Veronika Pavliutina has two words for the people of Philadelphia: thank you.
Really, she said. She is more than grateful.
Since the story of her family’s frantic escape from Ukraine appeared in The Inquirer on May 6 – she and her three young children landing in the home of strangers, a Mount Airy couple eager to help refugees – they were showered with gifts, services, goods and money.
“I wouldn’t expect this much, ever,” Pavliutina said, her voice contagious.
The family one GoFundMe page, which had stalled at around $9,000, quickly surpassed its target of $20,000. She used some of the money to buy a used car, a Subaru Outback, which gave her family freedom and mobility.
The landlords have reached out to talk about renting him an apartment – so far impossible, given Pavliutina’s lack of credit rating and work history in this country. A possibility has arisen in Willow Grove.
A Flourtown day camp offered free summer camp for children, Polina, 14, Nina, 11, and Yegor, 8. Another wants to provide sports equipment. A business support company will provide free accounting and bookkeeping services once Pavliutina restarts her cooking studio, the culinary arts business she ran in Ukraine.
“I can feel it,” Nina said, describing her realization that local residents care about the plight of the family. “I have the impression that people are nice here.
It is a shock, the mother and children said, to discover that Americans will help a family they have never met, and a miracle that they have found safety in Philadelphia at a time when millions of people are trapped in Ukraine or flee for their lives.
“It was a no-brainer to contact them,” said Danny Collins, co-owner and director of Flourtown summer day camp, who took action after reading the Inquirer story. “Seeing this family go through what they’re going through…”
At camp, children can participate in activities ranging from swimming and basketball to archery and crafts. Hopefully, Collins said, having fun with other kids will help them adjust to a new life in a new country.
The family lived in the southern port of Odessa, “the pearl of the Black Sea”, famous for its markets, operas and theaters. Russia struck the city on the first day of the invasion, February 24, blowing up warehouses and air defense systems and killing at least 22 people.
Pavliutina immediately loaded the children into the car and headed southwest, crossing the Romanian border and on to friends in Belgrade, Serbia.
Around the world in Philadelphia, real estate agent Richard McIlhenny and his wife, preschool teacher Marissa Vergnetti, watched the war unfold on television. They wanted to help people coming out of Ukraine.
McIlhenny contacted a close friend who had lived in Ukraine, to see if he knew anyone who needed a place to live. It turned out that the friend’s wife was friends with a woman who ran a cooking workshop, who had fled with her children.
The two families met via Zoom. Within days, Pavliutina and her children were preparing to leave for the United States.
She told her children, “Let’s be ready for anything. And be grateful for everything. Because we don’t have much.
They got off a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on March 15.
The food arrived by the bagful – a big help for a household that suddenly grew by four at a time when grocery prices are soaring. The other day, someone dropped off a huge ham explaining that she had won a raffle prize. And that she was a vegetarian.
Others called or wrote to share a positive word or promise to sign up for cooking classes.
“It just really lifted my heart,” Vergnetti said. “Knowing that people are really good people and that they care.”
Philadelphia has long carried its reputation as a tough place, slow to warm up, quick to fight, unable to forgive. Ask Ben Simmons. It’s not often mentioned that the opposite is also true, that to be loved in Philadelphia is to be loved forever. Ask Nick Foles.
“I feel like they’ve put their arms around Veronika and the family,” Vergnetti said.
Gary Fredericks, CEO of OnPoint Partners LLC, a Wilmington-based company that provides accounting and bookkeeping services to small businesses, offered to provide free back-office support and coaching when Veronika restarts her studio.
“I knew the people of Philadelphia would help, they always do,” he said. “I just said to myself that nobody would take care of the commercial side. …I thought helping him get his business going again and running it would give him purpose.
People have given away hundreds of dollars in Target and Amazon gift cards. A dentist offered to take care of Polina’s braces. Ukrainian American families in the area said they would try to connect children, who may feel isolated by their lack of English, with Russian speakers and Ukrainians.
A Ukrainian American donated a sewing machine. This is a big help, said Pavliutina, because in Ukraine she embroidered napkins and tablecloths for her studio, and she wants to do the same here.
The next big step is finding an apartment. And determine where the children will go to school in the fall. She is awaiting approval for her Temporary Protected Status, granted to Ukrainians in the United States by President Joe Biden, which comes with a work permit.
The car she left in Serbia will be put up for sale. His house in Odessa is still standing and his father, who like his brother is still in Ukraine, will probably move there.
His house is closer to the city center, presumably safer, as his neighborhood was bombed. The city remains under fire, its position in the Black Sea being of strategic importance for Russia.
Twenty years ago, Pavliutina briefly lived in northern New Jersey, when her ex-husband’s job brought them to the United States. After their breakup, she sometimes came here to visit friends. The practical effect was that on the day of the Russian invasion, she held a valid visa to enter the United States.
Will she return to Ukraine? She does not know. For now, the challenges of the moment are enough.
She wrote a list of people she has to thank. And hope she finds the words.
“People, my God,” Pavliutina said. “I guess that’s why humanity is still there, because there are people who would help and be generous.”