Social Issues

Ukrainian refugees in Wisconsin reflect on a year of war

A Stoughton-based volunteer group is helping families that have escaped Russia's invasion of Ukraine to find safety and stability as they start rebuilding their lives.

By Steven Potter | Here & Now

February 17, 2023 • South Central Region

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On that first night of the invasion, Ukrainians Peter Sokor and his wife Ksenia were shaken awake by Russian missiles.

“We went to bed and then at 4:35, we heard an incredible explosion — we were living only three miles from the military base and they just started bombing it,” he remembers about that early morning in February 2022.

With Russian troops closing in on their home near the country’s capital of Kyiv, the Sokors made the decision to take their three young daughters and leave Ukraine. But they had to act fast.

“We had just two hours to pick up everything we could take with us,” said Peter. “It was difficult — we had to leave our dog.”

Even as war erupted around them, Ksenia remembers being in disbelief.

“You see on the horizon, the explosions,” she said. “And from my point of view, you can’t believe it. And then you realize you need to do something.”

So, they fled. Traveling through Romania and Poland, then further into Europe, it took the Sokor family of five about a month before they eventually made it to Mexico.

After crossing the border, they were invited to stay with a family in Wisconsin. Eventually, they secured their own apartment in Stoughton.

The Sokors’ story of lengthy travel and uncertain destinations is just like that of many other refugee families.

Once they reach Wisconsin, they face a new set of challenges, such as finding housing, arranging schools for their children and applying for work permits. In some cases, that also means learning a new language.

For recent refugees like the Poroshkov family of four, a number of community members and volunteer groups in Stoughton have come together to help.

“We have English classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the evening. We have a lot of volunteers, like different teachers who see that we don’t understand, but they are friendly and they explain a lot,” explained Natalia Poroshkov.

One of the groups working to help Ukrainian refugees is the Stoughton Resettlement Assistance Program. So far, the group has helped almost a dozen Ukrainian families who have moved to the area in the last year.

Volunteers from the group help refugees apply for jobs, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and healthcare.

“It’s become very overwhelming at times,” says Reneé Lushaj, one of its co-directors. “But the payoff is the fact that we have people here now who we consider family.”

Because many of the refugee families came to Wisconsin with nothing, they also rely on other community groups in Stoughton, such as food pantries and clothing banks. But the families still struggle with the emotional stress of leaving loved ones in their war-torn homeland.

“It’s hard for me. I just can’t sleep,” said Ksenia Sokor. “I have bad dreams about my family being in the middle of the war.”

Her husband Peter noted the stresses on their children.

“I did not expect that it would be hard for the youngest, because I was thinking that for young kids, it’s much more simple to get accustomed,” he said. “But she was crying a lot and it was difficult for us too.”

Illia Poroshkov stays up late at night to talk with his brother and father, who are still in Ukraine. Aside from the threat of war and violence, they tell him that their gas and electricity is often not working.

“It’s really not easy to live there right now. It’s really sad,” he said.

Another hurdle for refugees striving to be self-sufficient is obtaining a work permit. For Illia’s wife Natalia, who secured a permit and found work at a local flower shop, it happened quickly.

But for others, like Peter Sokor, there can be complications.

“While we are waiting for the work authorization, I decided to go and take some courses for programming. I’m in the second semester now studying and it’s hard,” he said. “I also started giving private lessons as a pianist.”

Lushaj of the Stoughton Resettlement group said there have been recent financial challenges for the families and with fundraising.

“We are covering a good amount of expenses for the families until they get back on their feet. They come here with nothing,” said Lushaj, adding that donations have all but dried up.

“We’ve had to actually stop sponsoring new families from Ukraine, which was a very difficult choice because we have families here who are asking for additional family members to be sponsored and brought over,” she added. “But we really can’t sponsor more people until we receive more donations.”

Lushaj understands why donations have dipped.

“There is something they call giving fatigue, where it just becomes a lot,” she said. “Many people have donated so much – anything they already could. I think that the war has gone on for a year now and as it continues, I think people are less and less able to help.”

Despite their current financial struggles, the Stoughton Resettlement group knows their efforts are worth it to the families.

“They’re amazing, amazing families we have here, the kids, the parents – they come from different backgrounds and all walks of life,” Lushaj explained. “But in the end, they’re just people who want a safe place to raise their family and to exist and to thrive.”

The families who are receiving the help are eternally grateful.

“This group is just incredible for us. I would really say this is God’s providence,” said Peter Sokor. “They helped us to rent this apartment. And when we came, to just prepare everything for our girls especially. They are just incredible people — that’s why we’re so impressed by Americans.”

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