Safe haven: 5,000 Ukrainians have arrived in NEO over the past year

Volodymyr Malieiev spreads his arms wide. 

“America is size!” declares Malieiev, who fled Ukraine after Russia’s invasion and eventually came to Northeast Ohio. “Everything’s big here. Water, coffee, burgers are big. Coca-Cola, wow! This is medium? You could feed a class!” 

Malieiev, his wife, and their two children are staying with Cathy Tasse, a new widow filling empty space in her five-bedroom Westlake home.

Speaking some Ukrainian, some English, and the universal language of gestures, Malieiev points to the walls of Tasse’s big kitchen and says, “I can get lost in this house.” Cupping his hands like a megaphone, he calls, “Help me! Help me!” 

The Malieievs are among an estimated 5,000 Ukrainians who have taken refuge in Greater Cleveland since February 2022, when Russia invaded their homeland. Many carried memories of bullets and bombs up close. Many lost family and friends. Most left others behind. Most had to abandon property too.

Now they’re living in a new country, at least for now. Says Malieiev, “This is a different planet for us.” 

The newcomers praise Cleveland’s hospitality. “I have never expected such kindness from other countries, such support and understanding,” says Marina Didenko, a Ukrainian staying in Beachwood who was given a local’s car. “You have really big minds and hearts.” 

Cleveland’s many helpers
Help is coming from many public agencies, nonprofit organizations, schools, churches, businesses, and individuals. Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, estimates that the area has raised $1 million in cash for the newcomers and given them twice as much in goods, including a couple of houses. 

That’s not counting the aid Greater Clevelanders have sent to Ukrainians still in their homeland. 

In a recent joint statement, Cimperman, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, and Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne said, “Our community has opened homes and hearts to provide a safe place for those bravely seeking asylum.” 

Locals are helping in big ways and small. They’ve given more than $18,756 as of March 16 to a $20,000 GoFundMe collection for the Malieievs, mainly to help them buy a used car. 

Many of Tasse’s neighbors have put up Ukrainian flags and brought over meals. At Trader Joe’s, Tasse bought a few sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, and explained that they were for people who’d fled the war. The clerk gave her additional sunflowers for free. 

The MateIko family has fled the Ukraine for ClevelandThe MateIko family has fled the Ukraine for ClevelandCoping with Cleveland
Local leaders praise the Ukrainians’ efforts. “They’re really integrating well in the community,” says Dr. Taras Mahlay, president of the local Ukrainian Museum-Archives

Tanya Budler of Rise Together, a business helping nonprofits link newcomers with jobs, writes in an email, “All things considered, the folks we have worked with from Ukraine are adjusting. It is a process for anyone to adjust to a new place, let alone after being forced from their home, but this community (like all refugee and asylum-seeking communities) is resilient.” 

It helps that Ukrainians have been coming to Cleveland since the late 1800s. U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that Cuyahoga County has more than 15,000 Ukrainian descendants, mainly in Cleveland and southwestern suburbs

The newcomers have found Ukrainian traditions thriving in many local churches, shops, clubs, and other establishments, including some in a district of Parma called Ukrainian Village

It also helps that Ukraine is Western and modern. A couple of Ukrainians say that Cleveland is where they first learned their homeland’s tradition of painting eggs. Many of them have worked in technical and professional fields in demand here. Most already dress like Americans. Many already speak English, and others are catching on fast. 

“It’s easy,” says 11-year-old Yelyzaveta Hrudzevych of Cleveland’s International Newcomers Academy

An estimated eight million people have fled the Ukraine in the past year. Most stayed in other European countries at first. Some then reached the U.S. have come through a federal program called Uniting for Ukraine, and receive financial support from sponsors. The arrivals may stay for two years and work right away. 

The Malieievs and five other families are sponsored by Roman and Diana Skalsky. Roman fled religious persecution in Ukraine 32 years ago and now serves as assistant pastor of Slavic Full Gospel Church in Broadview Heights, which has sponsored nearly another 100 families. Skalsky has translated some quotes for this article.

Advocates are lobbying for the government to extend those two-year stays for Ukrainians. They also want to extend equal stays for Afghans who came under a similar program nearly two years ago, after the Taliban’s triumph. 

Meanwhile, members of either group can apply to stay longer under other immigration programs. 

Will Brown, development director of the nonprofit Refugee Response, says that many sponsors don’t know all of the public services and benefits available to the new arrivals. Brown’s group and others are trying to fill the gap. 

According to Global Cleveland’s Cimperman, it’s not just Ukrainians helping Ukrainians here. He says that the war has inspired Clevelanders from many groups to help newcomers from many nations. 

“The Ukrainian situation is making people realize how common and universal these struggles are. There’s a muscle memory here for people being oppressed by totalitarian regimes.” 

Oksana Dobronos has started working at the Ukrainian Museum-ArchivesOksana Dobronos has started working at the Ukrainian Museum-ArchivesCleveland’s quirks
Ukraine is a big country with a wide range of weather, mostly temperate. Cleveland’s weather can range widely by the hour. “It can be snowing in the day and summer in the evening,” marvels Didenko.

Ukrainians have also been surprised by Cleveland’s reliance on cars. Oksana Dobronos, taking refuge in Brecksville, says, “We used to walk everywhere, to the railroad station, to the shops, to the doctor’s.” 

Didenko says that she and her 12-year-old son, Bohdan, were dropped off one day on busy Chagrin Boulevard in Beachwood and told to shop at stores on both sides. But they couldn’t find a crosswalk. It took them more than an hour to reach the other side. 

America’s streets can be dangerous in other ways. Near his West Side apartment, Andrii Miteiko was cursed for breaking up a mugging. 

Most healthy men are forbidden to leave Ukraine. So, wives and children have fled without them. Mateiko was released to help his wife tend their four children, all ailing at the time. 

Malieiev was released to take his elderly mother to Germany. He needed 10 months to reunite with his wife and children there. They finally reached Westlake last month. 

The war within
Didenko and her son still have nightmares about the war. She remembers ducking from deadly shrapnel just in time, then fleeing the country with him despite his sobbing pleas to stay with his father. 

So far, the father has survived but not the boy’s cat and two hamsters. 

Refugee Response’s Brown says, “Children and teens, in particular, are struggling enormously in and out of school as they speak little to no English and often have experienced very recent trauma.” 

But some newcomers say they feel mostly relieved here. And Melissa Vojta, assistant North Royalton City Schools superintendent, says none of her schools’ roughly 100 Ukrainian students have needed counseling so far. 

Vojta says they’re also succeeding academically and socially. All district students get Chromebooks with translation apps, and some of the newcomers are being tutored in English. But most are at American age levels in the other subjects. At lunch, the Ukrainians sit and chat with American-born students. “They’re learning from each other,” Vojta says. 

Roman Skalsky, assistant pastor of Slavic Full Gospel Church in Broadview Heights, has teamed with his wife, Diane, to sponsor six Ukrainian families since Russia's invasionRoman Skalsky, assistant pastor of Slavic Full Gospel Church in Broadview Heights, has teamed with his wife, Diane, to sponsor six Ukrainian families since Russia's invasionFilling a heart and a home
Cathy Tasse’s husband, Jeff, was part Ukrainian but never visited his homeland or studied its culture. Instead, he and his wife helped refugees from many homelands as volunteers at West Park’s Hope Center for Refugees and Immigrants

Jeff struggled for 15 years with cancer. After the war broke out, he said he’d like to host some of its refugees. But he died in October.

Cathy says, “I was left with a big house and an empty heart.” So, she set about fulfilling his wish. She found the Malieievs by word of mouth and got to know them electronically before hosting them. 

“It’s good for me and them” Tasse says of the Malieievs’ stay. “It’s good for the house. The house is full of life and laughter and drums.” 

Yes, drums. Malieiev used to play drums at his church back home but never owned any. So Tasse gave him a set to play in her basement. 

She’s limiting the Malieievs to six months in her home. Then she hopes to resume hosting visits by her children and grandchildren, and the Malieievs hope to be supporting themselves. 

Stay or return?
Some of the Ukrainians have found work here. Dobronos, for instance, has worked at the Ukrainian Museum-Archives. Didenko has become one of eight “newcomer navigators”—helping arrivals for a consortium of nonprofits with funds by Cuyahoga County. 

Other Ukrainians say they hope to find work soon. Oleksandra Malieiev, Volodymyr’s wife, says, “We want to be valuable pieces of society.” 

Some Ukrainians want to go home as soon as it’s safe. Dobronos and her two sons are booked to fly back to Ukraine tomorrow, on March 22, rejoining the family’s husband and father in a city that has been peaceful lately. 

“The family shouldn’t be apart,” she says. “We’ll go back, and I hope everything will be okay.” 

Others are torn. “We love Ukraine a lot, but there’s a lot of problems there still,” Says Mateiko.  “We’ll have to see.” 

Emma Malieiev, 14, says, “I like it here.” What’s to like? “Everything: Pizza, hamburgers...” 

She says she misses old friends and family from home, but says that most of them have fled, too. “There’s nobody there, basically.” 

Her father Volodymyr says he hopes that the family can stay here for good. “We wanted to move to the U.S. a long time ago, so this is a dream come true,” he says. “We want to live as normal Americans.” 

Gesturing at Tasse’s windows and beyond, he says, “I feel peace in this house and this area. We feel peace, love, greatness.” 

Global Cleveland, The Refugee Response, Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, The Hope Center for Refugees and Immigrants, and Full Gospel Slavic Church are among many local organizations seeking donations and volunteers to help refugees and other immigrants.

Grant Segall
Grant Segall

About the Author: Grant Segall

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.