Young Ukrainian woman moves to Madison with support of local couple
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A young Ukrainian woman is making Madison her new home with the support of a local couple she’s grown to trust and love over the past decade.
The grim reality of Russia’s attack on Ukraine began to dawn on 18-year-old Marina Sahaida in late February. “Our life won’t be the same as we had before February 24th,” said Sahaida.
At that time, her family decided to leave their hometown, Borodyanka, to take shelter in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine. Marina was the only member of her family with an active visa following a recent visit to the United States. This presented her with the option of coming to America immediately.
“At first, of course I didn’t want to leave my country, especially to leave my family, but I understood that I have to save my life,” said Sahaida.
With so much about the war and their future unknown, Marina and her parents, Larysa and Serhii, decided the U.S. was the safest place for her to be. Marina crossed the Ukrainian-Hungarian border on March 3, 2022. By March 5, she was in Madison.
Wisconsin was no random choice; Marina has a lifeline in the Badger State: Michelle and Craig Jolly.
“I knew that Michelle and Craig they will be happy to have me, and they invited me, and they told me yeah you can come,” said Sahaida.
The Jolly’s took Marina in without hesitation, just as they did when the first met Marina at 8-years-old through a program called Circle of Love.
From 2000-2018, Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison sponsored 106 Ukrainian children and 11 adult chaperones/translators to come to Madison through an exchange program called Circle of Love.
Jacqui Shanda with Bethel Lutheran Church said these children lived in Borodyanka, about 100 miles from Chernobyl, where the infamous nuclear disaster took place in 1986. Shanda explained that many of the people living in or near Chernobyl are still dealing with adverse medical conditions, likely because of lingering contamination in the soil, water, and air.
“Researchers determined that six weeks in a clean environment would help alleviate upper respiratory ailments and add up to three additional years of life,” wrote Shanda.
Members of Bethel Lutheran housed the children, helped teach them English, and took them to medical appointments during their six-week stay.
In 2012, Marina was sponsored by the program at 8-years-old. She got on an airplane for the first time in her life and arrived in Madison to meet her host parents, Michelle and Craig Jolly.
“I was very excited to visit a new country, new culture, new traditions and people,” said Sahaida.
The Jollys bonded with Marina over that summer and didn’t want the relationship to end when she returned home.
“It’s called the Circle of Love, so when Marina came, we fell in love with her, and we wanted to complete that circle. So, we went to go visit her maybe seven or eight months after she left,” said Craig Jolly.
From there the connection grew to include Marina’s whole family. Michelle and Craig have been to Borodyanka to visit them six times in the past ten years. “We really bonded with her family, even though her parents don’t speak English,” said Michelle Jolly.
Marina came back to see the Jolly’s in Madison just as frequently, often bringing her older sister, Ira, along with her.
“We totally become family. So, I can say, here’s my American parents, my American family,” said Sahaida.
Marina celebrated Christmas 2021 and rang in the 2022 New Year in Madison with the Jollys. The tourist visa she traveled on ended up being her saving grace just a short couple of months later.
LEAVING HOME BEHIND
From the safety of her new home in Madison, Marina followed the news and her social media feeds in horror as Russian airstrikes hit Borodyanka in early April.
“It’s all in ruins. There’s no electricity, no water, no food. We can’t go back there,” said Sahaida.
Marina’s sister, Ira Maistrenko, had just recently moved into a new apartment with her husband and their one-year-old son Max. Their building was reduced to rubble by the attacks.
Marina’s grandmother’s home, where she spent much of her childhood, was also destroyed. Her grandmother was still inside at the time of the strike, but her life was spared by a last-minute move into her root cellar.
“Our granny, she is alive, and that’s the most important thing,” said Sahaida.
Marina’s family remains in safety in the southwest area of Ukraine in the Carpathian Mountains. She checks in with them regularly via FaceTime.
“Probably they don’t tell me all their feelings, because they don’t want to make me feel upset and sad and disappointed, but we have Max and he’s always smiling, and he gives them hope,” said Sahaida.
Max is not only Marina’s nephew, but her godson, and one of the people she misses the most.
“When I think about my nephew, I feel kind of bad that now I miss his growing and I can’t see how he’s starting to talk and how he’s enjoying is life, but that’s the other reason to leave, because I want to meet my family and my friends again and spend more time with them,” said Sahaida.
MAKING MADISON HOME
Marina is hopeful that one day she can return to Ukraine and help rebuild her country but has no idea when that day will come. Although her location has changed, her aspirations for her future have not.
This summer, Marina hopes to get her driver’s license, enroll in college and get a job. “I’m young and like I have a big future. I need to make a family, make my career,” said Sahaida.
She is currently in the process of applying for Temporary Protection Status. After that she plans to seek asylum in the United States.
The Jollys said they will support her for as long as she needs. “We thank God that we have the ability and the means and the family and friends surrounding us that we’re able to make that happen,” said Craig Jolly.
Michelle and Craig said the Bethel Lutheran Church community has been a huge help in supporting Marina during this time too.
Church members are currently raising funds to be distributed to the Ukrainian families that they met through the Circle of Love program.
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