For three days in December, Alona Hornishevska and Yevhenii Hornishevskyi lived in darkness. Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure had left the couple and their three young daughters without electricity or hot water in their home in Kyiv.
Their youngest, Miroslava, was only a few months old. War was all she knew. The couple realized they had to leave Ukraine to keep their kids safe — but to travel to the United States, they needed a sponsor who could provide them housing.
Through a DNA test, Hornishevskyi found a distant relative in Vancouver, Dima Yaremenko. He messaged Yaremenko on Facebook, explaining their situation.
“It was and continues to be unsafe to be in Kyiv, so we decided to help them,” said Yaremenko, who left Ukraine in 2002 to attend Portland State University. He now works with his wife at Integrity Counseling, which provides therapy to children, teens and adults in Vancouver.
Yaremenko lives with his wife and three kids in a four-bedroom home. Last year, his mom was visiting from Ukraine when war broke out. He converted his home office into a makeshift bedroom for her. More than a year later, as war drags on, his mom still lives with his family.
Fortunately for the Hornishevskyi family, Yaremenko also has a three-bedroom rental in Minnehaha. The rental is a means for Yaremenko to pay his mortgage, but he and his wife decided to let the Hornishevskyis live there rent-free.
“We had to kind of lose this income to help the family,” Yaremenko said. For him, it’s a small sacrifice to help fellow Ukrainians. “We feel like we can do it and we should do it.”
In late February, the family arrived in Vancouver not only to a roof over their heads, but to a furnished house stocked with food and kitchen supplies.
“It was full of love and care and we could feel it,” Hornishevska said in Ukrainian via a translator.
The Hornishevskyis are not alone in the scramble to find housing. About 3,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Clark County since January 2022, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Each needs housing in a county already more than 13,500 units short.
Despite often-limited incomes and Vancouver’s high cost of living, Ukrainians fleeing war are largely avoiding homelessness. The area’s tight-knit Ukrainian community, along with Slavic and American allies, have mobilized and opened their homes.
“For the groups that traditionally have communities, homelessness rarely happens,” Yaremenko said. “That’s why we try to create a relationship with these people, so they can be part of the community.”
Opening hearts and homes
Still, even with strong community support, Ukrainian refugees face many challenges. Viktor Koroteyev, leader of Restoration of Hearts Ministries, a Slavic church in Vancouver, has helped more than 200 refugee families start their lives here.
“Can you imagine finding 200 houses for them or apartments for them?” Koroteyev said. “And people are still coming.”
In the summer of 2022, the church helped families apply for housing at Columbia Heights, a new low-income apartment complex in east Vancouver. Upon opening, about half of the families filling the 69 units were Ukrainian refugees.
Russian-speaking staff at the complex helped ease the transition. “They were such a big blessing for us,” Koroteyev said.
But this is just a fraction of the families searching for homes.
Moreover, Ukrainian families tend to be big, sometimes with four or five kids, Koroteyev noted. They don’t have rental or credit histories. Many don’t speak English, making it hard to find work. Many also don’t have cars or U.S. driver’s licenses, another barrier to getting employed in a car-centric metro area.
“In one moment, they have no jobs. And they escaped from Ukraine or Russia, so they have no money, as well,” Koroteyev said. “Pretty much it’s not possible for them to find anything.”
These barriers, combined with the uncertainty of how long families will need to stay, make sponsoring and hosting refugees a hefty commitment for locals. “In some ways, they don’t understand the full responsibility,” Koroteyev said.
Oleksandra Kazachenko, a Restoration of Hearts church member who came to the U.S. five years ago, hosted a Ukrainian friend and her son in March 2022.
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A single mom, Kazachenko lives with her three kids in a two-bedroom apartment. She put mattresses on the floor for her guests.
The space was cramped, but she thought the arrangement would only last for a month.
She ended up hosting the family for about five months.
“The process of documentation and paperwork took a long time,” Kazachenko said in Russian via a translator. “I was taking them to all the offices to help them fill out the applications.”
She taught her friend to drive, which took time out of her own workday as an Uber driver. A fellow church member eventually got them another car, a blessing for them, Kazachenko said. A few months later, the friend found work at DoorDash and Uber, and moved into her own apartment.
Kazachenko now plans to host another woman and child arriving from Ukraine. “To be honest, it’s scary to me, because it could be a long process again,” she said.
But she feels grateful for her life in the United States and wants to help those in worse situations than her, she added. “People are opening their hearts … Because we treat each other like our own brothers.”
For the Hornishevskyi family, transitioning to life in Vancouver has been pleasantly smooth.
“It’s like two flip sides. The last year in Ukraine, that was so stressful, so much pressure. And here,” Hornishevska said, “it’s safe here. The sky is clear. You see so many blessings and people around helping.”
Sometimes she has flashbacks to the war. When she’s showering, she’ll think she hears air-raid sirens — a fear of hers in Kyiv, in case there wasn’t time to dry off and get dressed before going to a shelter. “It’s just in your head already because you get nervous about this,” she said.
The Hornishevskyis will stay in Vancouver until it’s safe to go home to Kyiv. They don’t know how long that will be, but they anticipate about two years.
In the meantime, they feel safe and settled in their new home.
Hornishevska and her husband are working for their Etsy shop selling handmade steel tongue drums, their main source of income. The circular drums are engraved with swirling leafy patterns and burned to create a faded bronze color. When struck, a deep chime reverberates.
Hornishevska hopes to start a music therapy program for people healing from stress, including those coming from Ukraine.
“We received so much support,” she said. “We feel that we need to share this happiness as well.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.