In 2019, Serhii Kravets came to Syracuse with his family as refugees. His parents had lived in a small village in Ukraine all of their lives. Although they had built a stable foundation, they found the courage to leave all they knew in order to give Serhii and his younger brother a better future.
Prior to coming to the United States, Serhii grew up playing soccer. He became really good at it, too. By the time he was 15 years old, Serhii had received an opportunity to move to Ternopil, one of Ukraine’s big cities, to play on a premiere professional soccer team.
Once Serhii completed secondary school, his parents came to the conclusion that it would be the best time to move. Reluctantly, Serhii’s father agreed to give their family one year to see if they could make it. Just like that, Serhii found himself moving from one big city to another, only this time, he didn’t speak the language and he had to help his family survive.
For most Ukrainian men with families, their job is to protect and provide. While Serhii’s father was a bit apprehensive about having to start over, his legitimate fears were quickly assuaged. Within three months, Serhii’s father found a new job, his mom was able to connect with family members who had already made the transition, and they could see everything they had hoped for within reach.
“When I was, I think, 14, on my birthday, I was thinking ‘I probably want to move to America.’ In Ukraine, they tell us that your visa is open, you have 30 days to get your bags, and that they are going to buy your ticket,” Serhii said. “I think that is the most striking thing in my memory because that one flight changed my life. The first moment I flew over New York City, I had goosebumps.”
The community the Kravets had found in the Salt City made all of the difference. Known for being a popular place for many Ukrainians to resettle, Serhii had made friends, started a new job working in a factory, and began taking classes to become as fluent in English as he was in Ukrainian and Russian. Things were looking up for Serhii and his family. It wasn’t until February 2022 that survivor’s remorse began to kick in.
The war on Ukraine broke the hearts of many natives as they watched various parts of their country be attacked, later laying in ruins. While his immediately family was close to 5,000 miles away from danger, Serhii heard first-hand accounts of how fear had gripped many of the people he cared about who were still there, including his girlfriend. As the months went on and the conflict heightened in places like Kharkiv, where Vitalina Shevchenko lived, Serhii resolved to make sure that the love of his life was safe.
After Vitalina was able to travel from Kharkiv to Ternopil, and then to Germany, Serhii was able to purchase a plane ticket for her to go to Cancun, Mexico. From there, she walked from the border of Tijuana to San Diego, happy to find Serhii waiting. Elated to finally see one another, the couple drove for three days to make it to Syracuse.
Serhii’s efforts to get his girlfriend all of the resources she would need in order to get on her feet helped him become familiar with how to apply for benefits. Soon, others within the Ukrainian community sought his guidance. Little did Serhii know, his desire to assist a loved one would equip him with knowledge he’d use to support others in need. His determination to find out more what he didn’t know to assist Vitalina led him right to his current position at Catholic Charities, working as a Refugee Services case manager.
“I’m really happy to be a part of this family. The people who work here are so nice. They helped me a lot in the first few months of me working here,” Serhii shared. “They taught me a lot. Everything is so calm and if you don’t know something, they will help you.”
Under much different circumstances, in September 2022, Volodymyr Skyba left his parents in the village where he grew up, in addition to the home he had built in Ternopil. For months, areas surrounding the city where he lived had been experiencing turmoil. At one point, he looked out of his window and saw a missile in the sky, heading to its destination. In his heart, Volodymyr knew it was time for him to leave.
“When the war started, it felt like someone was trying to take my life from me,” said Volodymyr. “I built my home and bought everything. The feeling was so sad to understand that someone wants to come and take your house and kill you.”
As soon as Volodymyr received the green light to come the United States under the Humanitarian Parole status, a cousin was ready and willing to be his sponsor. He finally flew to New York, boarded his connecting flight, later deplaned, and walked right through the arrival gate at the Syracuse Hancock International Airport, ready to start his new life. With over 200 people from his village living in Syracuse and his sister not too far away in Canada, there was no doubt in Volodymyr’s mind that he was exactly where he wanted to be.
Reflecting, Volodymyr stated “It’s hard to build again and again, over and over. I hope here, I am going to build my life.” With his godfather and a few cousins by his side, he was already off to a good start. The next major hurdle he had to overcome was finding a job.
Back home and in the United Kingdom, Volodymyr worked in the construction industry as a civil engineer. During his early school years, he frequently spoke in his native tongue but also held conversations in Russian, learned to speak English, and later grew to understand Polish. On his quest to find work where he could use all of his skills, he learned that there was a need to expand a Ukrainian-speaking team in order to manage the growing list of cases.
In January 2022, Volodymyr joined Refugee Services staff as a case manager at the Northside CYO. On the wall, behind the desk where he sits, is a collage of flyers, pictures, and other helpful information. Anyone who comes into Volodymyr’s office space for assistance or just to visit will learn a lot about what he represents.
He keeps a picture of a crowd of Ukrainians trying to board a local train to get to safety. The visual reminder of what his people have had to endure helps to motivate him. It keeps him humble, knowing that so many have had to abandon their place of comfort in order to rest without wondering if a bomb will claim their lives in the middle of the night.
Now, knowing that life is short, Volodymyr seeks to enjoy the beauty of nature and the company of friends when he isn’t working. He looks forward to settling down, starting a family, and finding more stability. Until then, he cherishes each time he gets to talk to his parents, send them pictures and see their faces during theirregularly scheduled video calls.
The past eight months have been an adjustment, but Volodymyr has found satisfaction in serving his Ukrainian neighbors from this community. Volodymyr understands that he is making an impact. “If you did something to help this person, it gives you the energy to keep going,” he stated. “I feel like I am doing something that is not for the money. I like this job. I like that I can speak with somebody and they can share their experiences.”
Both Serhii and Volodymyr have found purpose in serving their countrymen. They provide help with work permits, SNAP applications, immigration forms, public assistance, and so many other services that are needed for someone to function in a foreign city. With approximately 60 cases each, representing close to 300 individuals, the fact that both young men once lived on the same block in Ternopil is nothing short of poetic.
Separately and years apart, the pair moved to Syracuse with the hope to find endless possibilities. Together, as reunited friends, Serhii and Volodymyr do their part to uplift the very same people from which they hail.