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Ukrainian Catholic parish gives physical, spiritual support to war refugees

Bohoiavlenska Yana, a refugee from Kherson, Ukraine, rests at a refugee center in Mexico in this undated photo. After fleeing the war in Ukraine, she and her family recently resettled in St. Petersburg, Fla., with the help of parishioners of the Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church. (CNS photo/courtesy Bohoiavlenska Yana via Gulf Coast Catholic)

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (CNS) — One of the hardest things Bohoiavlenska Yana has ever done is drive through a road littered with landmines as she and her family fled their homeland of Ukraine.

“I closed my eyes and prayed to God,” she said. “I put a lot of pressure on the gas, it was very fast. It seemed to me that the faster I pass this dangerous place, the faster I will be safe. Thank God we passed.”

Yana spent several weeks planning the harrowing escape from her hometown of Kherson.

“The battles were very strong and in general there was no way to even try to get through, because this bridge was constantly shelled and there were very fierce battles,” she said. “You don’t believe it. You see airplanes flying. You see the explosions, you hear them, but the brain did not perceive.”

On the third attempt, Yana was able to escape Ukraine safely with her family. They are part of an estimated 8 million displaced Ukrainians who have become refugees. The family has resettled in St. Petersburg with the help of parishioners of the Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church.

“I am very glad that I came here because I feel safe. I feel like people are loving,” she told the Gulf Coast Catholic, news outlet of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. “The most important thing is that they supported me spiritually. You understand that you are not alone, and this is very important. Compassion is very, very valuable.”

Over 150 Ukrainian families are part of the parish community and most have family members currently living in Ukraine. They have become a source of spiritual and physical help for refugees.

“There are seven families that I know personally who came here and we helped them, especially with housing. We also help them financially and with household supplies,” said the pastor, Father Bohdan Barytskyy.

He said many more displaced families have reached out for help in getting to the United States. Their biggest challenge is they do not have, and are not eligible for, a visa to seek entry.

Instead, they are participating in the Uniting for Ukraine program, which was launched April 21 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security. Each refugee must have a supporter in the United States, who agrees to provide the refugee with financial support for the duration of their stay in the country, which under the program is a two-year period.

“Many Ukrainian refugee families ask about sponsoring because they cannot just come directly and this is a huge problem because there is a dire need for sponsors,” said Father Barytskyy.

He asks individuals and businesses to prayerfully consider sponsoring a Ukrainian family.

As for Yana, she is settling into her new life in the U.S. and often volunteers to help other families find refuge in America. She said the entire experience has made her faith stronger.

“My faith is simply unshakable. Now I know that God is with me,” she said, adding that she was confident God would not leave her.

She also hopes to one day return to a peaceful Ukraine. “I dream that with the help of America, my country will soon win this war and we will return home and restore everything that is now destroyed. I pray to God to help our people endure this difficult test.”

Information about the Uniting for Ukraine program can be found here .

Camario writes for the Gulf Coast Catholic, news outlet of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

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