Open Hearts and Homes: Minnesota UUs Help Ukranian Families Find New Lives in the United States

Open Hearts and Homes: Minnesota UUs Help Ukranian Families Find New Lives in the United States

Three Minnesota UU congregations came together to raise money, and sponsor and host three Ukrainian families that are now forging their own paths.

A group of people in an airport pose together while some of them hold up a large Ukrainian flag.

Unitarian Universalist values and loving action brought together a team of Minnesota UUs from different congregations and Ukrainian families who relocated to the United States.

Courtesy of Sheila Callander


It was just a few days shy of her daughter Polina’s eighth birthday, and Svitlana Horieva was facing a whole new life. She and her family were new to the United States, where they were encountering a different culture and where the language was unfamiliar.

In March 2022, they had left their home in Dnipro, Ukraine, to get away from the war with Russia that was tearing their country apart. They moved twice within Europe—first to Poland and then Georgia—fleeing the sirens and explosions, the grocery stores with no food, the pharmacies without medicine.

By July 2023, they were settled in Minnesota, and headed to a birthday celebration for Polina to meet the groups that had worked diligently to get them to the United States.

Three Minnesota UU congregations— First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, Dakota Unitarian Universalist Church in Eagan, and Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington—came together to raise money, and sponsor and host three Ukrainian families. The undertaking allowed the families to find stability and start pursuing their pieces of the American dream.

“These are very incredible people because I have never met such people who help so much,” Horieva said.

Minnesota UUs Organize and Fundraise to Sponsor Ukrainian Families

Catherine Jordan, a seventy-year member of First Unitarian Society, was overwhelmed with grief about the war and strongly agreed with the United States’ support for Ukraine. She wondered what more she could do.

Jordan has a friend who works at Alight, a human-centered humanitarian organization, who asked if she’d consider hosting a family. Through the Uniting for Ukraine program, a U.S. government program introduced in 2022, Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion can come to the United States for a two-year parole period with an American financial supporter.

Interested in donating money to support Ukraine or learning about how your congregation can host asylum seekers?

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“I think it’s very important that Americans open their hearts and homes and communities to immigrants and refugees,” said Jordan, who was on a team that sponsored the Moshenko family. “It’s our responsibility to do so.”

Jordan brought the idea back to First Unitarian Society and received immediate interest from Bob Aderhold, another congregation member who once volunteered with Alight in helping resettle Afghan refugees in the Twin Cities. They recruited a member, Bernadine Joselyn, who could speak Russian, which has many similarities to Ukrainian.

A meeting about sponsoring families after a Sunday service drew interest from all three of the Unitarian Universalist congregations. They divided into three teams with leaders, with at least one team including a mix of members from all three congregations. Each team had a goal of sponsoring a family.

The teams needed to raise enough money to support the families for several months; within a few weeks, they had collected over $60,000, according to Jordan. The funds were used to provide housing, clothing, food, cars, and other expenses for the families they matched with through online profiles.

For Serhii Moshenko, who is from Mariupol, Ukraine, the match was a sign of hope for his family of five. He was unsuccessful with other potential sponsors because his family is larger, but he was ultimately sponsored by Jordan’s team.

“I almost didn’t believe that you could make friends with strangers and that they will call our family to America,” he said.

“The thing I am most proud of about our team is how every person took ownership of their areas of expertise and skills and shared their own piece of the pie to support the family.”

The teams helped the families obtain driver’s licenses and bank accounts and get enrolled in English classes and tutoring, and they did their best to get any questions the families had answered.

“The thing I am most proud of about our team is how every person took ownership of their areas of expertise and skills and shared their own piece of the pie to support the family,” said Katrina Lassegard, a First Unitarian Society member who helped sponsor Horieva’s family of three.

But there were also uphill battles for some teams because of language barriers, cultural differences, and a lack of communication.

“It took time to get to know the families and develop a level of trust,” said Aderhold, who was part of the team that sponsored the Niahu family. “I think some may initially have been suspicious of our motives or had their own ideas about housing, benefit programs, working with social service agencies, et cetera.”

Ukrainian Families Navigate New Lives in the United States

Four people, including a child, in a canoe (named "Wilderness" on a river on a sunny day. Beyond the river is a green landscape clinging to white-and-gray cliffs.

Svitlana Horieva, her family, and a friend during a boating excursion in the fall of 2023 in Minnesota. The family relocated to the United States from Ukraine with support and assistance from a team of Minnesota Unitarian Universalists.

Courtesy of Svitlana Horieva

Since receiving the congregations’ support, the families have started planting roots in the United States and forging their own paths.

Vlas Niahu, who came to Minnesota with his wife Kristina and 6-year-old son, Nikon, said his family has been enjoying barbecuing, watching television together, and shopping. Nikon is enrolled in kindergarten, and Kristina got a job at Whole Foods. Niahu, who worked with cars in Ukraine, dreams of opening a car dealership and body shop in Minnesota.

“I enjoy that in America I can have more possibilities and I can receive more experience,” Niahu said.

Moshenko is also inspired by what’s possible. The 25-year-old hopes to pursue his dream of becoming a software developer.

He believes his family “will learn everything and overcome everything together,” he said.

They’re looking forward to fully immersing themselves in American culture. Even in Ukraine, they liked the American lifestyle, architecture, and music. His mother admired the quiet houses and streets depicted in films.

Horieva and her family moved to Las Vegas in March 2024 because her husband, a longtime card dealer in Ukraine, found a job there. She has also found employment. They send photos and updates on how everything is going to their UU friends in Minnesota and reach out to them any time they need help.

“This is a whole team that helped us,” Horieva said. “They are all with us in our hearts, they are very kind people, and these are our friends now and forever.”

Congregation Members Shared Tips for Other Groups Interested in Sponsoring Families:

  • Make sure each person within the team has a particular role and understands it. To make sure their role matches their strengths, start by asking what they hope to get out of volunteering.
  • Be very clear during matchmaking about what the teams can commit to and what kinds of support and services they can provide the family.
  • Find out what the family can do for itself. Having a person who speaks the same language as the incoming families is helpful.
  • Anticipate mixed reactions from people who come to you traumatized by war and migration. If you expect immediate trust and expressions of gratitude, you may be disappointed.
  • Plan to stay connected past the initial settling-in months; even if the family starts doing well on their own, that may be the time when they need you the most.