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Photo:  Nika, Halyna, and Liza (left to right) with the quilt made for them by Sandy Bodin and Piecemakers for Peace. The design features sunflower motifs (the national flower of Ukraine) and the colors of the national flag, blue and yellow. 

By Pastor Drew Yackel, Urland Lutheran Church, Cannon Falls

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, few predicted the scale of destruction and human suffering it has since caused. While coverage of the war has since faded into the background here in the U.S., the invasion and its human consequences are still unfolding on a catastrophic, global scale. More than 6.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 71,000 have arrived here in the U.S. according to the Department of Homeland Security. Among them are a family of three who has resettled in rural Cannon Falls, MN. Halyna Petrenko and her two daughters, Veronika (Nika) and Yelyzaveta (Liza), arrived at MSP on June 1 and moved into the home of Sasha Lugovsky and Erin Wetzel along with their two daughters. It was a long-awaited day marked by joy and relief after months of uncertainty and displaced living. After leaving their home in the early days of the war, Halyna and her daughters fled West to Poland and eventually North to Helsinki, Finland where they considered their options for the next move.

Having been raised in Ukraine, Sasha immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and became an American citizen, eventually marrying Erin, a Minnesota native. But when the invasion began, the bond to Sasha’s native Ukraine was reawakened, and he felt the call to assist in whatever way he could. Along with his congregation, Urland Lutheran Church, Sasha organized fundraising drives and donations for medical supplies and body armor for Ukrainian civilian defense groups. He spoke in front of several local congregations about the situation on the ground and what we could do to help. He pressed representatives’ offices for greater U.S. aid to Ukraine. Likely his most impactful effort was to begin the process for Halyna and her daughters to gain entry to the U.S. 

Halyna is the widow of Sasha’s cousin who died two years ago from a heart attack. Though Sasha and his cousin were like brothers growing up, Sasha had never met Halyna or her daughters before they came to the U.S. By moving in together they are forming a new family out of relative strangers. Sasha and Erin are committed to providing a safe and nurturing home while they establish themselves here in Minnesota. Local congregations have also played an important welcoming role. Shortly after they arrived, Urland Lutheran Church hosted a welcome party with a gift card shower to help the family purchase needed clothes and household items (they had arrived carrying just two suitcases). Later, First English Lutheran Church in Cannon Falls hosted an event featuring a conversation with Sasha and Nika about their experience. This event led to numerous volunteers offering needed car rides, financial assistance, and social connections. A member of First Congregational UCC offered to sell a much-needed used car for the family at a reduced price. After hearing about the family’s arrival through Kathy Chatelaine (Assistant to the Bishop for Global Ministry), Sandy Bodin in Lake City, and her fellow quilters who are part of a worldwide group called “Piecemakers for Peace” made and delivered a quilt to help welcome the family (pictured above).

Another event is planned for October 8, 5-7 pm at First English Lutheran Church in Cannon Falls to raise support for the family as well as for people still in Ukraine. Attendees will get to meet Halyna, Nika, and Liza and hear their stories while learning about the ongoing struggles of Ukrainians and their resilience in navigating daily life in their home country. View and download the event flier by clicking here. Anyone is welcome to come and enjoy fellowship, live music, and a meal that features traditional Ukrainian dishes. If you would like to attend please RSVP by calling the FELC office at (507) 263-3042. 

This August, Nika began studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato, entering as a senior this Fall to finish her degree in mathematics. She recently passed her driver's skills test to get her license. Liza just began the 3rd grade at Cannon Falls elementary and is already making new friends with girls her age. Halyna is seeking employment and hopes to begin training to become a certified nursing assistant. She’s always wanted to be in healthcare, but it wasn’t possible for her in Ukraine. Numerous challenges remain as the family gets resettled, but it’s clear the Spirit is at work in our communities to extend the open arms of Christ, and by doing so, receiving Christ himself, “for I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Mt. 31:35).