After Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago, millions of refugees streamed into neighboring countries and the U.S., ending up in major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as New England towns like Lexington. There are no accurate figures, but it is estimated that more than 2,000 Ukrainian refugees live in Massachusetts, where they have found a contemporary underground railway, facilitated by the internet. The three women profiled below are part of it.
Lexington resident Yelena Rudman didn’t think twice when friends called to ask that she fly to a Ukrainian refugee camp in Tijuana, Mexico, where Ukrainians had been arriving in droves, hoping to eventually cross the border into the U.S.
Born in Nizhny Novgorod, formerly Gorky, in what is now Russia, then the USSR, Yelena immigrated to Boston with her mother and sister in 1993. She graduated from Northeastern, married Ukrainian Oleksandr (Alex) Sverlov, and now works as a software engineer and has two teenage kids in Lexington public schools.
When the call came shortly before April break in 2022, Alex offered to cover the kids and Yelena flew to Tijuana to join the relief effort, which was organized by churches from Sacramento and San Diego. Working long hours in a sports complex, Yelena served coffee, cooked, listened, translated, explained. “Some 7,000 Ukrainians went through my hands that week,” she says. “They were sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Many of their suitcases had gotten lost en route — I was on the phone for months afterwards trying to find their suitcases.”
“They needed everything, including lawyers,” she says. “Some children arrived with a neighbor instead of a parent. Many had pets and the U.S. would accept cats but not dogs.”
“There was Natasha, a mother from Bucha, her son, Tema, and his friend, Diana. Natasha had to identify a neighbor killed in the massacre there. His fingers were cut off, his eyes were gouged out. Everyone was so tired and scared.”
After a week, Yelena returned to Lexington, herself traumatized. ‘It was all really hard for me to process,” she says. “My family were Jews who chose to move to America. These people had no choice. They lost everything. I remember one American with a Ukrainian wife, they had just built a beautiful new house, they lost it and now he was in Tijuana because his wife had no papers,” she recounted. “Ukraine used to be part of the USSR. I feel ashamed and somewhat responsible for what Russia is doing.”
Though busy with her own job and family, when another friend asked Yelena to help raise money and supplies to send to Poland, she and Lexington teacher Maria Shandalov organized through the Lexington Mavens Facebook group. The two women bought $1,500 worth of socks, underwear, sweatpants, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and vitamins, and donated the rest of the money raised for direct use by refugees in Poland.
When the first wave of refugees arrived in Massachusetts — including Natasha, who landed in Springfield — Yelena became personally involved, collecting necessities for her family and others. “Nine people came to my house and took all the stuff,” she recalls. They were clear about what they did and didn’t want. They needed extra-large clothing for a teenage boy. They wanted to take English classes, but though they were offered free tuition, they didn’t want to go to college. The girl wanted to be a hairdresser. The boy wanted to go to work. Some work as dishwashers in restaurants.”
Yelena started the Facebook group Boston Area Everything Free for Ukrainian Families, which now lists more than 2,000 members and about 25 posts a day. Among the most in-demand items are bicycles, both for kids and as a means of transportation for adults without cars or money for insurance. “My husband and son fix them, my daughter washes them and I manage the traffic,” she says. “We give away about 15 bicycles a month.” She maintains lists of libraries that offer English classes, lists of doctors who treat Ukrainian refugees for free, moving people with trucks and people who know how to transport animals legally from Europe. She responds to volunteers and offers of assistance via Facebook.
Lexingtonian Olga Guttag was born in Prague and has strong feelings about the Russian invasion. Olga was 15 and on summer vacation in Yugoslavia when the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Her family defected to Canada where she had an uncle. “When we arrived, we had our bathing suits but almost nothing else. And winter was coming…”
Olga thought about her own experience when first asked to help a friend collecting medical supplies, boots and warm clothing to send to Ukraine. She remembers being helped by an elderly Viennese woman who offered them a stay in her home rather than in a refugee camp. She also remembers the welcome they received in Toronto, and is eager to help the Ukrainian refugees, many of whom have sons, husbands or brothers in the military.
“Canada saw a highly educated and skilled group of immigrants and provided the adults with money for six months room and board, as well as English classes. I and other children were immediately sent to public schools. Canadians were very charitable –- people and groups were offering free things all over the place. But the problem was we had to go get each item. We spent a lot of time on public transportation in search of one particular thing.”
With that experience in mind, the former computer science professor and long-time Lexington schools volunteer transformed her grandchildren’s playroom into a warehouse containing donations of clothing and household “modules.” The kitchen module includes china, glasses, silverware, pots and pans, organized into kits.
“The refugees have lost a lot and when they find something similar here, they get very excited,” she said. “Every Ukrainian family is looking for a meat mallet or meat grinder, or a potato masher like the one they used to have. They didn’t know about toaster ovens. I explain how they are used and now I have given away 20. That was an example of one of the things they didn’t know to ask for — for example, who would give away a TV set?”
Unlike Yelena, Olga does not understand Ukrainian and uses a translation app for conversations. Apart from the practicalities, she tries to bridge common cultural issues. “The idea that one’s possessions be new is important in Ukrainian culture,” says Olga. To address that, she focuses on explaining how important the philosophy and practice of recycling is in the United States, that it’s better for the environment. “I explain that the items I pass on are high quality. I don’t lecture them about being picky. I do emphasize to them the necessity of learning English. I say: In America, if you don’t know English you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. The first thing you want to do is learn English and speak English at home. Allocate four hours where you can’t speak Ukrainian.”
Olga doesn’t advertise or maintain a website. She has friends in the Ukrainian community and word about her work has spread informally. Refugees make a connection with her through Facebook. She screens them over the phone: How and when did they get to Massachusetts? Where are they from? What do they need? She has lately been contacted by Russian anti-occupation refugees. “They are having a harder time than Ukrainians, because they don’t fall under a special two-year visa program and are not immediately entitled to medical insurance and food stamps and a work permit.”
“We make a date to come to my house and select what they want,” Olga explains. There’s no easy way to get there without a car, so Olga, like Yelena, keeps a list of volunteer drivers. Some 30 to 40 families have spent 2-4 hours in her basement, she says, choosing among a wide variety of items. She leaves housing, job hunting, tutoring, and sponsorship to others.
“I’ve learned from experience what I can and can’t do. I don’t want to manage volunteers. Also, I can’t save everyone and I don’t have the right to judge who asks for help. I know how to set limits and not to take things personally. I’m hoping that the war ends soon so that they can go back home and have normal lives again. I’d be happy to be put out of business.”
Lawyer and educator Leora Tec is one of the people who stepped up to help Olga. During the Holocaust, Leora’s Jewish mother was hidden by non-Jewish Poles, and both her parents became refugees. She is the founder of Bridge to Poland, an organization which runs trips and workshops that bring Jews and Poles together around their mutual history, and travels regularly to eastern Europe. Since Poland was one of the first places to which Ukrainian refugees fled, she immediately started helping friends doing refugee work there. Leora, who has lived in Lexington since 2000, discovered Olga on the Lexington List. Since she had been teaching English to Poles, she offered to coordinate Olga’s growing English tutoring program.
A year ago, she made up google forms for English tutors and Ukrainian tutees, and began matching people whom Olga had culled from a Facebook group. “Matching is an interesting process: matching people, needs, levels, in person or on zoom,” she says. “We had one volunteer who liked tutoring so much that she got an ESL certificate and started a business.”
“If you’d like to give or receive English tutoring, please write to Ukrenglish380@gmail.com,” Leora recommends.
Yelena, Olga and Leora have never met in person. That’s the case for many of the hundreds of volunteers involved in Ukrainian refugee relief. None do everything, but all do something. If you’d like to help, they recommend the following websites to look into.
Helen Epstein is a veteran journalist. Her latest book is Getting Through It: My Year of Cancer during Covid.