CONCORD, N.H. — The process wasn’t so different from online dating: perusing the profiles of strangers online and hoping for a good match.
But Nodira Uhlanova and Laura Dow weren’t looking for romance when they met online. Uhlanova fled from Ukraine a few months after Russia invaded, and was looking for a sponsor. Dow, a former volunteer with the Peace Corps, had an extra room in her home and was willing to help.
The two turned out to be a good match.
Uhlanova moved in to Dow’s two-bedroom apartment in Portsmouth in March. And they are having a blast.
“For me, it’s very comfortable,” Uhlanova, 27, said. “I like living together with Laura. It’s a good connection.”
At first, some people assumed they were romantically involved (Dow says they are each dating other people). But a close friendship has definitely developed. They have dinner together, attend concerts, and hang out with each other and with Dow’s family. According to Dow, the two have a lot in common.
“She does not conform,” Dow, 43, said. “She is a super free, independent, strong woman, and so am I, and I think that came through, through our matching.”
The women met online about a year ago, through Welcome Connect, a website that helps connect people seeking refuge with Americans willing to be sponsors.
After she matched with Dow, Uhlanova came to the US through a program called Uniting for Ukraine, which was announced by the Biden Administration in April 2022. The program allows Ukrainians to stay in the US for two years, if they have a sponsor who agrees to provide financial support. The model is meant to accommodate more people than the traditional process, which involves going through the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement and getting picked up at the airport by a caseworker.
“It’s a needed thing,” Henry Harris, the managing director of the International Institute of New England’s Manchester office, said of Uniting for Ukraine, noting that it relieved some of the pressure on resettlement agencies like his. Harris estimates around 900 Ukrainian refugees are in New Hampshire, and about 200 are in the Manchester area.
But the sponsorship model does raise some concerns, he said. “There’s definitely a power distribution imbalance,” Harris said. Refugees can be “totally dependent on someone” and they’re not yet equipped to navigate the US on their own.
Some Ukrainians who came through Uniting for Ukraine ended up homeless, according to the New York Times. Harris said he has heard of cases in New Hampshire where a refugee wanted to leave their sponsor (the program does not require them to stay with their sponsor). Issues can arise for the sponsor as well: It can difficult to open one’s home to a stranger.
“When it’s safety issue or bad friction we get a little more involved and find other solutions,” he said.
But, he added, “For the most part, there’s been a lot of success stories.”
With Welcome Connect, the refugee makes the first move, which is intended to lessen the power imbalance in the relationship, according to Anya McMurray, president and COO of Welcome.US, the nonprofit that launched Welcome Connect in 2021 after the fall of Kabul.
“We built it out so that the Ukrainian is the one who was looking at the American sponsors and initiates the communication and the engagement,” she said.
Around 2,100 people have found matches through Welcome.US, according to Welcome.US, and around 130 of those people landed in New England.
McMurray said the federal government conducts a background check on every person coming through the system. And she said while some sponsors do host Ukrainians in their home, usually sponsors help them find an apartment or another place to live.
“We think it is a really powerful opportunity for Americans to help. We think it is a bridge to safety for hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise have many worse options,” McMurray said.
She said that according to the latest numbers provided by the federal government, 156,800 Ukrainians have come to the US through Uniting for Ukraine as of Sept. 26, and over 300,000 Ukrainians have found an American sponsor and filed an application.
Dow learned about Welcome Connect from reading a New York Times article, completed a training on sponsorship, and posted that her small apartment could accommodate one other single person.
“Basically, ‘independent woman looking for another person,’ and then Nodira responded,” she said. After getting to know each other online, Dow said becoming a sponsor was an easy decision.
The two women started chatting on WhatsApp. For Uhlanova, safety was a top concern, which was part of the appeal of New Hampshire, and especially Portsmouth, where Dow lives. “We don’t lock our doors. We feel very safe here,” Dow said. Uhlanova said Portsmouth is actually quite similar to Lviv, where she’s originally from.
Uhlanova moved in with Dow in March. Dow said at first the two would communicate more through writing and texting apps. Uhlanova said her English was “so, so bad” at first, which made it hard to communicate.
She’s taking English classes several days a week and working at a senior living home that’s within walking distance from Dow’s apartment. She’s found a Ukrainian community and feels she has a good support system in the area. Dow is learning more of Uhlanova’s story as Uhlanova’s English improves.
“Not everyone is as lucky,” Uhlanova said. “Maybe they don’t have a good sponsor, maybe they don’t have a good job, maybe their mental health isn’t good.”
“Me, I think my mental health now it’s normal,” she said. She said she gets sad sometimes, but that’s normal.
“I’m not very happy because my country it’s every time broken,” she said.
And although she’s found safety and work in the US, she still plans a future in Ukraine. She thinks of her time in the US as temporary — a place to learn skills, so ultimately she can go home stronger and help her country rebuild.
“She wants nothing more than to go back home,” Dow said. “She thinks that her home is the most perfect, beautiful place in the world.”