Ukrainian couple rebuild life after war in DeWitt

Apr. 27—DEWITT — Iryna Hyzhko, 37, left Ukraine with her husband, Serhii, to come to the U.S. a year and four months ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched an invasion of Ukraine from its northern, eastern and southern sides 11 months prior, starting a war aimed at what he called the "demilitarization" and "denazification" of the country.

"This is [the] most dangerous country now in the world," Iryna said of Ukraine to The Herald last week.

Iryna lived in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital and as of January 2022 the seventh most populous city in Europe.

She had a clothing store there, and Serhii had a good job. They had a good life, Iryna said, so when the war started, she didn't want to leave Ukraine, but they decided to head for a more peaceful area near Poland.

"And I wait," Iryna said.

Three months later, Russian soldiers receded away from Kyiv, and Iryna and Serhii returned home to resume life as usual but with the explosions of Russian bombs in the city about twice a month at that time.

The explosions of many more, though, followed the bombing of the Crimean Bridge in October 2022, while Iryna heard the pleas of her sister on the phone to join her and her children in DeWitt.

"I say to my husband 'I can't be here,'" Iryna said. "You have one day to make the decision."

Iryna and Serhii came to DeWitt, with its population as of 2022 of just more than 5,500, with the sponsorship of the "IA NICE" organization, a non-profit out of DeWitt that assists with the immediate needs of people who've come to the area from Ukraine and helps them to get integrated into life in the U.S. quickly by achieving self-sufficiency within three to six months.

The organization was created by Professor Angela Boelens of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in 2022. As of February of this year, it had helped 18 families, or 50 former residents of the regions of Ukraine most devastated by the war, to resettle in DeWitt and Grand Mound.

Iryna knew very little English before coming to the U.S.. She didn't speak the language at all for her first six months living in the area.

When she started attending Clinton Community College to become a CNA, she said, she would go home during lunchtime each day and tell her husband that she couldn't go back because she didn't understand the language and was afraid to talk to her teacher about it out of the fear that her teacher wouldn't understand her.

"But when I start[ed] to work," Iryna said, with plans to later attend college to become a nurse, "I understand I need to learn English perfect."

Iryna has continued to attend classes at CCC, while working at Wheatland Manor nursing home and going to the DeWitt Public Library twice a week with others to learn how to speak English.

Serhii also attended CCC and now drives for LyondellBasell.

Iryna wants also to become a legal citizen of the U.S. Currently, she is in the country on what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services calls a "humanitarian parole" two-year visa. This legal status has occasionally been provided by the federal government since the years following the Vietnam War.

She doesn't foresee ever returning to Ukraine, though her parents still live there.

Iryna's mother-in-law lived in a village outside of Kyiv, but was brought with Iryna to what safety could be offered at the capital after the start of the war. Iryna said her mother-in-law and many others had stayed in a basement in the village where they sat without food or available access to a bathroom for one month.

"Old people died," Iryna said. "What soldiers do with women, with children even, this is terrible."

Iryna's mother-in-law now lives in Germany.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in February that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed during the two years since Russian first invaded Ukraine, and, he said, "tens of thousands of civilians" have been killed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. No exact figure will be possible until after the end of the war.

By the end of 2023, U.S. military aid to Ukraine approached $50 million.

Iryna acknowledges that her home country and its president have asked money, but "we are not lazy people," she said.

"We just need emotional support here and information," Iryna said. "We feel like we're alone in the world, Just so much I miss."

She predicts the war will continue for a couple more years.

"They absolutely know," Boelens said. "They know without a doubt that Putin's not going to stop with Ukraine."