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‘We have a big American family now.’ Gainesville families rally to give family fleeing Ukraine a place to call home
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Alina Rudnytska is greeted by residents of Cresswind at Lake Lanier Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at NAPA Auto Fitness on Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

The word “home” is often associated with comfort and safety. When “home” lies more than 5,460 miles from the place one now sleeps, eats, works and learns, one must create a home away from home.

Newcomers to Gainesville, a Ukrainian father, mother and teenage son are doing just that, a large part of their journey a result of the compassion and persistence of local families, individuals, churches and businesses that were looking to help the best way they knew how. 

“We wanted to do something besides sending money, because you never know where the money is going,” said Jack George, who, along with his wife, Mary, began learning how they could sponsor a Ukrainian family and bring them to the United States amid Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia.

“My wife and I were shocked and felt touched by what we were seeing on television,” he said.

The Georges wanted to do something, but they were going to need some help. 

Enter friends Chris and Lois Ehlers, Dr. Zachary and Joanie Taylor, and John and Debra Ulam. All four couples live at Cresswind at Lake Lanier, a 55-plus gated community.

“We all started talking individually and wanted to help,” Chris Ehler said. “It’s just been a blessing and one miracle after another.”

“We felt that we may not be able to help everyone, but we can make a difference for a family,” Lois Ehler added.

Enter the Rudnytskyi family: Hennadii Rudnytskyi, 64, his wife Alina Rudnytska, 43, and their son Anton, 15. 

According to Alina, the family lived in a nine-story apartment building near Boryspil International Airport in Ukraine. Once a popular location, during the war the airport became “an object that was attacked several times by Russia.”

“Our house was the most dangerous in the city,” she said.

Jack George made contact with the family via Welcome.US, which helps bring immigrants from Afghanistan and Ukraine to the United States. He didn’t want to inquire about how to sponsor a Ukrainian family through social media because “the families and individuals aren’t vetted,” he said. 

“There’s a lot of effort to bring families to the United States,” said Jack of the website’s viability, describing the meeting process as “kind of like a dating site.”

With the assurance the Rudnytskyis were who they said they were, the families began  exchanging messages.

The next steps included asking the family if they wanted to be sponsored by the Georges. They agreed and the process began in earnest on July 25, 2022, Alina’s birthday, but not without a lot of help from many others in Gainesville. 

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Hennadii Rudnytskyi chats with residents of Cresswind at Lake Lanier Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at NAPA Auto Fitness on Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
It takes a village

The families at Cresswind pooled the funds and resources necessary for the Rudnytskyis’ journey to America. They declined to disclose the approximate amount of collected funds, but said they totaled “several thousands.”

“All four couples help make the pie,” said Joanie Taylor, whose husband, Dr. Zachary Taylor, spent decades working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before working as district health director for the North Health District 2 in Gainesville. “If one of the pieces fails, then it doesn’t work.”

Dr. Taylor helped the Rudnytskyi family schedule and receive the required medical screenings, tests and vaccinations. 

“I’m glad to be doing my part,” he said.

Joanie was the one who picked up the family from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Sept. 28, 2022, and took them to the apartment secured for them with donated funds and furnished with donated furniture. 

“People have been so generous and we’re so excited to receive all of this help,” Mary George said of the unified community effort.

“It has been a wonderful experience just to see them here and doing so well,” said Joanie Taylor, who remembers the look on Alina’s face when the Rudnytskyis walked into their new home. 

“It was a shock. I had no words,” Alina said. “It was wonderful.” 

Their new home in Gainesville has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, quite the contrast from their two-room apartment in Ukraine.

“Our life in Ukraine is so different,” Hennadii said. 

The donations and assistance continued to come from likely sources such as St. Michael Catholic Church and First Baptist Church, and unlikely sources like NAPA Auto Fitness Automotive and Tire Repair. 

Shop owner Garrett Coulter was approached by the families at Cresswind, all of whom are regular customers at his shop, and agreed to pitch in without hesitation.

“When they called me, I was 100% in. I knew I had to help,” Coulter said.

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A photo of Garrett Coulter, left, of NAPA Auto Fitness Auto Care and Collision, with the Rudnytskyis of Ukraine sits on the counter of the Browns Bridge Road shop Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Coulter was instrumental in acquiring a car for the Rudnytskyis when they arrived in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Coulter said his original goal was to help the family find a car, but he decided to go the extra mile and get them something that would last for a while, restoring a 2012 Toyota Rav 4 at no cost to them.

The parts needed to restore the car to its best condition were donated by NAPA Auto Parts, an Atlanta-based company, and the parent company for Coulter’s independently owned shop. 

The fresh paint job, new headlights and exterior restoration were donated by Presley Gray, the owner of County Line Automotive in Lumpkin County. The entire job typically costs between $2,500-$3,000, according to Gray.

“I always try to give back whenever I can,” Gray said. “It just feels good to do whatever I can.”

Working in the USA

The process of acquiring a work permit in the United States can be daunting for immigrants and their sponsors. Both Jack George and Hennadii Rudnytskyi admitted that there was a lot of paperwork to complete in order to continue moving the process forward.

“That’s not an easy thing to do,” George admits. “There’s a tremendous amount of paperwork.” 

There was also paperwork that Hennadii and Alina needed to fill out on their side. 

“If our papers were difficult to fill out, I imagine it was hard for Jack and Mary, too,” Hennadii said. “They helped us in every way.”

The work permit process can take between five and seven months, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The process once took 90 days before a backlog of applications created a waiting period. 

Hennadii began working at the Fox Factory in Gainesville after receiving his work visa in December 2022. Alina received her work visa in January and is currently looking for a job. 

Working in the U.S., according to Hennadii, who worked as an engineer in Ukraine, is different from working in his home country. But in some ways, it is the same. 

“I work, go home and do it again the next day,” he said with a smile. “It is a very good management (at the Fox Factory); I enjoy working there very much.”

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Anton Rudnytskyi, 15, from Ukraine, walks and talks with Gainesville High principal Jamie Green Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, as school lets out for the day. - photo by Scott Rogers
A big American family

Wearing a red hoodie with “Gainesville High School” written in white letters across the chest, Anton Rudnytskyi looked like any other student on his school campus rather than a youngster who moved halfway across the world less than a year ago. 

When asked what he likes most about living in America, Anton said, “The society. I like that people are friendly here.” 

A quiet, soft-spoken boy, Anton’s face lights up when he sees his favorite teacher, Chandra Karnati, the AP calculus, research and computer science teacher at Gainesville High School. The pair have grown close because of a shared love for computers, said Karnati. 

“Anton is a special student,” Karnati explained as he shared stories of how he often finishes his classwork in AP computer science almost as soon as Karnati is done assigning it. 

“Anton is gifted in coding and sometimes shows me a few things,” Karnati said. “He might be ready to take a Java certification this summer.” 

The school’s international student support coordinator, Carrie McGaritty, isn’t surprised that Anton has assimilated as well as he has, both in and out of the classroom. 

“He’s an incredible student leader,” she said. 

Gainesville High School Principal Jamie Green said Anton is “held in high regard by his teachers” and is “thriving academically and socially.”

To the Rudnytskyis, the educators, families and individuals who helped them transition into American life are more than just kind-hearted people; they are family. 

“We are very happy here,” Alina said about living in Gainesville. “We have a big American family now.”

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Gainesville High School student Anton Rudnytskyi, 15, from Ukraine, jokes around with Dr. Chandra Karnati Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in the school's media center. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Anton Rudnytskyi, 15, from Ukraine, is greeted by Gainesville High administrative assistant Mindy Ferran, left, and international student support coordinator Carrie McGarity Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, as school lets out for the day. - photo by Scott Rogers