In Ukraine, Olena had a fulfilling job in real estate and an apartment she loved. The only time she had ever left her home city of Zaporizhzhia was to go on vacation.
But after the war with Russia began in February 2022, Olena, who asked to be identified by her first name only for privacy, became scared for the safety of her young daughter and made the most difficult decision of her life: to flee her home.
She and her daughter left Zaporizhzhia abruptly in March after Russian forces took over a nearby nuclear power station. They took only passports, her daughter’s birth certificate, and few other items before driving to western Ukraine and then to Germany.
In April, the Biden administration launched the Uniting for Ukraine program, which helped Olena and her daughter seek refuge in the United States. They arrived in late June, staying with childhood friends in Arlington until January, when their hosts had to bring their own parents to the country from Ukraine.
As Olena looked to restart life in a new country in her own home, she found a community willing to step up to assist her along the way. Connecting on Facebook, Olena became friends with Arlington resident Olga Yulikova, who helped her secure an apartment and turned to the town’s “Everything is Free” Facebook group for donations to furnish the place.
Arlington residents overwhelmingly answered her request. In a matter of days, the previously bare apartment had a fridge, coffee maker, queen-sized mattress, dish soap, and more essentials for Olena and her daughter.
“I’m completely overwhelmed, and I’m so grateful for all the help,” Olena told the Globe, with Yulikova translating. “It’s really important for me to be able to think of the future even though my present is uncertain.”
Yulikova, who immigrated from Moscow as a refugee in 1989, had been organizing humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees since the war began last year.
She and Olena became close friends after meeting online, sharing stories over cups of coffee, and connecting over the discovery that Yulikova’s great-grandmother hailed from Olena’s hometown in Ukraine.
“I cannot stop the war. I’m very much against it,” Yulikova said. “I cannot save the Ukrainian people that are suffering. I can only help one or two individuals.”
Yulikova posted her request for donations or small amounts of money in the community Facebook group on Jan. 22, and set up a wish list, listing a drop-off location for donated items.
“She [had] an empty apartment with no money,” Yulikova said. “She’s very happy, but she [didn’t] really have a mattress to sleep on. So I figured I’ll put it on our Arlington lists, just like I did for everything else when I was collecting donations to be sent to Ukraine.”
Daniel Icekson, a 54-year-old Arlington resident and friend of Yulikova, had been following Olena’s story after they had met briefly months before. The tragedy of the war in Ukraine moved Icekson, whose relatives perished in the Holocaust.
When he heard Olena was looking for donations, Icekson began disassembling a large wardrobe, planning to reassemble it in Olena’s apartment.
“I thought, Why not? We have this extra wardrobe. We’ll just give it away,” Icekson said. “If I can just contribute in a small way to one family, then I guess that’s a good thing.”
Yulikova said she initially worried about how she and Olena would transport hefty items like a kitchen table and a jumbo bean bag into the apartment by themselves. But, according to Yulikova, “people came out of the woodwork” to help.
“[They] said ‘Oh, no problem. I will drive. I will bring. I will assemble, disassemble,’” she said. “People just volunteer.”
While she knew Icekson, the majority of donors were complete strangers to Yulikova, something she said helped restore her lost faith in humanity.
“It’s such a catastrophe that in the 21st century, we start this war of brutality,” she said. “How’s that possible? … I don’t have the answers. But what I do know is there are so many kind and caring people in my immediate, if virtual, community.”
Though her young daughter has immersed herself in school, performing with the local theater, and learning English, Olena remains troubled by her separation from her son and father, who remain in Ukraine to support the army.
“Every day, I don’t know if my son and my father will live another day,” she said. “Every day I keep the phone at my fingertips and check in on them 100 times a day.”
With her life uprooted and half of her family thousands of miles away, Olena said she is grateful for the community that has rallied around her in Arlington.
“I feel with my heart that people are reaching out with a hug and a shoulder to cry on,” she said. “My city, Zaporizhzhia, is constantly under attack. … Everybody is under attack and I feel privileged to be supported by this community.”