STURGEON BAY — Little by little, a bit of Ukraine is finding its way to Door County, thanks to a network of agencies that includes Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.
Ten years ago, Anya and Bogdan Savenko, now 33 and 36 years old, moved to Wisconsin because — believe it or not — there was not a large population of Ukrainians.
“My husband did not want to live where people only spoke Ukrainian and did Ukrainian things,” Anya said during an interview at their large country home that once housed a mushroom growing operation.
Three years ago, Anya’s mother, Liuda Chemerys, joined them. In September, Anya’s aunt, uncle and cousin arrived from Ukraine. Olaksandr and Nataliia Tishchenko, 44 and 43, and their 5-year-old daughter, Mariia, moved from Velyka Chernechchyna, in the northeast of Ukraine. They now share the large house that has plenty of room for everyone.
The new arrivals don’t speak English, but they’re already working on that. Olaksandr works as a house painter with Bogdan, who helps him with English translations, and Mariia is enrolled at Sevastopol School. Nataliia studies her English at home on YouTube. After three years, Liuda understands much of what is said, but is shy about speaking English to others.
Because Green Bay Catholic Charities chose many years ago to resettle only those refugees who have ties to the area, Anya and Bogdan went to Sister Bay when they first arrived. The First Baptist Church there has a twinning relationship with the Savenko’s Baptist church in Ukraine. For the first seven years, they lived with Sue and Cal Lundquist, members of the Sister Bay church.
About three years ago, the couple bought their own home near Sevastopol School, where they grow a large garden and raise chickens. They now attend First Baptist Church in Sturgeon Bay.
Ukraine has long been a country beset by conflict, much of it relating to political issues with Russia, which shares a border. The dominant religions are Eastern Orthodoxy and Greek Catholicism, so the Baptists in the country are a minority. Depending on who’s in power at any given time, it can be difficult being a Baptist, the Savenkos said.
The decision to emigrate to the United States wasn’t one easily made. Bogdan worried about what he’d do for work, and was more hesitant than Anya. Eventually, she said, he decided to pursue all the paperwork involved, “and if all went smoothly, we would know it was God’s plan.”
Once here, Catholic Charities keeps close tabs on refugees for the first 90 days, according to the agency’s director, Ted Phernetton. Families work largely with So Thao, a Department of Justice-accredited representative for Catholic Charities of Green Bay.
“We don’t give them financial assistance, but we make sure they have what they need — Social Security cards, kids registered in school, help with finding jobs,” Phernetton said.
“Welcoming the stranger is a Gospel call directly from Jesus Christ, and at Catholic Charities, we embrace that call,” added Phernetton. “Immigrants and refugees are precisely the strangers we must welcome. This isn’t Catholic partisanship. The Bible is clear: welcoming immigrants is indispensable to our faith.”
Since 2013, Catholic Charities has resettled 98 refugees, according to Thao, including 80 Somalians. Others came from Iraq (6), China (3), Iran (3), Ukraine (3), Afghanistan (2) and Burma (1).
When the Tishchenkos left Ukraine, their 22-year-old son stayed behind — again, because he was worried about finding work here. There is no guarantee, Nataliia said, that he will be able to change his mind later, depending on the changing U.S. policies on refugee resettlement. However, once the Tishchenkos become U.S. citizens (it takes five years) they may be able to sponsor him.
Their son lives in his parents’ home, so Oleksandr and Nataliia weren’t able to sell it before leaving. They had two weeks between getting approval and organizing a few things together to bring with them to their new home, but most was left behind.
They have found good things, too. When Anya was seen having to whisper translations of their Sunday services, the church bought special hearing devices for the Tishchenkos. Bogdan sits in the back of the church with a headphone speaking the translations which only the Tishchenkos can hear.
When asked about her feelings since the move, Nataliia had one sentence. “I love America.”
Then, through Anya, she explained. Grocery stores here are filled with food, just as they are in Ukraine. But here, the food is affordable. In Ukraine, only the wealthy can afford the amount and kinds of food people buy here.
Nataliia would also like to tell Americans to appreciate the bounty available here.
“Here, people have everything, but they don’t really appreciate it,” she said. “There is so much food thrown out, and people have so many things and still want more.”
Anya said they all love Door County. “It’s quieter. And it has all the beautiful seasons — and not so much traffic,” she said.