The Collegian
Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Modern Asylum: Ukrainian mother and daughter carve their future in Richmond

<p>Photo of Iryna Litvinov and Olena Litvinov at the Refugee Art Show in St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Bon Air, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Litvinov family.&nbsp;</p>

Photo of Iryna Litvinov and Olena Litvinov at the Refugee Art Show in St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Bon Air, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Litvinov family. 

Nearly nine months after touching down in the United States, the unending resilience of Ukrainian mother Iryna Litvinov and her daughter Olena – in addition to the ceaseless support of their host family - have moved the two refugees out of their shared guest bedroom in Michael Warchol’s home and into a place of their own. 

With the possibility of a life long-term in the U.S. growing, Iryna and Olena’s story paints a picture of what modern asylum looks like for many migrants across our country – a battle both with cultural identity, federal policy and where they fit in.

Iryna and Olena found their new home while taking evening English classes at a church in Bon Air. The church was cleaned by an older Ukrainian woman who was looking to retire from her job and lived in a small house near the church. Ira was able to take over her position and residence for a very affordable price. 

While opportunities like this made it possible for the two women to maintain their livelihood and independence, Warchol described that in many ways they found themselves with an identity unrecognizable to the one they had within the country they were born, grew up and made a life in. 

Iryna has a doctorate in economics and most recently held a position at the Kharkiv National University of Economics. Established in 1912 by renowned economist Simon Kuznets, and with just over 10,000 students enrolled, KHNUE is the largest institution of research and higher education in the eastern part of Ukraine.

However, despite Iryna’s teaching background, the experience she has accumulated throughout her career is not able to be used properly due to the language barrier.

Before the war, Olena was studying informatics, with a budding focus on the interactions between design and user experience. Now, while her job at a nearby McDonald’s has given her an opportunity to improve her English, the rest of her formal education has ground to a halt.

Since their arrival, the support from the Richmond community has given Ira and Lena opportunities to share their personal experiences through art, grounding them in their identity and creating a space for expression.

In May, a community arts fair called Arts in the Park gathered around Iryna’s inspiring works, giving her a booth to display a collection of oil paintings. With a few social media accounts  and a feature on a local news channel, attention and donations steadily flowed into Iryna’s tent throughout the weekend.

Olena’s artistry has manifested in poetry, earning her a place in the ReEstablish Richmond Narratio Fellowship program, which has a mission to provide resettled refugee youth with opportunities to share their stories through various storytelling mediums. 

Hesitant at first, Warchol, manager of the University of Richmond’s International Office of Education, encouraged Olena to join the program, which included a trip to New York City in July where she showcased her work at the Museum of Modern Art.

While work on integrating Iryna and Olena into their new life began immediately, Warchol found that stable footing took time, and many necessities – bank accounts, a car and health appointments – proved arduous missions.

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“It took a solid three to four months to make things happen,” Warchol said, “and as Americans, I think we sort of expect things to be instantaneous.”

For the average American, the prospect of opening a bank account is exciting and relatively simple. A Saturday morning trip and a couple of clicks leave them with a shiny  card and newfound independence.

Yet for two Ukrainians who have no social security numbers and are on a two-year parole program, establishing financial freedom took rounds of mailing documentation, verification and learning how to funnel their earnings independent of the Warchol family.

Similarly, obtaining health and dental care was a tedious task. 

“There [have] been a lot with medical conditions for them,” Warchol said. “Instances where maybe they didn’t receive the best care in Ukraine.”

While Ukraine boasts a universal system where healthcare is deemed a legal right, grappling with severe corruption, underfunding and lack of accessibility has led to inadequate outcomes. With the beginning of a violent war only inflaming an already unstable system, Iryna and Olena arrived in the U.S. with multiple conditions unresolved.

“We knew it was going to be time intensive,” Warchol said. “But we really didn’t know what that would look like.” 

At one point, Warchol’s wife, Lauren Warchol, interpreted on the fly in a doctor’s office when the translator failed to show up.

What the Warchol family is doing is not entirely unique, however, with more and more Ukrainian refugees starting their journey in the U.S. every day.

In April of 2022, President Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that provided pathways for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to come to the United States and stay for two years of temporary parole.

Any Ukrainians participating in the program would need a sponsor in the U.S. who agreed to support them during this period, like the Warchol family.

With the grim reality of the war stretching on, the Warchol and Litvinov families have begun efforts to bring Iryna’s mother, Lyudmila, over to the U.S. the same way. However, this time it has proved more difficult.

“The process is much slower,” Warchol said, “many are trying to game and cheat the system, and the USCIS is more cautious about who they are letting in.”

With the upcoming election posing a possible threat to the continuation and amount of funding for the Uniting for Ukraine program, many refugees like Iryna and Olena are left with limited time to solidify their futures in the United States.

Because of this, and the two year expiration date on the horizon, the Warchols found an immigration attorney who met with Iryna and Olena, and a group of Ukrainian refugees to discuss the different pathways.

Despite the unpredictability, constant communication has linked the two women to their families. Between Iryna’s daily phone calls with her mother and detailed pictures of American grocery stores sent over text, excitement over novel experiences continues to be shared.

While much of the facilitation, guidance and support of the Warchol family has provided a comfortable and necessary foundation for Iryna and Olena, it is their own optimism that has warmed them to new and often daunting experiences.

Recently, the two of them hosted ten other Ukrainians at their new home. Gathered in their small backyard, under the shade of an old oak tree, food and drink were passed between hands. This sparked the beginnings of a network of understanding, a relief from the barriers of language and the shared navigation of a new life. 

Contact writer Sophia Demerath at 

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