovetska said she knows how expensive childcare can be, and this is her way of helping parents get back on their feet.
“We provide our Ukrainian refugee kids with all they need, free classes, free meals, and we also help their parents to find housing and jobs too,” she said.
It's a class where the kids are learning how to read and speak English. It also serves as a safe haven for children traumatized by the bloodshed.
“They could not smile when they first came here, they were crying and they were very nervous,” said Lastovestka. “They were so disappointed because they lost their homes.”
Immigration and refugee advocate Kateryna Panova is working to get the center more resources so it can continue to help the kids thrive as they adjust to their new surroundings.
“It’s crucial that the kids go somewhere like summer camp or daycare to be able to just be kids, to enjoy life, to laugh and not to worry about the war and what they’ve lost,” she said.
Panova is the founder of UAWelcome and has helped dozens of refugees settle in Mecklenburg County. She adds that the learning center’s services are important for the kids’ mental health and general well-being.
“Unfortunately, kids are suffering a lot,” said Panova. “They don’t understand why they have to be in a foreign country, in a new school, lose their friends, their relatives, and their fathers in most cases. It is tough.”
Piatygina’s husband is still fighting back in Ukraine. She is grateful for the generosity and gets some peace of mind knowing her son is safe.
“In the United States, he can see the light, he can see the part of the world that is not cruel, who is not killing, who’s helping and caring,” said Piatygina. “When you have a hand of help it is a relief.”
Lastovetska plans to keep her doors open for the families whose lives have been turned upside down by the conflict for as long as she can. She is looking for a permanent space to rent for the Ukrainian daycare and school in Matthews, Stallings, or Indian Trail.
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