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HARROWING JOURNEY Iryna Shylo (pictured right, far left) and her two children, Karolina and Tymur, made the difficult decision to leave Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February. They came to the United States after a brief stop in Mexico (pictured left) and are living with Iryna’s half-sister, Olena Ostroushenko, while receiving immigration assistance from the Diocese and two Corona area parishes.

By Natalie Romano

Iryna Shylo stepped outside her home and breathed in the fresh air and earthly smells of rural Ukraine, but out of place among the fruit trees and fields of this small community outside of Kyiv was a Russian rocket whizzing overhead. Shylo watched in disbelief as the explosive zoomed toward the land then detonated, causing her to hit the ground in fear.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Shylo, through a translator. “I thought Russia and Putin were just going to scare us a little bit. I didn’t have any thoughts of leaving at first.”

Yet as the bombing intensified, Shylo did leave; her country, her home and her husband, only taking her two children and a suitcase full of clothes. They are now living in Corona with her half-sister, Olena Ostroushenko, who is acting as her translator. While Shylo goes through the asylum seeking process, the Diocese is providing immigration guidance and some financial support. The money comes from donations specifically allocated for refugees. Two parishes in Corona, St. Edward and Corpus Christi, have also contributed food, clothing and gift cards.

“Part of the ministry that we do is to learn and teach about human solidarity and welcome our brothers and sisters in hospitality,” said Sister Hortensia Del Villar, SAC, Director of Community Services and Outreach Programs. “They are more than just a name or another person to call ... We learn about their story, their faith, their strength and we’re able to share that story with other families that are arriving in our area.”

And more are arriving. Currently the Galilee Center in Mecca, which temporarily houses asylum seekers, receives about 100 people a day. By late May, Sr. Hortensia says that number will double because of the war in Ukraine. She notes that those fleeing have distinct challenges from other recent immigrants.

“It’s different this time for sure,” she says. “The war is not over and that emotional stress of having family back in Ukraine and not knowing if the conflict is going to end in five days, five months, one year, two years - makes it more difficult in a sense ... but they just had to go.”

It was not any easy thing to do, says Shylo. She only left after the bombing intensified. She describes people panic buying in the market, her husband filling the outdoor cellar with blankets and food in case they needed to go underground, and all the while, her sister calling and pleading with her to come to the U.S. 

“I was telling her, ‘Get out, get out, take the children out!’”  explained an animated Olena Ostroushenko. “Me and my friend were also thinking of different ways to get her husband out, like dressing him up as a woman, but the passport doesn’t say he’s a woman. We thought about hiding him in the trunk, but heard that at checkpoints they (guards) were opening up trunks to see if husbands were inside.”

Such schemes speak to the heartbreaking decisions families are forced to make since Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 are currently banned from leaving the country. Even though he couldn’t escape, Shylo’s husband insisted the rest of the family drive to Poland. Shylo finally relented but not without praying first. She followed the Orthodox tradition of praying to St. Nicholas, known as the Wonderworker for travelers, and continually prayed to God.

“I felt like there was some sort of strength in me, like God was helping me,” explained Shylo. “That’s how I got through this journey.”

Shlyo was not the only one praying. Her sister attended St. Edward at the invitation of a neighbor. Parishioner Aurora Lavado says she wanted to provide a “bridge of love” for the family as they traveled from Poland to the United States. Lavado reached out to various church entities for food and clothing donations and took Ostroshenko to her prayer group.

“We prayed for her. It was beautiful. It was a moving thing,” said Lavado. “...I called, I talked, I asked to help them get what they need.”

That included, by happy accident, finding a Corpus Christi employee who was traveling to Tijuana, the very place the family was headed before entering the United States. Cecilia Mena, the parish’s Catechetical Ministry Coordinator, picked up the family from the airport, took them out to eat and then to the border. At that time, it was easier for Ukrainians to enter the U.S. via Mexico and obtain asylum seeking status. Asylum, when granted, can lead to a green card and ultimately citizenship. However, the U.S. government is now offering Ukrainians more simplified and direct entry. 

After more than two weeks of anxious travel, Shylo and her children were processed and allowed into California. While Ostroushenko finally felt at peace, her sister finally felt the weight of the whole ordeal.

“I started to feel much better because I knew they were safe,” said Ostroushenko. “...She (Shylo) just melted. We watched a program about what happens to refugees. They have this amazing power to get through it. Then, when they get to their destinations, they have a psychological and physical breakdown. I think it was good for her to see that.”

Also helpful to Shylo: the unexpected kindness of Americans and local Catholics.

“The rumors were [that] Americans would smile but there was no sincerity to it. It was for show,” said Shylo. “I have good impressions ... Everything is done with good manners...  People here are very open and not afraid of giving compliments.”

Despite the upheaval, Shylo says her children, 13-year-old Karolina and 11-year-old Tymur, are doing well. They’re attending school in Corona and learning English. Shylo says she would like them to stay in the U.S. for a better education and job opportunities. A baker by trade, Shylo serves spartak, a chocolate cake, in the family room now crowded with sofa beds. That’s because the four of them are living in a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment. Shylo sighs heavily when talking about her dreams for the future. She hopes her husband will soon join them and they can get their own home, one “with a big kitchen” so she can bake. In the meantime, she prays for the war to end.

“We are strong, heroic, hard-working people,” said Shylo. “We’re going to win, we’re going to survive no matter what.”

If you would like to make a donation to asylum seekers, visit advocacysb.org/operation-bienvenida/. Sr. Hortensia also suggests we offer prayers and friendship to those new to our country.

“I think all of us have the opportunity to reach out to a family that is a migrant family and have an encounter of welcoming and spend time listening to their stories ... Our great commandment is to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself,” she said.

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.