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Ukrainian mom's visit to the US turned into a mission to help refugees

What started as visit to her son in Chicago is now a mission to help other Ukrainian refugees settle there.
Ukrainian mom's visit to the US turned into a mission to help refugees
Posted at 8:26 PM, Mar 23, 2023

In the heart of Chicago's Ukrainian village, refugees are starting new lives, helping each other settle in the Windy City after being displaced by the war.

Just one week before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, 46-year-old Natalya Zavizistup came to Chicago to visit her son, Nikita. She never went back home.

The rest of their family is still in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, less than 20 miles from the Russian border. Family members have been sending terrifying photos of the city, which has been heavily bombed and shelled by Russian troops who tried for months to seize it.

"My father is still in Kharkiv. My grandfather is still in Kharkiv. My uncle is in Kharkiv. It's really hard," Nikita Zavizistup said.

Natalya Zavizistup tries to call her 84-year-old father every single day, and when he doesn't pick up, her mind goes to the same dark place it was in in the first weeks of the Russian invasion.

"I felt only fear — fear and horror," she said.

Her only consolation was being with her son, who is a senior at the University of Illinois Chicago.

SEE MORE: They opened their home to Ukrainians. Now it's time to say goodbye

One day Nikita Zavizistup told his mother to reach out to others in the Chicago Ukrainian community to feel less alone. That's how she found her job as a case manager at the SelfReliance Association — a bustling nonprofit where newly arrived Ukrainians get free assistance on things like finding an apartment, enrolling in English classes and applying for work permits.

"I'm so proud to help refugees," Natalya Zavizistup said. "I smile when people smile too. I see happiness in their eyes."

Biden administration officials told Scripps News the U.S. has admitted nearly 300,000 Ukrainian refugees since the war began. In Chicago, the existing Ukrainian community is going above and beyond to help integrate the tens of thousands of new arrivals.

"I think it's a love and respect for the culture and our heritage, where we come from," said Walter Tun, the president of the SelfReliance Association. 

Tun says his organization has assisted well over 10,000 refugees since the war broke out. It's also grown from one to 16 full-time employees, most of them refugees.

"What better place to choose from than people that have empathy and have been through the same horrors that the people that they're trying to help?" Tun said.

Helping people is what gave Natalya Zavizistup hope and confidence.

"I believe in myself now," she said.

And though she's still afraid for her homeland and her family left behind, she now believes in victory and in one day safely returning home.

"I believe in our defenders and believe in Ukraine, and glory to Ukraine," she said.

SEE MORE: A Chicago school is helping Ukrainian refugee kids feel at home

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