As Mykola and Olena Vyshyvanyuk escort new friends to their car, the stillness of the suburban night is briefly interrupted by an almost imperceptible sound in the distance: the wail of an ambulance siren headed to a nearby hospital.
Yet on this winter evening, no one notices. That itself is a miracle.
For the past year, Mykola and Olena and their three children lived with the constant cacophony of war – sirens, gunfire and missile strikes back home in L’viv, Ukraine.
But now, thanks to a handful of Regions associates, numerous friends and local churches in Birmingham, the Vyshyvanyuks and their three children have started a new life in a quiet, safe suburb of Alabama’s largest city.
“Back home, it’s very, very cold,” Olena said with a soft smile. “I don’t like winter anymore. The Alabama winter is much better.”
“We are still adjusting,” added Mykola. “But not our kids. In two or three weeks, they made new friends and made this home.”
How do you change lives, escape a war and find a new life in a year’s time? For the Vyshyvanyuks, it started with an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Ed Cotter remembers reading about a program called Uniting for Ukraine, a program implemented by the White House, to fast-track immigration from the war-torn nation to the U.S.
“I signed up as a lark,” explained Cotter, Regions’ assistant general counsel. “You set up a profile, then people ping you and you start talking from there.
“I connected with this family – parents and three children, ages, 6, 11 and 13 – from L’viv in Western Ukraine. We agreed we’d help them move to America.”
It sounded so easy. It was anything but.
I made donations, but it didn’t seem like that was what my soul needed. But this – what Ed was doing – felt like a direct impact on someone’s life and I was excited to be a part of that. Kate Laminack, Modernization and Transformation Partner at Regions
Making a connection was the first step. Sponsors also had to provide two years of financial support, find housing, jobs, cars, and line up schools. With his wife, Natalie, fully on board, Ed began sharing his plans with friends and church members. It would take a team, and an active GoFundMe, to bring the Vyshyvanyuks to Birmingham.
Inspired by Experience
Irina Pritchett was one of the first co-workers to jump headfirst into the effort.
“Ed suspected I’d be interested after we had a passing conversation in the early days of the war,” Pritchett said. “Weeks later, he reached out about the sponsorship. But what I heard was, ‘My wife and I are thinking of doing this amazing thing but need a community to make it happen.’”
For Pritchett, a Risk Initiative and Integration manager at Regions, the response was immediate. How could it be anything else?
As a child, Pritchett’s family emigrated to the U.S. as political refugees due to growing, institutional antisemitism in the Soviet Union.
I feel grateful to be able to pay forward the help that we received when we came to the U.S. and honor a piece of my parents’ journey in doing so. Irina Pritchett, Risk Initiative and Integration manager at Regions
“My parents left behind family, friends – everything they knew – and became ‘traitors to the (Soviet) state’ without knowing where we would end up,” Pritchett said. “Like the Vyshyvanyuks, my parents packed our lives into one suitcase per person and took an indescribable leap of faith motivated by love for their children.
“I feel grateful to be able to pay forward the help that we received when we came to the U.S. and honor a piece of my parents’ journey in doing so.”
Other associates came on board, including Franklin Danley, Payment and Credit Card Operations group manager, and Susan Anderson, Enterprise Reputational Risk administrator. Both jumped in enthusiastically.
Then Kate Laminack of the Transformation team learned of the endeavor. Like Pritchett, it hit close to home.
She was 11 when she first moved to the United Kingdom, then to Birmingham, Alabama. Both of her parents were scientists who found new academic positions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“It was ridiculously hard,” Laminack said. “To come at that age, in 6th grade, it was like stepping into a new world – especially as a kid. I looked different, spoke differently and my new classmates had no concept of what we were going through.”
Yet, since the onset of the invasion, she knew she had to help.
“I’d been thinking about what I could do to help since the war started,” Laminack said. “I made donations, but it didn’t seem like that was what my soul needed. But this – what Ed was doing – felt like a direct impact on someone’s life and I was excited to be a part of that.”
An Idyllic Life No More
A year ago, Mykola and Olena had a thriving wedding gown business, a new home, a brick-and-mortar storefront, and a website that made their venture a success not only locally, but across international borders.
But as they settled in for a long Ukrainian winter, rumors of an impending war were soon replaced by the terrifying Russian invasion, and the kind of naked brutality that Europe hadn’t seen since the end of World War II.
Air raids became the norm. Idyllic neighborhoods were turned into rubble. Home became an underground shelter that provided a layer of security but did little to stop the winter’s chill without electricity and gas. Food became a luxury.
As for the business, how do you survive when life has been turned upside down?
“We were in danger from the first day,” Olena said. “So we sent the kids off to their grandparents. And we began helping make uniforms for our soldiers – many of whom didn’t have anything.”
Mykola focused on making vests, but where do you find fabric when all the banks are closed, and you can’t access your money? They used what they had, and what others scrounged, and sewed from morning through night, often by hand. They had a mission and a vision.
But not a future.
“We had to get out for our children,” Olena said.
They found Ed and Natalie Cotter. And plans began formulating.
Back in Birmingham, Cotter now had an army of volunteers of his own. They began meeting regularly at a public library, creating checklists of things they had to accomplish in addition to raising funds – find schools, jobs, housing. Using WhatsApp, Cotter, Pritchett and Laminack began regularly texting the Vyshyvanyuks, forming a friendship while keeping them informed of progress. By August, there was no turning back.
The U.S. was fast-tracking applications, as Uniting for Ukraine was proving to exceed the most optimistic expectations. The family was approved in August. By November, when the Birmingham crew had raised the funds to bring the Vyshyvanyuks to the U.S., the White House had approved more than 100,000 applications.
For Mykola, Olena and their children, the first step was to make it across the border to Poland, where they were placed in refugee housing. Immediately, Oleana noticed a difference.
“We spent two weeks getting processed in Poland – two weeks without air raids,” Olena said. “I knew then we couldn’t go back home.”
A New Start, A New Home
Two months ago, they took their final flight to Atlanta, where they were shuttled to Birmingham in a van supplied by Vestavia Methodist Church. They arrived to find a furnished new home, with a refrigerator filled with their favorite foods, children’s bedrooms stuffed with toys and two automobiles out front.
In the front room, Mykola found a sewing machine to continue his work. And a job at a local wedding boutique. The children were enrolled in school and the family began weekly English as a Second Language (ESL) classes scheduled at another church, Trinity Methodist. When Cotter and Regions associate Tommy McCain went to the local branch to open up a checking account for the family, Kismet followed.
“The relationship manager we talked to, Tatsiana Hall, spoke Russian,” Pritchett recalled. “At first, we thought that was just a crazy coincidence. But it was more than that.”
Hall, who moved to Birmingham from her native Belarus in 2010, agreed.
“I said, ‘Let me be your personal banker,’” Hall said. “God brought me to you.”
This is home and we are safe. My hope is that family and friends can join us here. Olena Vyshyvanyuk
Just before Christmas, Olena received a call that she was needed at Vestavia East Elementary immediately. Fearing the worst, she headed over only to find a room full of Christmas gifts for 13-year-old Eva, 11-year-old Ioanna and 6-year-old Viktoriia the school had gathered for their first holiday in Alabama.
The winters in Birmingham are mild and the suburban noises are soothing – a stark contrast to the life they left behind.
“This is home,” Olena said, “and we are safe. My hope is that family and friends can join us here.”
And, for the first time in a year, there is security. Both Mykola and Olena have jobs. They pay taxes. And their children are learning safely in school.
What started with a newspaper article and a conversation led to a year of change no one could have imagined prior to war, proving anything is possible. What transpired has forever transformed the Vyshyvanyuks.
And the team that came together to provide a new home.
“The kids are doing great. They have each other,” Laminack said. “They have a support network. And a really good ESL teacher.
“When this started, we didn’t know who we were looking for, only that we just wanted to help someone. But it turned into a real relationship. We’ve made friends for life.”