A year ago Andrii Pomynalnyi’s family woke to early morning explosions as Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. On Friday, he and five other Ukrainians who’ve sought refuge in Juneau brought a message of thanks and hope to the floor of the Alaska State Senate where they received a standing ovation.
During their visit to the Alaska State Capitol the six Ukrainians shared dual-sided stories of their experiences during the past year, mostly highlighting the work, educational and other activities making them increasingly feel a connection to Juneau, while expressing worries and pessimism about the war in their homeland that seems far from over. Most said it’s difficult to foresee what might be in their long-term future.
“I might visit home,” said Ivan Hrynchenko, 19, who with his mother Iryna were the first Ukrainian refugees to arrive in Juneau last July from their hometown of Kharkiv. “I’m not sure about staying there when the war ends. I don’t know if it’s going to stop very soon.”
Ivan said he is working for Barnacle Seafoods, a local company that makes products largely from kelp, while Iryna is taking advantage of her culinary skills by working in a local coffee cafe (where, among other customers, she met with U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola during a campaign stop last fall). Her English also has improved noticeably during eight months of lessons and practical experience.
Pomynalnyi and the three other members of his family from Kyiv were the second to arrive at the end of August, but on Friday only his wife Olena was at the Capitol, as their son Yehor was snowboarding at Eaglecrest as part of his Alpine Club involvement and daughter Irynka similarly otherwise occupied.
Both Pomynalnyi and his wife are working full time, keeping the entire family busy, but he said it’s hard to reflect on what’s happening back home and if the family has a future there.
“It’s a really bad time for Ukraine,” he said. “Here we feel safe. That’s the most important thing.”
Also coming to the Capitol on Friday were Vadim Popov and Alla Kalinovska, the latter a 21-year-old from Uman who said she was studying in Slovakia after the war began when her mother, working in Kodiak, offered to sponsor her through an organizer based in Juneau. She arrived in Juneau five months ago and, like Ivan Hrynchenko, is working at Barnacle Seafoods as well as the front desk at the Glory Hall.
Kalinovska said while her father is still in Ukraine, apparently he is safe.
The refugees arrived via local organizations and sponsors, who said Friday there are at least one or two additional Ukrainian families in Juneau and other is expected to arrive soon from a refugee camp in Turkey. Joyanne Bloom, who led local efforts to bring Iryna and Ivan to Juneau, said she still visits them regularly, and the refugees as a group seem to be faring well.
“They seem very happy,” she said. “However, I’m sure they’re worried sick about what’s going on at home.”
The Ukrainians were met at the Capitol by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, who introduced each of them during the floor session before reading a collective statement of thanks from them.
“Thank you for being here,” Kiehl told the families just before the floor session, as he told them what to expect. “I wish it wasn’t necessary.”
Kiehl, during a floor speech, said “this unjustified and illegal invasion has torn Europe for 12 full months now,” but “more than 600 Ukrainian refugees are living in Alaska today — that’s a proud number.” He also noted Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy is among those raising funds so Ukrainians can settle in the state.
The statement he read offers thanks at the local and national levels.
“On behalf of all Ukrainians who came to Alaska, we want to thank the wonderful people who responded to our call for help,” the statement declares. “We feel your support, care and love and this helps us to believe in a bright future without war. As the Juneau community helps our families stay safe and receive medical and food support, all of Ukraine is also grateful to the United States for their efforts to support the sovereignty of Ukraine as an independent country.
“The Juneau sponsorship community and the Alaskan government have shown that we are welcome here and we are grateful for the opportunity to come to the U.S., work and provide a safe life for our families. Thank you.”
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