Monmouth College is part of a community effort to help two Ukrainian families relocate to the area from their war-torn country.
In July, Stepan Skrypnychenko and Olesia Chychaova arrived in Monmouth, and the couple was followed in November by the Bud family — parents Vitalii and Irene and children Zack, age 12, and twins Milena and Mark, 9, according to a Monmouth College release.
Monmouth emeritus professor Tom Sienkewicz was on the ground floor of the Sponsor Circle initiative to bring refugees to Monmouth, and professors Bob and Michelle Holschuh Simmons have also been involved. Other college connections to the support include former chaplain the Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin, biology professor Eric Engstrom and President Clarence Wyatt, the release said.
Sienkewicz said he heard about the Sponsor Circle program through his daughter, Julia. The organization encourages communities seeking to welcome refugees to create a “sponsor circle” of five key individuals, and with contributions and responsibilities branching out from that core group.
Getting the ball rolling
Last January, from an informational meeting open to the public, a sponsor circle emerged, composed of what Sienkewicz called “three Catholics, a Lutheran and a Methodist,” the college release said.
“They set a high bar,” said Michelle Simmons of the Sponsor Circle program. “We had to raise $12,000.”
“We were expecting to welcome an Afghan family,” said Sienkewicz, “but right around that time, the number of Afghans coming to the United States dropped significantly.”
Also around that time, Russia’s attack on Ukraine began, and the Sponsor Circle program was expanded to include Ukrainian families.
“By May, we’d been assigned a family of two – a couple in their 40s – and they arrived in mid-July,” said Sienkewicz. “They settled in quite well, even though they only had the clothes on their backs.”
Stepan and Olesia fled the Crimea in 2014 for Kyiv and then fled Kyiv for Poland in February. The local sponsor circle has helped them obtain social services, work permits, Social Security cards and lessons to learn English. The First Lutheran Church, pastored by the Rev. Jamie Gallagher, offered the use of its parsonage, as the Gallaghers chose to live elsewhere, just a few doors from the Simmons family.
“Using the parsonage reduced the amount of money Stepan and Olesia needed, so we decided to shelter another family,” said Simmons, who noted that Stepan and Olesia now live elsewhere in Monmouth, and that the Bud family resides in the parsonage.
“It was very generous of the Lutheran Church to do that,” said Sienkewicz, who noted it was one of many examples of kindness he’s seen in the past year. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of Monmouth. I never expected the groundswell of support we’ve received.”
The Bud children attend Immaculate Conception School, which is not only just down the street from the parsonage, but is also where the Simmons’ youngest children attend, the college said.
“It worked out perfectly,” said Simmons. “I think that’s a good fit for them, since ICS is fairly small and has a family-like atmosphere. Another thing that really helps is that our town is unexpectedly international. There’s plenty of diversity.”
Even finding clothing has fallen in place.
“Zack is tall and slim, just like our (14-year-old) twins,” said Simmons. “I just pull stuff out of the closet at home and put it in a bag for Zack.”
‘A normal, happy existence’
On her computer, Simmons pulled up a photo from the ICS Christmas concert, which showed Zack playing a ukulele in a group of other student musicians.
“And to think, three weeks before that, he was in a war zone,” she said. “Watching the concert, it brought tears to my eyes. He and his siblings are doing all the kids’ stuff they’re supposed to be doing. Their life is peaceful, normal, calm.”
In an article that appeared in The Catholic Post last month, the Rev. Timothy Hepner of Monmouth’s Immaculate Conception Church shared a similar sentiment.
“Yesterday in the lunchroom at ICS, I saw Mark smiling and chattering away,” he said. “Just seeing these kids who were caught up in war living a normal, happy existence is the greatest reward I can think of.”
Monmouth graduate Pam Slaughter Van Kirk ’76 – part of the sponsor circle – told The Catholic Post: “I am humbled by their positive attitudes. They have endured so much, yet they are grateful for what they have. Their humanity remains intact. Kindness and generosity transcends language and cultural barriers.”
Language wasn’t a barrier for one of the refugees, as Irene Bud came to the United States with translating experience. The others are gradually picking up English.
Monmouth’s sponsor circle is obligated to support the families for two years.
“After that, they can do what they want,” said Simmons. “I think it’s wonderful that little Monmouth, Illinois, has been doing its bit to respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.”