CORNING, N.Y. (WETM) – The family was just like theirs. A husband, a wife, and three kids similar in age, both of their youngest sons just 8 months old…But instead of living in Corning, New York, this family was fleeing Ukraine.
“It’s really hard having three kids and making it through the day on a normal day, but then thinking about everything they were going through on top of that….And with kids our age I felt like, oh my gosh, we have to do something. We have to make this work, we have to get them here,” said Michaela Rossettie Azemi, who is sponsoring a Ukrainian family, now living in Corning.
It has been six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and there appears to be no end in sight. Some Ukrainians have been left with no choice but to leave their country, many migrating to the U.S. and even here to the Southern Tier, by way of sponsors like Michaela and her husband Bulezim Azemi.
Aside from the familial similarities, what drew them to sponsoring this family was that 24 years ago, Bulezim lived through a similar experience as an Albanian refugee during the Kosovo War.
“They are in the most vulnerable situation….Knowing it [from] first-hand experience as a refugee, where you don’t really know when your next meal is going to be…You’re constantly in fear of something bad happening,” Azemi recalled.
Through the program “Uniting for Ukraine,” Michaela and Bulezim were able to sponsor the family’s journey to Corning. The program, backed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, offers a temporary two-year stay in the U.S. to Ukrainian citizens, as long as someone in the U.S. will financially support them for the duration of their stay in the U.S.
The Azemis say while they filled out the application, their entire community pulled together to make it happen.
One family is providing housing for the family, by offering up their Airbnb free of charge. Another family donated a van. One local church started a fund where people could donate money to them, and the list goes on. Michaela said the family feels so thankful for the unbelievable generosity, and support from the community.
Dealing with the traumas from war
The Ukrainian family declined to be interviewed, as they are still trying to process the move, as well as the traumas from the war.
“It’ll take some time before this feels like home to them,” said Michaela.
Corning resident, Betsy Whedon, says the 25-year-old Ukrainian refugee she’s sponsoring has severe PTSD when planes fly overhead, even though it’s been a few months since the move.
“A lot of duck and cover, a lot of physical trauma, physical shaking…It’s total body reaction,” explained Whedon.
Whedon says that while the Ukrainian refugee she is sponsoring is thankful she is now safe, dealing with the repercussions of leaving her home has been extremely difficult. She was the only one in her family that was allowed to leave the war-torn country, and Whedon describes her as feeling a sense of “departure guilt.”
“She’s worried about her family,” said Whedon. “And when you’re 25, and everything you thought you had mapped out for yourself has completely changed, and you have no control over it…You’re angry. And that is something she is in the midst of processing.”
Both the Azemis and Whedon say they are in frequent contact with the Ukrainian refugees they are sponsoring. The Azemis also do family gatherings with them almost every week.
What’s next and how you can help
The hope for the refugees is to assimilate and find their footing in their new communities.
Whedon has helped set up the 25-year-old (who is educated to be an international teacher) with an internship at the British International School in Washington D.C. which has the opportunity of turning into a job after she gets her employment authorization.
As for the family, Michaela says the parents just recently got their employment authorization, the kids will be homeschooled, and one of the boys has been enrolled in Boy Scouts.
If anyone has questions about how to get involved with the United for Ukraine program, Michaela says she is willing and able to help anyone that is interested. And as a lawyer, Michaela wants to offer free legal assistance to anyone who wants to apply and needs help with the paperwork. Her email is: email@example.com
If you cannot financially sponsor a Ukrainian refugee, Whedon says the best way to help is through donations.
“It’s better to donate money, and let them get the supplies that they need,” said Whedon.
Lastly, Michaela is urging local action on the higher education front. After Elmira College offered an honorary degree to President Volodymyr Zelensky, she is hoping that the college could go even further and offer full-ride scholarships for Ukrainians who apply and get accepted.
Outlining the benefits, she says, “The humanitarian parole only is for temporary ability to stay here for two years. Applying to school and studying for a degree would elongate the time these families could stay and also train Ukrainians to have a degree and be marketable for possible H1(b) visa status.”
Michaela would like to help draft this proposal for local educational institutions such as Corning Community College and Elmira College.