OLPH parishioner leads church effort to make a new home for refugee family
By Bill Brewer
As unrest grips the Middle East and dominates the world’s attention, fighting continues to rage in Ukraine as that country’s military still battles Russia, a war that next month will enter its third year.
And half a world away, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Chattanooga—and one parishioner in particular—has reached out and made a home for a Ukrainian refugee family that fled its homeland.
The family, which asked to not be identified for safety and security reasons, in November entered the second year of a two-year U.S. government program called Uniting for Ukraine that matches Ukrainians trying to flee their war-torn country with American sponsors.
The family arrived in Chattanooga on Nov. 10, 2022, after weeks of getting-to-know-you Facebook video chats with its OLPH sponsor, Joe, who asked that his last name not be used out of concern for the family’s safety and security.
The federal government, through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and its Uniting for Ukraine program, provides a pathway for displaced Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to come to this country and stay temporarily for two years.
Joe first encountered Uniting for Ukraine while watching television one night shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. He explained that following geopolitics is a hobby of his after growing up overseas and attending a diplomatic school as a youth.
After his experiences abroad, he said he’s very happy to be a Chattanoogan. And seeing the ad for Uniting for Ukraine inspired him to offer that same opportunity to a family in need. So, he visited the USCIS website, www.uscis.gov/ukraine, and happened on a family of four. Just by happenstance, the family also is Catholic.
Joe thought over the possibility of sponsoring the family during a trip to Israel in June 2022.
“We got back and I mentioned it to my wife. She said it sounds wonderful. She knew I had the resources. I’m not wealthy, but I had the money to do this. Then I said it takes a village. I can’t be available all the time when they need me. So, I went to church. If we attend church regularly, we all have people, acquaintances, we talk to. I call them our church posse,” Joe said.
“I gathered them together one Sunday, and I told them what I wanted to do. I said I might need some help. Who is willing to help? Remember the phrase prayers, players, and payers? Who has time? Who has money? And who will pray for you?” he added, referring to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and its members.
He then registered with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which vetted him and performed a background check on the Ukrainian family. He was approved, and basic information from his questionnaire was publicized for the family to see, details like what does he offer and what is he going to provide.
Joe and his wife were approved by USCIS.
“I did a lot of thinking about what I could handle. I didn’t want a kid, a 23-year-old or a 25-year-old. … A young mama with four young kids and aging parents? I’m really not set up to handle that. So, I thought a (smaller) family would be perfect—a mom and a couple of kids,” Joe said. “So, originally it was the mom and the daughter and son. (Grandmother) was a late add once this gained traction. There was some anguish about her family leaving her.”
Joe pointed out that the wife’s mother was reluctant to leave her home country, but she eventually decided to join the family in leaving for the United States.
“And I’m glad she did,” Joe said.
Joe and the Ukrainian family exchanged e-mails and then connected on Facebook. “Was I getting consistent information from them? Ask the same question four different ways and see what you get,” he said, noting that he had to rely on Facebook video chats to vet them.
Ultimately, it was their faith that made the arrangement work—faith in each other and faith in God.
“We could then chat via video chat. We could see each other. Mama is 42. She has a 25-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old little boy and a 67-year-old mother. They are talking to some man in a foreign country and willing to trust him enough to pack everything in one suitcase each and leave. How brave is that?” Joe asked.
“Everything I got from them was very sincere, very honest. It made sense. They weren’t asking for anything unreal. They didn’t even know that I was planning to get them (transportation). They had no idea,” he recalled.
Joe felt an obligation to equip the family with as much information as possible to prepare them for living in the United States. He noted that the typical monthly salary in Ukraine is $500-$600 and that the family lived an upper middle-class life in the eastern European country. The husband and wife are accomplished in their fields of work in their home country, “and that’s gone,” Joe shared.
Social and economic conditions in Ukraine have continued to deteriorate as the fighting has escalated.
“If I brought them here and didn’t warn them about groceries, utilities. … What would you do if you were in a different country, and someone takes you to a grocery store and you realize the bill is $1,200? I would pass out,” he said. “We had a lot of specific conversations about how this is going to work, what this is going to be. I let them know that soon, it wasn’t going to be right away, that they would have their own place. I turned on the video and walked them through the house. I walked them through my house. They wanted to see my wife, see my dog.”
Finding a place where the family would live turned out to be another challenge when it came to locating suitable rental options.
“I got so frustrated with landlords. Let’s just say they were not feeling the Holy Spirit at all. I get it. Business is business. But still…. So, I said never mind and I just Googled houses. The first house I found was 400 and something thousand. I said that’s too much. The other one I found was just over $200,000; three bedroom, two bath, looked to be in pretty good shape. The next day I looked at it with a Realtor friend and made an offer. It was accepted,” Joe shared, pointing out that he considers the house, which is near the OLPH campus, to be a real estate investment.
The family is from Ternopil, a major city in western Ukraine. Ternopil has been a target of Russian attacks. Joe explained that to get from their town to the Poland border is an eight-hour bus ride. Then from the Poland border to Warsaw, Poland, to catch a flight to the United States is about another eight-hour drive. They arrived at the Warsaw airport at midnight, and their flight departed at 6 a.m. The flight to Atlanta was about 16 hours.
They arrived just over a year ago and have acclimated to Chattanooga, according to Joe, who said the family stayed close to home at first but then began to branch out with their own vehicle.
The husband and father in the family joined his wife and children in 2023, and he quickly received his Tennessee driver’s license, passing on his first attempt despite his limited understanding of English.
Language has been yet another challenge as Joe and the family have worked to find common understanding.
“There are times where they’ve communicated with me and I thought I understood, but I didn’t. We’ve been very forgiving. We’ve been able to do this because we’ve tried very hard to be very honest, very sincere, and very trustworthy. It’s OK to say no,” Joe explained, quipping, “But there are some universal truths here. There is a tooth fairy in Ukraine.”
And there is the Catholic Church, which has been the foundation for this international venture.
As the husband and wife have continued looking for employment, their son is enrolled at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, something that OLPH pastor Father Arthur Torres and the parish wanted to make happen. The parish is covering the cost of tuition. Their adult daughter, who is a college graduate, is employed in Chattanooga.
Joe is grateful to Father Torres, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and its members for helping support the family. Through Joe and the members of OLPH, the family has shelter and transportation, they are self-sufficient, and they are ready to work.
The staff and membership at OLPH are excited to be working with Joe on this specific ministry.
“First, let me say how proud we are of Joe. Joe serves our Mass ministry here. This is a passionate ministry of his. He became aware of the story of this family and acted on his faith by supporting them. Because of Joe’s dedication and commitment to OLPH, his fellow parishioners were eager to help him with his wonderful ministry,” said OLPH business manager Robert Jones Jr.
“This ministry provides OLPH parishioners a need and source that we know is directly tied to its designation of gifts,” Mr. Jones added, noting that OLPH members have given thousands of dollars to the family. “The OLPH community sees daily how their support is aiding this family. It provides us with an action of faith that is direct, close, and so very worthy. With Joe’s lead, we are proud to support our Ukrainian family.”
Mr. Jones pointed out that the son who attends OLPH is earning honors in class and also participates in middle-school sports. And the adult daughter is working toward attending law school.
And likewise, Joe is pleased with how all members of the family are assimilating into life in Chattanooga as they try to get settled during a very unsettling time in their lives.
“They are doing all the right things. It just takes time,” Joe said. “The parish has been very supportive. It’s been a grassroots organization reaching out.”
As the family’s participation in the Uniting for Ukraine program enters its second and final year, Joe hopes the family’s situation in Chattanooga becomes permanent.
He would like to see the U.S. government issue the family members green cards, giving their status more permanency as they possibly navigate U.S. citizenship. In the meantime, the husband and wife are hoping to secure jobs as they continue trying to be self-reliant.
“By the end of year two, I may still be listed as their sponsor because they can’t get a green card. But I would like them to be sufficient. And they have lost everything. I hope they (can get) a credit score. … (The husband and wife) have another 15 years or 20 years to work. They need some help getting started or they’re never going to make it. For anybody who has spent any time overseas and have seen people struggling like that, that’s not a real good quality of life,” Joe shared.
He said the family is well aware that if they had remained in Ukraine, their situation likely would not have ended well.
Joe gives the family’s first year positive reviews as he tries to determine what’s ahead for them.
“So far, it’s gone well. I love the new family. We will forever be buddies,” he said. “We’re going to see this together. We’re going to get through the first year and into next year, and we’ll see.”
Joe also hopes for continued financial support for the family from not only the parish but also from people in the Diocese of Knoxville.
“As a parish, I think we can do better for them, and know that we can’t save the world, but it is just one family. Give them a chance. And from knowing the family like I do, I can’t think of a better family to give that chance to,” he said. “They will find their way forward. They will get their lives in order. Then we will just give it some time and see how it works out for them.”
Joe described it as a gutsy, faithful, faith-based shot in the dark that the family took in coming to the United States based on nothing more than Facebook video chats, and that he and the Our Lady of Perpetual Help community were on the other end to welcome them.
And he cited his own faith in the equation.
“Someone’s using you as a tool to do something good,” he said. “I realize that the culmination of my life experience has prepared me for this moment. This is something I was chosen to do a long time ago. I do believe that.”
Anyone interested in supporting the family’s relocation to East Tennessee is encouraged to contact Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 501 S. Moore Road, Chattanooga, TN 37412, phone 423-622-7232, or e-mail email@example.com.
Donations are tax deductible, and any contributions to OLPH need to have the notation “For Ukrainian family” on the memo line of the check.