Ukrainian woman fleeing war finds new home with Jewish St. Louis family


Anastasia and Grace before Fox Theatre Show–photo courtesy Grace Cohen

Bill Motchan, Special To The Jewish Light

Every morning, Anastasia Kabanchuk wakes up to birds chirping in her Richmond Heights bedroom. Last spring, she was more likely to hear air raid sirens. Kabanchuk, 25, is a refugee from Ukraine who now calls the St. Louis area home, a guest of Grace Cohen.

Cohen, who is Jewish, got connected to Kabanchuk through Uniting for Ukraine, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services initiative. The program was announced on April 21, and provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their families to stay temporarily in the United States for two years.

The key component for Uniting for Ukraine to succeed is a U.S. sponsor who serves as a host. That’s how Cohen got involved.

“I heard on the news all the horrible things happening in Ukraine. I felt very helpless and I didn’t really know what I could do,” said Cohen, 28. “I saw people posting about needing a sponsor. And I thought, ‘You know what, this is something I can do.’ I’ve got a spare room in my house, and I’ve got the time and I would love to take someone in.”

Uniting for Ukraine sponsors must pass a security and background check and have a source of income to provide room and board for a long-term house guest. The refugee has to confirm vaccination against measles, polio and COVID.

In addition, the refugee is responsible for his or her own transportation to the U.S. After arriving, they receive Medicaid assistance and food stamps for two years. Some sponsors and refugees find each other via North America for Ukraine, an organization that serves as a matchmaker.  Grace Cohen found Kabanchuk through Facebook.

“Every day for a couple of weeks, I looked on the page, commenting occasionally on people’s sponsorship requests,” Cohen said. “I was ready to take someone right away. And Anastasia posted a little bit about herself, what she was interested in, and I said, ‘Hey Anastasia, why don’t you message me? I’m in St. Louis if you’d like to come here.’ So we started talking via Facebook Messenger.”

Afterwards, they began regular FaceTime video calls. Cohen wanted to make sure Kabanchuk was a legitimate refugee and not an internet scammer. Satisfied that they were compatible, Cohen completed the paperwork to apply for sponsorship, which took about 45 minutes. One week later, she was approved, and Kabanchuk received confirmation of her request for immigration status. She’d soon be on her way from Tyvriv, Vinnytsia Oblast, to St. Louis.

“I had everything I thought she would need,” Cohen said. “It almost felt like I was preparing for a child. So I got my spare room ready with towels and blankets, but I was pretty much ready for her to come.”

Kabanchuk’s motivation to leave Ukraine was primarily because her parents convinced her to go for her own safety. She regularly keeps in contact with her family—who are still in Ukraine.

“A couple of weeks into the war, the situation got worse with the nuclear power plant nearby,” Kabanchuk said. “My parents got really worried because the territory where we live is not under occupation, but nuclear power is something you can’t run away from.

“I live in central Ukraine,” she said. “We had quite a few hits recently to the power station. And actually, the day I left for the U.S., I was already on the plane when my friend texted me saying that in the downtown area of the city, there was a missile attack, and it was bad, with multiple casualties. I was on the plane trying to reach everyone I know, making sure that everyone was safe.”

Initially, Kabanchuk went to Poland where she had a job for a couple of months. That came to an end and she decided it was time to relocate.

“Getting a job in Poland was harder because I don’t speak Polish,” she said. “Then I heard about this program, and I was like, ‘I’ll just go for it. If it works out, then good. If not, well, that’s life.’”

Fortunately, the arrangement has worked out well for both of them.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Cohen said. “With any roommate, there can always be boundary issues and that kind of thing. But Anastasia has been so great. We both respect each other’s boundaries. She’s been so sweet. She cooks me dinner a lot. It’s just a really nice wholesome relationship.”

Another plus to the arrangement is that there’s no language barrier. Kabanchuk speaks nearly flawless English. She also has a good command of Russian, German, French and Spanish. That’s because she earned a college degree in translation. She’s looking for a job here and has had some promising interviews.

Kabanchuk has also been assisted with job referrals from Betsy Cohen (no relation to Grace), the executive director of STL Mosaic Project, an organization that believes foreign-born individuals invigorate the region. Cohen, who attends Temple Emanuel, said immigrants are often successful entrepreneurs.

“Immigrants start businesses at a rate 50% higher than those born in the U.S.,” Betsy Cohen said. “And with a regional unemployment rate about 3%, they fill needed jobs that are both high-skilled and less-skilled.”

When she’s not job-hunting, Kabanchuk just enjoys being out of a war zone. She’s saving up for a car and has already passed the written DMV learner’s permit exam, scoring 100%. She misses home and her family, and Ukranian food. When asked if she’s tried local delicacies like gooey butter cake or toasted ravioli, Kabanchuk frowned and said, “I don’t think I’m really into that—you have a lot of fried food here.”

For her sponsor Grace Cohen, hosting a Ukrainian refugee has been a positive experience.

“I didn’t realize quite how rewarding it would be,” she said. “Anastasia and I get along really well, and it’s been great having her around,” Cohen said. “I feel like we’ve enriched each other’s lives.

“Without the memory of my parents, I probably wouldn’t have taken this on,” she said. “They were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. They would always lend a helping hand to anybody in need. If they were around today, this is something they would want me to do. I’m honoring their memory by doing this.”

Information about sponsoring a Ukranian refugee is available on the Uniting for Ukraine portal.

Ukraine Refugees – By the Numbers

  • Total number of Ukrainians the United States has welcomed since March 2022: 204,000
  • Submission requests from potential Uniting for Ukraine sponsors: 171,000
  • Ukrainians authorized to immigrate to the U.S.: 121,000
  • Number of Uniting for Ukraine authorized immigrants who have arrived in the U.S.: 85,000
  • Ukrainians authorized to immigrate (not associated with Uniting for Ukraine): 118,000
  • Metro areas with the most applications for Uniting for Ukraine sponsors:
    • New York: 27,442
    • Chicago: 21,381
    • Seattle: 9,664
    • Philadelphia: 7,483

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security.