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Churches seek to bring war-displaced Ukrainians to Alaska

Zori Opanasevych
Zori Opanasevych, left, is heading up an effort with help from her sister, Oksana Vakulich, and other volunteers statewide are working to bring Ukrainians displaced by war to Alaska.

New Chance Church's Ukraine Relief Program volunteers hope to place about 600 who've fled war-torn nation

Updated: See Editor's Note, below.

Members of an Anchorage-based church and others around the state have begun helping hundreds of Ukrainians flee their war-torn nation and relocate to Alaska. The churches’ relief program has inspired officials with the Rasmuson Foundation and other organizations and businesses to donate to the cause.

Thirty-one-year-old Zori Opanasyvch and her family came to Alaska 22 years ago to find a better life than the one they left behind in Ukraine. And now Opanaseyvch is heading up an effort to help Ukrainians flee the war there and find a home here.

“I’m very grateful that my parents made the difficult decision to move to America,” she said, “because if they hadn’t, it would have been me there right now, protecting my children from the bombs with my body.”

Opanasyvch is a member of Anchorage-based New Chance Christian Church, which through a nonprofit is sponsoring a program to bring Ukrainians to Alaska. She says the church’s mainly Slavic congregation launched the effort soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“When the war broke out, everybody said ‘How can we help?’ And so we initiated it at our church, and it just expanded, because Ukrainians are across the state.”

Word of Life Church/Facebook
The Word of Life Church in Delta Junction offered clothing and other donations for Ukrainians displaced by the war.

Volunteers with the New Chance Ukraine Relief Program and churches statewide began collecting donations to bring Ukrainians displaced by the war to Anchorage, Opanasyvch said. From there, they’ll be sent to communities where they have family members as part of a federal program that gives the newcomers two years to apply for formal refugee status.

“We have volunteers in Wasilla, Delta, Fairbanks, Palmer, Anchorage – I mean, literally across the state,” she said in an interview Monday.

One of those volunteers, Diane Gelever, added, “What they’re trying to make is kind of like a secondhand store, but it’s free.”

Gelever is a member of the Word of Life Church in Delta Junction, and she’s heading up that church’s efforts to collect clothing and household goods for the Ukrainians.

“When the refugees come and they have nothing,” she said in an interview this week, “they’re able to at least get some stuff for themselves, so they don’t have to live with the bare minimum.”

Opanaseyvch says the New Chance relief program’s goal is to bring around 600 Ukrainians to Alaska. She says one came in last week and more than a dozen are coming in this week. And she says volunteers are accepting donations to help pay to fly them here and begin a new life.

“It’s 20 dollars to go get an ID. Background check, 35 dollars,” she said. “So all those things add up. If we have the means, we want to be able to help them.”

The program may well have the means to do that after getting a huge boost last week from the Rasmuson Foundation. President and CEO Diane Kaplan says the emergency assistance is a bit out of the ordinary for the foundation. But the board unanimously approved it because, she says, the need is great, and the program was organized and energized by residents of the state.

“This is really being driven by Alaskans, many of whom have familial ties to people who will be coming to the state,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Kaplan says the program promises to benefit Alaska, because many of the people it will bring will want to settle and work here.

“We also, frankly, have need for good workers,” she said. “And I think that having skilled people come to the state is a good thing.”

She says supporting the relief program is just the right thing to do, because except for indigenous peoples, we all came here because of the promise this land holds.

“All of us have come to Alaska from somewhere,” she said. “We all came with hopes and dreams of having a better life.”

Kaplan says the Rasmuson Foundation’s award has inspired others to give – including a matching 150-thousand-dollar donation from Seattle businessman Ed Weidner.

Editor's Note: Dropoff points for donations are available in Anchorage, Wasilla, North Pole and Delta Junction. In the Fairbanks-North Pole area, call (907) 978-1601. In Delta Junction, donations may be dropped off Friday afternoons at 1591 Quartz Ave., at the intersection of Nistler Road across from the junior high-high school. More information about how to donate to the New Chance Ukraine Relief Program, contact the church in Anchorage. Phone: (907) 317-0008.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.