Philly residents deluge Ukrainian refugee family with goods, services, and money. And a giant ham.
Veronika Pavliutina has written a list of people she needs to thank. And hopes she can find the words.
Veronika Pavliutina has two words for the people of Philadelphia: Thank you.
Truly, she said. She’s beyond grateful.
Since the article about her family’s frantic escape from Ukraine appeared in The Inquirer on May 6 — she and her three young children landing in the home of strangers, a Mount Airy couple eager to help refugees — they’ve been showered with gifts, services, goods, and money.
“I wouldn’t expect this much, ever,” Pavliutina said, her voice catching.
The family’s GoFundMe page, which had stalled at about $9,000, quickly shot past its $20,000 goal. She used part of the money to buy a used car, a Subaru Outback that has given her family freedom and mobility.
Landlords reached out to talk about renting her an apartment — heretofore impossible, given Pavliutina’s lack of credit score and work history in this country. A possibility emerged in Willow Grove.
A Flourtown day camp offered free, all-summer camp for the children, Polina, 14, Nina, 11, and Yegor, 8. Another wants to provide sports equipment. A business-support firm will give free accounting and bookkeeping services once Pavliutina restarts her cooking studio, the culinary-arts business she ran in Ukraine.
“I can feel it,” said Nina, describing her realization that local residents care about the fate of the family. “I feel like people are kind here.”
It’s a shock, mother and children said, to discover that Americans will help a family they never met, and a miracle that they found safety in Philadelphia at a moment when millions are trapped in Ukraine or fleeing for their lives.
“It was a no-brainer to reach out to them,” said Danny Collins, co-owner and director of Flourtown Summer Day Camp, who acted after reading The Inquirer story. “Seeing that family going through what they’re going through ...”
At camp, the kids will be able to participate in activities from swimming to basketball to archery to crafts. Hopefully, Collins said, having fun with other children will help them adjust to a new life in a new country.
The family lived in the southern port of Odesa, “the Pearl of the Black Sea,” famous for its markets, operas, and theaters. Russia struck the city on the first day of the invasion, Feb. 24, blowing up warehouses and air-defense systems and killing at least 22 people.
Pavliutina immediately loaded the kids into the car and headed southwest, passing through the Romanian border and heading toward friends in Belgrade, Serbia.
Across the world in Philadelphia, real estate agent Richard McIlhenny and his wife, preschool teacher Marissa Vergnetti, watched the war unfold on TV. They wanted to help the people streaming out of Ukraine.
McIlhenny contacted a close friend who had lived in Ukraine, to see whether he knew anyone who needed a place to live. It turned out the friend’s wife was friends with a woman who ran a cooking studio, who had fled with her children.
The two families met over Zoom. Within days, Pavliutina and her kids were getting ready to leave for the U.S.
She told her children, “Let’s be prepared for anything. And be grateful for anything. Because we don’t have much.”
They stepped off a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on March 15.
Food has arrived by the bagful — no small assist to a household that suddenly expanded by four at a time when grocery prices are climbing. The other day, someone dropped off a huge ham, explaining that she won the prize in a raffle. And that she was vegetarian.
Others called or wrote to share a positive word or promise to sign up for cooking classes.
“This has really just lifted my heart,” Vergnetti said. “To know that people really are good people, and they do care.”
Philadelphia has long carried its reputation as a hard place, slow to warm, quick to fight, unable to forgive. Not often mentioned is that the opposite also is true, that to be loved in Philadelphia is to be loved forever.
“I feel like they put their arms around Veronika and the family,” Vergnetti said.
Gary Fredericks, CEO of OnPoint Partners LLC, a Wilmington-based firm that provides accounting and bookkeeping to small businesses, offered to provide free back-office support and coaching when Veronika restarts her studio.
“I knew the people of Philadelphia would help; they always do,” he said. “I just figured that no one would address the business side. … I thought helping her with getting her business back up and operating would give her purpose.”
People gave hundreds of dollars in Target and Amazon gift cards. A dentist offered to care for Polina’s braces. Ukrainian American families in the region said they would try to connect the children, who can feel isolated by their lack of English, with Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers.
One Ukrainian American woman offered a sewing machine. That’s meaningful help, Pavliutina said, because in Ukraine she embroidered napkins and table coverings for her studio, and she wants to do the same here.
The next big step is finding an apartment. And figuring out where the children will go to school in the fall. She’s waiting for approval of her Temporary Protected Status, granted to Ukrainians in the U.S. by President Joe Biden, which carries a work permit.
The car she left in Serbia will be put up for sale. Her house in Odesa is still standing, and her father, who like her brother is still in Ukraine, will probably move into it.
Her home is nearer the city center, presumably safer, while his area was bombed. The city remains under fire, its Black Sea position holding strategic importance to Russia.
Twenty years ago, Pavliutina briefly lived in northern New Jersey, when her now ex-husband’s job brought them to the United States. After they broke up she occasionally came here to visit friends. The practical effect was that on the day of the Russian invasion, she held a valid visa to enter the U.S.
Will she return to Ukraine? She doesn’t know. For now, the challenges of the moment are enough.
She’s written a list of people she needs to thank. And hopes she can find the words.
“People, my God,” Pavliutina said. “I guess this is why humanity is still here, because there are people who would help and be generous.”