JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Dana Pupenko is grateful in some important ways. The Kyiv-area 17-year-old, her mom and 13-year-old sister have a roof over their heads and their beloved dog Marthy for companionship after fleeing to Berlin after the Ukraine war began.

But the Pupenkos also have no way to attend school or work and they have to vacate the one room they share in their hosts’ apartment when clients arrive (one partner is a masseuse). Then there’s the fact that their country is at war and they had to flee, leaving Dana’s father behind near Lviv so he could work as a physical therapist in a military hospital.

“It was the worstest time of our life and it’s still going,” Dana told News Channel 11 during a Zoom interview that also included her mother Anna, her sister, and the ever-present Marthy.

Now, thanks to a new U.S. federal program and a loved one in Johnson City, they may have a shot at a more stable life in the Tri-Cities.

Darina Popenko, Anna Furman and her husband Roman Popenko and Dana Popenko in more peaceful times. Roman Popenko is working in a western Ukrainian military hospitals while his wife and daughters are refugees in Berlin. (Photo courtesy of Nelly Ostrovsky)

“Programs (are) not in place for these people to be self-sufficient,” said Johnson Citian Nelly Ostrovsky, who has known Anna since she was a baby in Kyiv.

“So while Poland and Germany are trying their best to provide for these refugees there still is not as robust a program in which they can rely.”

Ostrovsky also mentioned Poland because the Pupenkos aren’t the only family she and her husband Gregory hope to bring here through the Department of Homeland Security’s two-week old “Uniting for Ukraine” program. Ostrovsky also has a cousin in Poland, Ludmila Smiian, who fled Kyiv after the war began with her daughter Valeria.

Uniting for Ukraine allows prospective sponsors to apply through a Form I-134, which is a declaration of financial support. Sponsors, alone or with partners, agree to provide the displaced Ukrainian citizens with financial support for the duration of their stay in the U.S., which is up to two years maximum. The refugees are here under what is called a “Humanitarian parole.”

The European countries’ responses, from governments and citizens alike, were heroic, Ostrovsky said. But they were also made to address an immediate crisis. Now the war is dragging on and countries like Poland aren’t necessarily equipped to handle huge numbers long term — while the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. is ready to step up.

In fact, Ostrovsky was helping support Ludmila and Valeria in Poland, as was the family where they were staying.

“These are totally random people, like my relative in Poland, she’s just with someone who just opened their doors,” Ostrovsky said. “That door is still open, they’re not going to put them out on the street, but they need to sort of organize their life when they do try to provide for themselves.”

Ostrovsky is convinced the Pupenkos, her cousin and other families hoping to unite with friends or loved ones in the states won’t be a two-year burden even if they’re here that long.

“These people will be allowed under this program, humanitarian parole, to apply for job permit,” she said. High school, which Dana Pupenko isn’t attending in Berlin, will also be an option, as well as college and the other trappings of ordinary life.

“They do look to stability and they do look to contribute and I think it is not only our duty, I also think we will benefit from this influx of people who are interested to contribute as well,” Ostrovsky said. “They are not interested to sit and do nothing.”

For the Ostrovskys — and for Johnson Citian Yevjeniia Hrebenkova and her husband Vlad — getting loved ones here without help presents a challenge. Vlad Hrebenkov’s godson is one of five children who spent a month trapped in their apartment in Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city overtaken and occupied by the Russian army.

Ivanna, her two twins and one of her three older boys. The family fled Kherson, Ukraine after a month under occupation by the Russian army, which still controls the city in south central Ukraine. (Photo courtesy Yevjeniia Hrebenkova)

For the last month Sergey, Ivanna and their children, who include 3-year-old twins, have been in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of western Ukraine. It’s another situation that’s not ideal.

“Right now girl said ‘look in the sky’ and said ‘mama, they will kill us,’ and (the) small children very afraid this situation,” said Hrebenkova, who moved here from her native Kherson six years ago when she won a visa lottery.

“I want (them to) come to United States but I don’t want to push them, they’re very close right now and afraid everything,” said Hrebenkova.

A trained obstetrician, she’s trying to get health care credentials in the U.S. Vlad Hrebenkov is a construction worker and they have a 14-year-old daughter who attends Science Hill High School. She’s certain they won’t have the income and assets to qualify to bring seven people but is desperate to give the family the kind of opportunity this area could provide temporarily.

Learn more about co-sponsoring Ukrainian families with connections in the Tri-Cities by emailing tnforukraine@gmail.com

“They work(ed) in hospital together (in Kherson), and they have these five children and they live regular lives and they want to live for these children but Russia change their life, and Russia change all lives (of) people in Ukraine,” Hrebenkova said.

Needing the village to step up

Ostrovsky and Hrebenkova have been busy throwing their time and passion into helping Ukraine however they can since the war started. They actually met during a rally this spring and have become fast friends.

Both say they’re afraid none of the families mentioned, with the possible exception of Ostrovsky’s cousin and her daughter in Poland, will ever get here without the community stepping forward.

Ludmila Smiian, right, and her daughter Valeria fled Kyiv and have been in Poland for two months but hope to relocate to Johnson City to be with Ludmila’s cousin, Nelly Ostrovsky. (Photo courtesy Nelly Ostrovsky)

While stepping forward to sign affidavits of financial support or possibly even offer one’s home to strangers is a big step from donating money at a rally, Ostrovsky said she is hopeful that can happen here. She and Gregory arrived in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

She remembers the local Unitarian Church sponsoring a refugee family from Ukraine in the early ’90s.

“I feel like there is a model how to do it,” she said “There may be more knowledgeable people out there who know more than I do, I certainly don’t know all the mechanisms, but yes, I do feel like the organizations could put themselves in the position to help.”

She’s convinced the new arrivals would want nothing more than to make themselves productive and not burden people as quickly as possible.

“The people I know who came through Unitarian church they stayed at someone’s house for I think less than a month and a half, they found jobs, they went working, they got their first apartment, first house within a year.”

Ostrovsky is trying to learn more about the program but has heard churches and organizations can be sponsors or co-sponsors. A fledgling organization of area Ukrainians, TN for Ukraine, is building the infrastructure to be a central point for these kinds of efforts.

It takes a village,” Ostrovsky said. “It takes a group of people who are willing, committed and interested in supporting those who are in need. And I think that’s a Christian duty, it’s a humanitarian duty and I think that people in our area are very capable of it. So I would definitely request or ask or put a plea to consider.”

The best way for a family, group or church to learn whether they may be able to help area families bring loved ones here through the Uniting for Ukraine is by emailing Ostrovsky and her TN for Ukraine team. That address is tnforukraine@gmail.com.

Long-term goal: Heading back home

Ostrovsky said many refugees want to return home soon. With the war at sort of a low boil outside the east, people may wonder why the Uniting for Ukraine program is necessary, but she said it’s not that simple.

“Even though everyone sort of understand that logistically Russian army is not very strong, but they can destroy a lot, meaning kill a lot basically,” she said. “There’s still rockets could fly in Kyiv, which they have not long ago.”

She said her cousin Ludmila wants to go back. She feels she could be of some use and has an apartment in Kyiv.

“But she has a 16, turning on 17-year-old who does not feel like it’s safe, basically.”

Hrebenkova’s friends from Kherson may not have much to go back to when all’s said and done, but they’ll still want to return to their country. Their home city, though, has been terrorized and pillaged. Russian soldiers would enter Sergey and Ivanna’s apartment looking for weapons.

“But they cannot find something,” she said. The soldiers also entered the home of Hrebenkova’s parents, who have refused to leave the besieged city.

“They steal phones and some gold jewelry they still (from) our mother. They steal everything that they want to steal.”

Hrebenkova fears for the long-term impact the trauma will have on Sergey and Ivanna’s children, two of whom they adopted after Ivanna’s sister died several years ago.

“I think they will remember everything when it’s finished and in their future.”

On their end, the family is waiting for documents for the two adopted children.

“I want they will come to United States but I don’t want to push them. They very close right now, afraid everything. I think they need more time to understand what they want to do.”

That may be for the best in the very short term given Yevjeniia and Vlad’s financial situation and the size of their home.

“We need to find some place because it’s seven persons.”

But if the war continues, the documents are cleared up and they have more time to process the month under siege, Hrebenkova is confident they’ll want to leave the motel they’re staying in and head overseas to be near her.

She wishes her in-laws would consider the same.

“My husband parents live in Kherson region and they don’t want to move from this area. Our mom say she want to die in our land and she don’t want to move. And two friends stay in Kherson but right now we haven’t been able to talk to them in five days.

Old people they made up their mind there’s nothing to do,” she said. “We cannot explain this Ukrainian stubborness.”