‘She’s part of our family’ — Lincoln connections helping Ukrainian student’s mother find safety | Education

The window to act was closing.

At the urging of her daughter, Yuliia, and a Lincoln family she had only met over Zoom, Oksana Iziumova quickly packed a small bag into her car and drove west out of Odessa, the Ukrainian city of 1 million people on the shores of the Black Sea.

A three-hour trek to Moldova turned into a 27-hour ordeal at the border before Oksana was cleared to enter the former Soviet republic among other refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Out of harm’s way, at least for the time being, Oksana found a quiet rural area dotted with farmhouses about an hour’s drive northwest of Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, and hunkered down.

But over the next two weeks, amid the fog of war and rumors the Moldovan government was planning to declare martial law, Yuliia Iziumova could see her mother had not fled far enough from the conflict.

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On a Zoom call with her daughter and her host family in Lincoln — Matthew Wegener and Donna Gould — Oksana expressed fears of not knowing where to go or finding a place she could stay.

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“There was so many reasons for her to be worried,” said Yuliia, a junior at Nebraska Wesleyan University. “It was really hard to watch her be that upset.”

As the two families talked through the situation and their options, Wegener offered an idea, a kind of “worst-case scenario” proposal, he said in a phone interview earlier this week.

The self-described “serial entrepreneur” from Lincoln could fly to Europe and meet up with Oksana, and help drive her the rest of the way to Germany, which was accepting Ukrainian refugees.

The idea was to get Oksana into a member country of NATO, where she would be safer and in reach of resources being marshaled for those fleeing the worsening conflict, Wegener explained.

Yuliia translated the proposal to her mother: “You could see the relief on her face.”

The Iziumovas signaled they wanted to move forward with the plan, and Wegener and Gould started figuring out the details.

They found an affordable plane ticket from Chicago to Budapest, Hungary — only $580, Wegener said — and drew up directions for Oksana to download that would get her out of Moldova, through Romania and into Hungary.

On Thursday, Wegener boarded a flight in Lincoln, with the plan he would meet Oksana in person for the first time Friday.

“We didn’t really need to talk about it,” Wegener said. “She’s part of our family; you do whatever you need to do to take care of them.”

As Oksana Iziumova prepared to head west out of Moldova, the plan to bring her to safety began to take shape.

More than a decade ago, Donna Gould’s parents, Jack and Harriet Gould, played host to Marshall Fellows visiting from Europe as part of an annual program in Lincoln.

“Along with other farm families, we had hosted numerous groups over a number of years,” Harriet Gould said. “Some of the guests you kind of connect with a little bit more than others.”

One of the deep connections forged was with Borbala Kriza, a documentary filmmaker living in Budapest.

Harriet had reconnected with Kriza on social media long ago, but the two had not communicated in years, she said. Still, knowing her son-in-law’s plan to meet with Oksana in Budapest, Harriet sent her friend a message on Facebook.

Bori, as Harriet knows her, responded quickly, telling her former host family she would do anything she could to help.

Soon after, Kriza met Yuliia, Oksana, Wegener and Donna Gould via Zoom, and they hammered out the details for getting Oksana to Budapest.

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“She was just a godsend,” Harriet said. “Not only was she going to help (Wegener) in Budapest, but she has connections in Romania and all these other places where Yuliia’s mother is going to be traveling through. It was just wonderful.”

Oksana made it Suceava, Romania, on Wednesday, the first leg on her multi-day journey to Hungary. If all goes according to plan, Wegener said, he should arrive in Budapest at about the same time as she does.

The two will stay in the city of 1.8 million people for a few days, Wegener said, which will give him an opportunity to assess the organizations helping Ukrainian refugees.

Yuliia, meanwhile, reached out to Professor Jo Ann Fuess, her German instructor at Nebraska Wesleyan, to ask if she knew anybody in western Europe who would be willing to give her mother a home until the next step could be worked out.

Fuess, who has taught at the liberal arts university for 30 years, said she couldn’t make any promises but would reach out to friends and family living in Germany and Austria.

She sent out the plea Saturday. By early the next morning, there were “a large number” of replies, including from former students.

Among the replies was a message from Johanna Schwerdtle, a longtime friend, former office mate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and former German and French professor at Nebraska Wesleyan.

Schwerdtle, who moved back to Germany with her husband, Guenter, after his diagnosis of dementia, had discussed the situation with friends and family living in Neu-Ulm.

Fuess wasn’t looking for her friend to take on the extra responsibility, but after Schwerdtle said there was a team of people in the town on the Danube River ready and willing to help, it made sense to send Oksana that direction.

Among those ready to receive Oksana were Russian and Ukrainian speakers, people who understood the German bureaucracy, as well as the U.S. immigration and refugee system.

The Schwerdtles grew up in post-World War II Germany and understand the ravages and traumas of war, Fuess said, and were touched by Yuliia’s story and connection to their home in Lincoln.

“She has plenty of space and a huge heart, and I thought ‘That would be a good landing place for Yuliia’s mother,’” Fuess added.

Reaching that landing place is going to be an experience, Wegener said. He doesn’t speak Russian, Hungarian or German. Oksana has limited English skills.

The two will work it out, he said, and he’ll stay in Neu-Ulm for a few days to help Oksana get settled.

Since she left home with only a small suitcase, the family has set up a GoFundMe to help Oksana buy new clothes and anything else she needs as she makes a new home more than 1,200 miles from Odessa.

Whatever funds aren’t needed will be donated to an aid organization, Wegener said.

The plan came together quickly, but with so many questions being aired about what can be done to help those in need, Wegener said he saw a way to act.

“My whole premise has been, ‘I’m just going to go,’” he said. “That’s the only thing I know how to do.”

Yuliia Iziumova also left Lincoln this week, bound for Disney World in Florida.

The spring break trip — planned long before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, before the bombings of civilian areas and the swift penalties enacted by Western countries in response — has been a welcome distraction.

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Watching as the plan to bring her mother to Neu-Ulm has fallen into place with help from people she’s never met — all with some connection to Lincoln — Yuliia says she’s overwhelmed.

The surrealism of watching her home country be the center of a war has transformed into the surrealism of experiencing compassion shown by her American host family, as well as strangers in Hungary and Germany.

“It’s still hard to believe this is happening to me,” she said. “I am full of gratitude.”

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