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Maine volunteers welcome Ukrainian refugees

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some of the Ukrainians who fled Russia's invasion have found shelter here in the U.S. Ari Snider from Maine Public Radio met with a Ukrainian-born resident of the central part of the state who's already taken in 11 refugees and plans to welcome more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(LAUGHTER)

ARI SNIDER, BYLINE: On a warm spring afternoon, Halyna and Petro Terzi are stepping into their new apartment in Auburn, Maine, for the first time. A small group of fellow Ukrainians is there to greet them. Carrying blue and yellow balloons and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic, the couple walks into their sunny bedroom overlooking the backyard. They'll be sharing this apartment with another Ukrainian family who arrived several weeks ago. With a tired-looking smile on his face, Petro lowers himself into a soft armchair next to the bed. His daughter, Alina Terzi, who's lived in Maine for several years, translates.

PETRO TERZI: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ALINA TERZI: They are so happy. They're like, praise the Lord. We've arrived.

SNIDER: The Terzis are from Odesa. They fled their home in late February, several days into the Russian invasion. They went first to Moldova, then to Poland, where they were taken in by a family. The official refugee resettlement process can take up to two years, but thousands of Ukrainians have already arrived in the U.S. Arriving without the help of a refugee resettlement agency means many Ukrainians rely on family members or volunteers to secure basic needs, including housing. That's the case for the Terzis. They came on tourist visas and are moving into a nondescript two-unit rental property in Auburn that's become an unlikely hub of a DIY resettlement operation.

(LAUGHTER, CROSSTALK)

SNIDER: Oleg Opalnyk is the person holding this operation together. Opalnyk is also from Ukraine and has lived in Maine since 2001. He runs a construction business and invests in rental properties. Opalnyk says that after seeing the destruction the Russian army was inflicting on his home country, he wanted to go back.

OLEG OPALNYK: When the war started, I wanted to go to fight.

SNIDER: But he talked himself out of that idea, realizing that he could be of assistance on this side of the Atlantic.

OPALNYK: And I made this decision that I would probably help more people, to protect and give them a head start here in the U.S. rather than going and fighting.

SNIDER: In mid-April, he gave that head start to a family of five who already had a relative living in Maine. He paid for their airfare and is housing them for free. Soon after, he welcomed a second family, Olha and Yurii Kutniak, along with their 11-year-old son. They're the ones sharing the apartment with Halyna and Petro Terzi. After fleeing Ukraine, the Kutniaks originally planned on going to Missouri, where they had a connection through their church community. But when they arrived in the U.S. after crossing the southern border, those plans changed.

OLHA KUTNIAK: (Speaking Russian).

SNIDER: Speaking in Russian, Kutniak says a volunteer at the border suggested they consider Maine instead and told them to call Opalnyk.

KUTNIAK: (Speaking Russian, laughter).

SNIDER: Kutniak says the phone call went so well that they changed their plans on the spot. They arrived in Maine on April 21. Kutniak's 11-year-old son is starting school, and she and her husband are focused on getting their work permits with guidance from Opalnyk. With support from his family and his Seventh Day Adventist church, Opalnyk has also helped the families with everything from furnishing the apartments to enrolling the kids in school. He says it's a full-time job but a job he's happy to be doing.

OPALNYK: It's overwhelming, you know, from time to time. But at the same time, you know, it's - I'm very thankful that I have this ability to help.

SNIDER: Including the Terzis, Opalnyk is now supporting 11 Ukrainian evacuees, and he's already preparing to welcome two more families.

For NPR News, I'm Ari Snider in Auburn, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Snider