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Ukrainian refugees arrive in Keokuk

Nataliia and Andrii Sotsenko with Louise Orozco of Keokuk, who is one of the founders of the Keokuk Refugee Coalition.
Will Buss
Nataliia and Andrii Sotsenko with Louise Orozco of Keokuk, who is one of the founders of the Keokuk Refugee Coalition.

Andrii and Nataliia Sotsenko are far from home but happy to be in southeast Iowa.

The couple fled their home in Ukraine months ago when the Russian army occupied their hometown, the port city of Kherson, located near the Black Sea and the Dnieper River in western Ukraine.

Andrii said he and his wife had to leave the city of 300,000 when they could no longer access basic necessities.

“There was no electricity, no food, no water,” he said.

The couple learned the U.S. government was accepting Ukrainian refugees. Andrii said many Ukrainians who have fled their country go to Europe instead of the United States because it is more expensive to live in America. But he and his wife found a group of residents in Keokuk who wanted to help them.

This group is the Keokuk Refugee Coalition, which formed after like-minded Keokuk residents met early this year to see how they can help those seeking refuge from Ukraine. The coalition has partnered with the Keokuk Area Community Foundation and the Keokuk Christian Ministerial Association to help Ukrainian refugees find shelter and employment.

Andrii said the coalition has provided he and Nataliia with an apartment in Keokuk, food, and household items.

“We escaped from Kherson and the Ukraine territory and went to Crimea and then to Finland and got temporary housing,” he said. “And after a few months, we found a sponsorship through and found Miss Louise.”

“Miss Louise” is Louise Orozco, one of the founders of the refugee coalition, and is the website where Andrii and Nataliia learned about the refugee program.

Orozco has gotten to know Andrii and Nataliia for the past two weeks and has been helping them get settled in Keokuk, where she hopes the couple can make themselves feel at home.

“That was one of the first things you talked about,” Orozco said to Andrii, about how the coalition has helped the couple find a temporary home in Keokuk. “Keokuk is on the river, and that kind of reminds you of home because it is on the river.”

They left their home, family, and jobs behind. Both their fathers have remained in Ukraine while their mothers and siblings have fled to Finland, Poland, and Germany. The couple brought as many of their belongings as they could, including their cat. Andrii said they all survived the long journey.

“We brought our cat, and he traveled by car, by bus, by plane, by ship,” he said.

The couple’s journey to the United States first took them to New York, where they spent three days and visited the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center. They then flew to Chicago, and then traveled to Burlington, Iowa before finally arriving in Keokuk.

Andrii and Nataliia have been in Keokuk for the past two weeks and are working to establish health insurance, get driver’s licenses, and secure employment. The two 27-year-olds are planning to spend at least the next two years in the southeastern Iowa community.

In Ukraine, the couple spoke both Ukrainian and Russian. Andrii worked as a seaman for the past five years and learned to speak English while working on cruise ships.

Nataliia is a teacher who taught world history and Ukrainian history. Orozco said the coalition is working to help arrange English classes for Nataliia at Southeastern Community College in Keokuk.

When asked what they have enjoyed most about their first trip and stay in the United States, both said, in English, their appreciation for the large portions American restaurants serve.

“Big-size cappuccino,” Nataliia said, smiling and holding up her large paper cup.

“Giant-size dishes,” Andrii said, in agreement.

The couple is far from home and their family, but they are happy to be away from their war-torn country.

“Today's circumstances bring us here,” Andrii said. “So, we like this community here. It’s good. Many people helped us.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.