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Ukrainian family living in Grand Rapids shares experience fleeing war for West Michigan

The family of three arrived right before the new year through the non-profit resettlement organization Welcome NST.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — President Joe Biden's State of the Union address comes just weeks before the one year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine. Currently, there are millions displaced because of the war. 

A new program announced by the Biden Administration, called the Welcome Corps, means that anyone can make a sponsor group and raise about $3,000 per refugee to provide that initial support to get them in the U.S. 

Right before the new year, Marie Gilewski welcomes a Ukrainian refugee family into her Grand Rapids home. 

"They've been a joy. It's been wonderful," she says.

Valeria and Volodymyr Karnaukh and their four-year-old son Nikita are from Mauripol, Ukraine, the first city heavily bombed at the start of the war with Russia. 

They quickly lost their home and basic needs for survival. The couple shared their experience through translator Iryna Wells.

"At first, the city was hit by missiles, then they started bombing our city with the airplane bombs. It was really scary," Volodymyr says. 

They made the dangerous decision to leave Mauripol, staying in different cities across the war-torn country to try and flee the violence.

"We have seen destroyed homes. We have seen destroyed cars. We have seen destroyed tanks. We have seen corpses of people just laying around. It was really horrible," Volodymyr says. "And we still do not believe our luck or God how we managed to get out because we were just literally lucky to get out and get through."

The couple says they were blessed to get to participate in this refugee program. The family went through Welcome NST to get to Grand Rapids. 

Now, they're all learning English. Volodymyr is interviewing for a job, and Nikita is at Head Start getting ready for kindergarten.

Gilewski signed up for Welcome NST at the start of the war. She says her community helped fundraise for the family, and many came through to help, either through donations or transportation. 

"The amount of immediate devastation and the danger to people's lives just really touched me. Like, how would I feel if that was my grandson getting bombed?" she says. "It was just a matter of saying, 'I have this big house, my husband passed. My kids don't live close to me. I don't have any grandchildren. Why? Why do I need all this space by myself?'" 

Welcome NST is one of the 200 non-profit resettlement organizations that will get to work with groups of private citizens to sponsor refugees to live in the U.S. 

"The traditional resettlement process is limited by capacity, right, in a significant way," CEO and Founder Elizabeth Davis-Edwards says. "One of the biggest upsides and hopes is that this private sponsorship option will increase the capacity of our country to welcome newcomers."

Newcomers like the Karnaukh's, whose lives were turned upside down and changed forever.

"We really do not believe that this is happening to us. But we are so blessed that we fall into this wonderful path of support and care," Valeria says. "We were so blessed because of course when we came, we didn't have anything and people just bring toys, just bring books, just bring clothes for our little son, just come and drop it at the doorstep. That was so surprising for us, people that we don't even know, they don't know us, are helping. And this is we are grateful to all of them even though we don't know them." 

"Honestly, everybody, they all say they're so grateful to me. But in reality, I think I'm gonna get a lot more out of it than they will. You know what I mean? Like, it's really been a joy to have them here. And they're very kind, very honest," Gilewski says.

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