A family of 3 fled Ukraine. Now, they live in Iowa City, where community members stepped up to help.
This is part one of a two-part series about two refugee families living in Iowa City.
It was late at night at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids when Dymtro, Artem and Tetiana Kolomiiets finally got off their plane — some 40 minutes after they landed — and arrived in Iowa for the first time on Sept. 19.
They were bundled up in winter jackets, fit for the Finland autumn they'd left behind but less so for the September warmth of last year.
There to greet them were people they’d never met in person, people who’d decided they wanted to help three Ukrainian strangers who’d fled their home as a result of Russia invading Ukraine last year in February.
The delay made one of those greeters, Sarah Outterson-Murphy, anxious. But the flight attendants and the pilot who had already exited the plane assured her that there were three people who spoke no English on the flight, and one of them uses a wheelchair.
That fit the description of the family of three Outterson-Murphy had emailed and chatted with over Zoom, a family who, like millions of others, were in search of a new home because of the Russia-Ukraine war.
The Kolomiiets had arrived. Exhausted, but they'd arrived.
Four months later, what began as a desire to help has transformed the lives of the Kolomiiets and the Iowa City community members who’ve invested time, and resources, to assist one family.
The Kolomiiets shared their story with the Press-Citizen with the help of a translation app and a University of Iowa student translator.
Leaving their home in Ukraine
Dymtro Kolomiiets worked as a truck driver in Europe, visiting nearly every country except for Portugal and England. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, he was separated from his brother, Artem, and mother, Tetiana, who lived in Mariupol, Ukraine.
They lost contact. More than a month-and-a-half of war passed before they were in communication with the assistance of friends, he said. In a document written by Artem and shared with the Press-Citizen, they began speaking over the phone to discuss their evacuation plan.
Dymtro worked constantly, but his thoughts were with his family. It was hard to sleep, he said.
Artem and Tetiana spent 109 days under near-constant shelling living in a nine-story building. The elevators were turned off. Artem, who uses a wheelchair, couldn’t leave the apartment to go to a bomb shelter.
Artem, in his document, recalled how they spread food and water around their apartment to avoid losing access to their food should any part of their apartment collapse. They rationed water. It was cold in Mariupol, and so was their apartment. Artem wrote that if not for the shells, the cold would surely have killed them.
In May of last year, Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol surrendered, and Russia gained total control of the city, the Associated Press reported. The devastation inflicted on this city included Russia bombing a maternity hospital and a bombing of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater that killed close to 600 people, the Associated Press reported.
“When you are in this apartment during the war, when you can’t leave it, and when aerial bombs hit your home and, luckily, do not explode, when your home is fired by tanks, it is difficult to describe by words how much one wants to leave one’s home, one’s city, one’s place,” Artem said.
The Kolomiiets reunited at the border of Poland and escaped to Finland, where church friends were able to help them. They lived there for a month-and-a-half to two months before their journey would take them to Iowa.
“It is always difficult to leave your home,” Dymtro said. “You leave familiar places, from everything that surrounded you at home, and you practically have nothing. You need to find everything again, including such small things as spoons, forks, dishes, bedding.”
Two Iowa City community members decide to help
Some 5,000 miles away, Outterson-Murphy learned in the news that Ukrainians would be allowed to come to America if they had sponsors.
The English teacher at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids and her husband, Bobby, sponsored the Kolomiiets through the Uniting for Ukraine program, in which qualifying individuals in America can apply to sponsor a Ukrainian citizen, or their non-Ukrainian immediate family member, to live in America for a two-year period of parole.
“I thought there's not a ton I can do in my life that directly makes immigration possible for someone and this seemed like a unique opportunity to make a difference for a specific family,” she said.
More:Iowa City business seeks support for its Ukrainian farm team: ‘They’re what make it all possible’
As of Jan. 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received 207,000 requests from individuals agreeing to support Ukrainian citizens or their immediate family members as part of the Uniting for Ukraine program, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Approximately 110,000 individuals have arrived in America through the Uniting for Ukraine program. According to DHS, 148,000 Ukrainians have been processed into America outside of the Uniting for Ukraine program.
The Outterson-Murphys actually sponsored two families, one who resettled in Chicago. Families like them, Outterson-Murphy said, are an example of how there are many families who don’t need a lot of support. All they need is someone to sign some paperwork.
The Cedar Rapids educator, who is involved in the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City, has been long invested in activism efforts, sometimes through the church, other times not. But she went to her church with her plan and found support through people including Pastor Sarah Goettsch, who had, at an earlier point, been tasked to put together a social justice committee that included the Outterson-Murphys.
Goettsch acted as a liaison, informing the congregation of what was going on. When they learned they’d be supporting the Kolomiiets, the congregation raised $25,000 in two weeks to help with the costs involved with a family of three arriving in America, she said.
She also coordinated to have Vladimir Titarenko, whose family came to North Liberty from Ukraine a few years ago, join them at the airport for the Kolomiiets arrival and act as a translator, able to “speak to them in a way that made them feel assuaged and comforted” after an exhausting trip. He joined them again when the Kolomiiets shared their story to the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church congregation.
Social Security Numbers, health insurance, work permits, vaccinations, biometric appointments — the latter proving to be especially irksome, Outterson-Murphy recalled — were all things that required attention.
Just a lot of “crazy bureaucracy,” as Outterson-Murphy put it.
“I have a couple of graduate degrees. My husband has a couple of graduate degrees. (Church member) Marge worked in the medical system. We all speak fluent English and we are struggling with it… how is a refugee who doesn’t speak much English and doesn't know what's going on, how are they supposed to do any of this?” she said.
Life in Iowa City
Tiny pieces of paper are taped on to the walls of the Kolomiiets' home with words in English.
They all study English. During one tutoring session in the afternoon at their home in early January, the three practiced words used to describe family. "Aunt." "Grandfather." "Sister."
Their home was decorated for the holidays. A small Christmas tree sat on top of a shelf adorned with blue and purple bulbs. Three stockings, each with their own name on it, hung on a lamp. Like other Ukrainians, they celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 per the Julian calendar.
Over the past four months in Iowa City, the Kolomiiets visited the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, saw a concert at the Voxman Music Building and had dinners at congregation members’ homes.
A few weeks ago, the Kolomiiets took their first trip to the Coral Ridge Mall to do some shopping, joined by Adele and Clay Monserud, retirees who help the Kolomiiets for things like daytime errands. They spent the afternoon at stores like Target, JCPenney and Scheels, wandering the aisles with ease and using a translation app to chat with the Monseruds every so often.
Adele Monserud recalled their first interaction. She’d recently gotten a new bike. Dymtro, who didn’t have his license yet, was eager for a bike to provide additional transportation, and independence. So, she gave him her old bike.
Her husband, who was a truck driver for years, took Dymtro to the DMV for his written test and later his driving test, which he passed. Dymtro is working toward getting his commercial driver's license, as well, and he's enrolled in English classes at Kirkwood Community College.
They go to church frequently. Artem was a secretary at a church in Mariupol. One member translates Goettsch’s sermons into Russian every week so they can follow along in the service.
Artem’s fiancé will arrive in February. The Kolomiiets want to stay in America, Dymtro said. After all, there is nothing to return to in their once beautiful city.
After experiencing war, Dymtro said, you don’t pay attention to small problems. And there's no difficulties for them living in Iowa City.
An impactful experience for all
Resilient is one word Monserud used to describe the Kolomiiets, saying they feel blessed to have them in Iowa City.
Goettsch described how there have been times she has probed deeper about their lives, their losses and what they’ve witnessed. The fact that they can turn around and listen to her gripe about a headache, she said, exemplifies their willingness to laugh about life despite what they’ve been through.
Outterson-Murphy echoed their ability to laugh.
“It's been quite a bit of work, but I'm really grateful for the Kolomiiets,” she said. “They're just wonderful people, and I feel really lucky to have met them.”
In mid-January, the Department of State in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services announced Welcome Corps, a new program where American citizens or permanent residents can privately sponsor the resettlement of refugees from around the world.
The social justice committee at the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church have put together a document with resources, recommendations and insights people can view if they’re interested in sponsoring a family.
Goettsch said it’s important to acknowledge the Kolomiiets are one of many families who’ve settled in Iowa City with stories not entirely dissimilar.
“They would want that to be stated, because they're humble and they know that there are people from Congo and people from South America and people from all around the globe that are also here that have been through similar things,” she said. “And that if the Iowa City community can be continually encouraged to reach across language barriers and context barriers and cultural barriers, that it’s so rewarding and so necessary in regards to being human, I think that would be a final thing I would want to exhort the community in.”
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at PBarraza@press-citizen.com or 319-519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.
This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: How Iowa City community members helped a family of 3 from Ukraine