Like thousands of other refugees, Viktoria Rozum, her 16-year-old son Yegor Rozum, and Viktoria’s mother Nina Rozum were looking for a way out of war-torn Ukraine.
“I had a good job in Ukraine. I worked in a commercial bank, my mother worked in a state kindergarten, and my son studied at school and had good grades. My son knows history well and participated in school Olympiads,” Viktoria said.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
“Our lives changed in one day,” Viktoria said. “It is terrible. Putin is bombing our city. We are forced to flee. Thanks to American President Biden, we are now safe.”
Viktoria and her family found their way out of Ukraine with the help of Burlington resident Travis Pilch. He took them into his home about a month ago, and Yegor is set to start school later this month.
Despite the language barrier, the Rozums are starting to feel right at home. And Pilch feels like he has a new, extended family.
“I certainly got lucky with them,” Pilch said. “We’re good for each other. I’m much more active, I’m eating much better. I’m just sorry my improvement had to come at the expense of them leaving their country.”
After the family settled into Travis’s home, he took them on a local sightseeing tour — a crash course in American culture. Viktoria described the experience as intense. Her English is limited, so she discussed her experience through a translation app.
“For the first time, I met American culture, which I had only seen in movies and heard in music. I saw for the first time what America is like and how to live in it,” she said. “I am very grateful to Travis, who gave me the opportunity to be here at all and see everything with my own eyes. During this period, I visited museums, ate American fast food, and just had a great time helping Travis.”
Now that Viktoria and her family have started to settle in, they plan on embracing their new American home.
“I want to learn English and get a job,” she said. “I want to thank the state of Iowa and pay taxes, be grateful to the USA for protecting Ukrainians from war and helping my country Ukraine in the fight for democracy and against the empire.”
Pilch is a strong supporter of Ukraine. A native of Ohio, Pilch moved to Burlington four years ago into a large house — a house far too large for one person.
“I started to feel kind of foolish. I’m paying for the heat. I’m paying for the taxes,” he said.
Pilch initially tried to take in Afghan refugees but would have needed a second house to meet their cultural needs.
“Unfortunately, the Ukraine crisis came along. So I thought, ‘Let me try again,’” Pilch said.
If Pilch had waited until April, he could have taken advantage of a government program allowing Americans to sponsor Ukrainian refugees. They stay temporarily in the United States under a system known as ‘humanitarian parole. That didn’t exist when Pilch started the process last year, so he took a chance and posted a request for Ukrainian refugees on Facebook.
Pilch was immediately bombarded with messages, he said, and most of them were likely scammers. Pilch removed the request 15 minutes later, but not before he received a message from Viktoria asking for help. He hoped she wasn’t a scammer.
“We started talking, and we talked for a month and worked on the paperwork together,” Pilch said.
The first step, getting the Rozum family passports, took more than six months. The customs and government paperwork was a nightmare of seemingly unending volume, Pilch said. It was so complicated that he considered hiring a lawyer. Pilch is a schoolteacher in a tiny Iowa town about two hours north of Burlington and was able to muddle his way through.
Then, it was a matter of getting a family of three and their cat from Ukraine to Iowa. There are no flights in or out of Ukraine because of the fighting. They had to travel to Poland to take a flight from there.
As much as Pilch enjoys having the Rozums in his house, he wants to make it clear that they don’t owe him anything. He noted that many Ukrainian refugees leave their host families for farm field work. They are free to come and go as they please.
“They aren’t indentured servants. They aren’t tied to me,” Pilch said.
Viktoria and her family can stay in America for two years, then their status will be evaluated. That’s in the future. Right now, the Rozum family are proud Americans. They can’t wait to absorb their new culture.
“Travis has done incredible things for our family. He saved me from the war and allowed my son to study and have a childhood,” Viktoria said.
There will be a fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees on Aug. 21 at noon at the city park in Denmark. There will be grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and chips. Feel free to bring a side dish or a dessert. Whiskey Friends will begin entertaining with live music at 1 p.m. All donations will go to the Ukrainian refugee relief fund created by Dave Roth to benefit Ukrainian refugees in Hungary. This is a non-political event hosted by the Lee County Democratic Party. If you have any questions, please call Mary Jo at 319-526-3160.