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Small Wisconsin town welcomes 50 Ukrainian refugees

Stoughton, Wisconsin, has become an improbable haven for Ukrainians after three local women started a resettlement group from their kitchen.
Small Wisconsin town welcomes 50 Ukrainian refugees
Posted at 3:18 PM, Aug 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-10 15:19:51-04

On a recent evening at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Yulia Davydova and her four daughters stepped foot in America for the first time after 10 years of terror in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Their final destination, a two-hour car ride away, was a Wisconsin town they had never heard of before: Stoughton, a suburb of Madison with a population of 13,000.

As soon as Davydova and her daughters arrived in Stoughton, a large community of fellow Ukrainians embraced them.

"I'm happy that she's a strong woman and that she had the courage to move," said Ksenia Sokor, a Ukrainian woman who resettled to Stoughton in 2022 and helped Scripps News with translation.

"It's really hard to feel fear all the time. That today can be your last day," Davydova explained.

Davydova and her daughters come from Avdiivka, a front-line town that Russia has reduced to rubble and where there's no electricity nor running water.

"Lots of people died, not just from Russian rockets but also from different diseases," explained Davydova.

Avdiivka, which is in Ukraine's Donbas region, has been ravaged by war for nearly a decade — ever since Russia's first incursion there in 2014. Davydova and her daughters recently escaped thanks to their old neighbors: Ilya and Natalia Poroshkov.

After the Poroshkovs resettled to Stoughton last December, they begged their American sponsor to also help Davydova's family.

"llya [Poroshkov] told us about this family and I couldn't get them out of my mind," said Reneé Lushaj, the co-founder and co-director of Stoughton Resettlement: a nonprofit that has resettled 51 refugees since 2022.

Lushaj has sponsored 10 of them herself.

SEE MORE: Ukrainian mom's visit to the US turned into a mission to help refugees

Over two years ago, Lushaj first brought up the resettlement idea to a couple Stoughton women who had experiences with nonprofits. A mob had just stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and Lushaj felt the need to do something uplifting.

Today, Lushaj and the other women, alongside donors and volunteers, are supporting 16 families.

Among other things, the resettlement group is providing those families with furnished apartments and at least six months of rent. They are also helping children enroll in school and adults find jobs, health insurance and improve their English.

"There are people like my family. There are people like my neighbors' families. We're just lucky that we were not born next to Russia," explained Lushaj.

Last October, when the Biden administration allowed Americans to also sponsor Venezuelans, Lushaj and her co-directors knew what to do next.

"We didn't want all of the refugees to look just like us. They don't need to," said Lushaj.

Right after the policy shift, Rosanys Sanchez, a Venezuelan woman who had fled to Colombia, reached out to the Stoughton Resettlement group on Facebook searching for sponsorship. "I saw they help only people from Ukraine but I asked anyway," Sanchez recalled.

Twenty days later, Sanchez arrived in Stoughton. Today she's a thriving member of the community. "America is amazing. It's so amazing. I think the people the best," she said in a recent interview.

As for Yulia Davydova, she says she is still scarred by a decade of war.

"When I hear something loud like thunder, it's hard," said Davydova, explaining how loud sounds bring back fresh and traumatic memories.

But she's about to get a much-needed morale boost: Her husband and her cat will soon join her and her daughters in America to start new lives as one big, reunited family.


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