The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After fleeing war, Ukrainians rush to help Mississippi tornado victims

From left, Viktoriia Hasiuk, Taras Zhmurko, Sofiia Rudenko, Iryna Hrebenyk, Dmytro Fedirko, Denys Pavliuk and Nazar Teteruk in front of the van of water bottles they delivered to towns in Mississippi on March 29. The seven Ukrainians all recently arrived in Minnesota after fleeing the war in Ukraine. (The American Service)
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The seven Ukrainians set out just before midnight to make the long drive to their destination. They were on an aid mission to a grimly familiar scene of devastated communities and leveled homes.

But the refugees were thousands of miles from their homeland and the war that changed their lives. Their journey wound down Interstate 55, starting in Minnesota, where they had resettled just months earlier, and ending in a disaster zone wracked not by bombs, but by the wind: several towns in Mississippi recovering from a devastating tornado that killed at least 25 in late March.

Dmytro Fedirko, a 34-year-old former van driver, puzzled through American road signs on his first road trip in the country. With him were couple Denys Pavliuk and Viktoriia Hasiuk, 19 and 18, who had arrived in the United States 10 days before. Iryna Hrebenyk, a 51-year-old hairdresser turned forklift operator for Home Depot, tried to stay awake — she joined the group after a night shift, with only a few hours of sleep in between.

They had all been in the United States for a few months at most, thrust by war from cities and towns across Ukraine into new lives in Minnesota that had not yet settled — they had immigration forms to complete, job interviews to prepare for and families to support.

But they said they decided, without hesitation, to put that on hold last week upon hearing news of the tornado that leveled towns in Mississippi. They made the 16-hour drive south to donate bottled water and volunteer with aid workers, buoyed by the idea that they could help a community facing a similar struggle to theirs.

“We had to leave our home,” Pavliuk told The Washington Post in Ukrainian, in an interview interpreted by Hrebenyk. “And they don’t have a place to go back, either.”

Pavliuk arrived in Minneapolis with Hasiuk earlier in March, the latest additions to a tightknit community of refugees who fled the Russian invasion. Pavliuk’s group had all been helped by the same nonprofit organization, the American Service.

Aswar Rahman, a Minneapolis-based digital producer, founded the agency in March 2022 after visiting the Polish-Ukrainian border and seeing the challenges facing refugees there, he said. A month later, when the Biden administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program created a path for Ukrainians with an American sponsor to secure two-year stays in the United States, the American Service started helping refugees resettle in Minneapolis.

Rahman said he was struck by the kinship that grew in the apartment building where the American Service found housing for Ukrainian refugees. Those who had been there for a few weeks or months were quick to help with the myriad challenges facing new arrivals: like buying SIM cards, applying for Social Security numbers and completing post-arrival immigration forms.

“I feel like I have a big family,” said the American Service’s Minnesota director, Sofiia Rudenko, who arrived in the United States from Ukraine in late December. “I realized that last week, I didn’t even cook because my neighbors kept feeding me every day.”

That spirit convinced Rahman that the refugees wouldn’t hesitate to help other communities in need, too. When he saw news of the March 24 tornadoes that devastated Mississippi towns, he pitched the idea of taking a team to deliver aid. Rudenko, 22, thought it was a great idea.

“I didn’t even think whether I should say yes or no,” she said. “I just started thinking that I need to invite people, like [other] Ukrainians.”

As she expected, everyone leaped at the proposal. The team of eight — seven recent Ukrainian arrivals, accompanied by Rahman — had to turn down additional volunteers because they no longer had room in their cars, Rahman said. None of the Ukrainians had been in the United States for longer than three months. Pavliuk and Hasiuk didn’t mind that it had been less than two weeks since they arrived.

“They decided to go immediately and started packing their clothes,” Rudenko said. “I guess they didn’t unpack it, even.”

The group piled into two cars late Monday night and drove to Memphis, where they rented a U-Haul van and bought several pallets of water bottles from a Costco. The Ukrainian group paid for the water themselves against Rahman’s protests, he said.

“I mean, these are folks that have only gotten two or three American paychecks,” Rahman said, recalling his surprise. He added that he was planning either to reimburse them using American Service funds or to fundraise to cover the costs.

Rahman contacted the nonprofit Volunteer Mississippi to ask where the group could be of use. A coordinator directed them to a school being used as a distribution center in the city of Belzoni. They distributed the water in Belzoni on Wednesday. In the afternoon, the group drove farther south to Silver City and helped unload additional trucks of aid and supplies.

The group also left a small gift with the Mississippi workers they volunteered with: small yellow-and-blue hearts sewn onto pieces of Ukrainian army uniforms.

Rahman said their donation, about 13,000 bottles of water, probably wasn’t much compared with those by large corporate donors. But the backstory of the Ukrainian volunteers resonated, both in teary exchanges with other workers on the ground and with Volunteer Mississippi’s coordinators.

Rahman didn’t tell Volunteer Mississippi about the group’s backstory when he called briefly to coordinate their trip, according to Corie Jones, the organization’s deputy director.

“I’m just completely in awe of that,” she told The Post after learning more about the team. “ … When they stop what they’re going through to help someone else in need, that to me is the definition of love.”

The group returned to Minneapolis on Thursday evening, just in time for several people to make their shifts at Home Depot and for Pavliuk to make a weekend job interview.

Now, the seven Ukrainians will resume the new starts they’re pursuing for themselves. All of them are grappling with the devastating toll that the war is taking on Ukraine and their family members there. But the trip to Mississippi lifted their spirits, Rudenko said, and the American Service is looking for other ways that the refugee community can volunteer in Minneapolis.

“That’s something that is special about our community,” Rudenko said. “Because we want to share, to give, and to keep doing that because we feel better, and we feel that we are not alone.”