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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Uniting for Ukraine: Seniors spearhead support for refugee families

Apr 28, 2024 08:51AM ● By Leanne Goebel
Friends of Ukraine

Larysa Burdiug and her daughter, Daria, and Nataliia Kovaliv with Friends of Ukraine supporters Yvonne Green and Jeanne Motley. Photo by Leanne Goebel

Editor's Note: Due to an editorial oversight, please note that the print edition contains a couple of factual inaccuracies which have been rectified in our online version. Specifically, the Kovaliv family moved to Montrose in August 2022, not July as previously stated. Additionally, the Kovalivs and the Burdiugs do not reside in the same household.

Last October, Nataliia Kovaliv drove 1,100 miles from Montrose to Houston with her daughters, Oleksandra, Anna and Mary, to renew the girls’ Ukrainian passports at the nearest embassy. On the return trip, a flat tire at midnight led her to a Decatur repair shop for an early morning fix while her daughters waited at a nearby motel. Although inconvenient, this issue was minor compared to their escape from Ukraine during the Russian invasion.

Recounting tragic stories—one of a family killed in their home by a bomb, another of a young boy killed while playing in his yard—Kovaliv expressed relief that she’s not in Ukraine, living in fear.

“At least I am not there looking up at the sky, wondering if a bomb will fall and hit us. How do I protect my children?” said Kovaliv, 46. “Compared to what is happening in Ukraine, what I’m going through is an adventure.”

Bill and Nancy Ignatow are the Kovalivs’ U.S. sponsors through the Uniting for Ukraine program.

Kovaliv and her daughters are in the U.S. as humanitarian parolees under the Uniting for Ukraine program (U4U), which grants them a two-year residency with the support of an American sponsor. They've been living in Montrose since August 2022 with assistance from their sponsors Bill and Nancy Ignatow and Friends of Ukraine, an organization made up largely of retired seniors. This group dedicates time and resources to helping Ukrainian refugees integrate into American life, supporting them until they can safely return home.


In March 2022, Kovaliv, her children and their family dog, Rocky, fled their apartment in Ivano-Frankivsk for the Netherlands after witnessing bombings nearby. They were invited by Kovaliv's former colleague and his wife, who provided refuge for her and her daughters in their home.

While in the Netherlands, Kovaliv was granted entry into the U.S. She briefly returned to Ukraine to collect necessary documents for her dog and her husband, celebrated her mother’s 70th birthday and saw her father, unknowingly, for the last time.

The family then traveled to Poland and Munich before flying to the U.S., landing in Newark, then Chicago and ultimately reaching Montrose. 

After settling in the U.S., Kovaliv, who holds degrees in English philology and Ukrainian law and is fluent in three languages, faced a series of personal losses: her marriage ended, her diabetic father passed away and her compassionate host in the Netherlands died from cancer. 

Although she is fluent in English, it was Kovaliv’s husband—who does not speak the language—who received the family's work permit. With a background in finance, he found it challenging to secure employment due to the language barrier. Uncomfortable with dependency and struggling with depression, he ultimately returned to Ukraine.

Kovaliv’s daughter Anna still counts the days since her father left. But in his absence, Kovaliv was finally able to obtain her work permit and is now employed with the Montrose County School District as a Family Advocate for the Early Childhood Centers.

Life in Montrose starkly contrasts with Kovaliv’s former life in Ukraine, where she and her daughters enjoyed all the conveniences of city living. Larysa Burdiug, 50, and her daughter Daria, 14, face a similar transition.

Also in Montrose under the same U4U program, the Burdiugs are from Kherson, a port city that was temporarily occupied by Russia before being recaptured by Ukrainian soldiers. Nevertheless, Kherson continues to be a target of bombings. To protect Burdiug and Daria from the threat of rape and kidnapping, she and her husband made the difficult decision for them to leave Ukraine. 

Leaving behind her husband, elderly parents and friends, Burdiug and her daughter traveled from Kherson to Zaporizhzhia, then to Kyiv, crossing into Poland before flying to the U.S. They arrived in Chicago and then moved to Montrose in June 2023. 

Nataliia and family join Friends of Ukraine in welcoming Larysa and Daria to Montrose.

Burdiug was an economist and buyer in the oncology department of a local hospital, which suffered damage during the occupation. With limited English and no driving skills, she relies heavily on the generosity of volunteers from Friends of Ukraine for transportation to her job, volunteer work at Shepherd’s Hand, ESL classes, grocery shopping and medical appointments. 


The Burdiugs and Kovalivs both live in Montrose. While Friends of the Ukraine benefits from the generosity of several donors, additional funds are still needed. 

Kovaliv’s vehicle is burning oil, highlighting her need for a trustworthy, affordable mechanic. Burdiug is seeking new employment opportunities, as her seasonal house cleaning job in Telluride recently ended. She would love a job cooking or working with a caterer or event planner. As the school year concludes, the four girls need enriching summer activities. Donations for recreation center memberships or funding for music and art lessons would be greatly appreciated. 

From back: Nataliia, Larysa, Daria, Oleksandra Mary and Anna dancing at the Ute Museum’s Culture Fest in Montrose.

Volunteers spend countless hours helping the Kovalivs and Burdiugs navigate complex government systems, manage appointments and deal with issues like broken appliances. However, the most critical need is for additional drivers. 

Michelle Prentice-Leslie, 77, is the president of Friends of Ukraine, but she emphasized that the group operates without membership dues or traditional officers. 

“We exist for the duration of the war to welcome and support Ukrainian refugee families,” she said. “Most members retired from full-time employment so they have time, wisdom and resources to share.”

Clay Goldberg, 73, and his wife, Shannon Neil, 78, are committed supporters of Friends of the Ukraine.

“We are [primarily] involved financially,” Goldberg noted, “but we attend the meetings and do what we can.” 

He discussed his plans to provide garden soil and help clean up the yard so that Burdiug could plant a garden. 

Goldberg also shared the personal connection that drives their support for Ukrainian families like the Burdiugs and Kovalivs. 

“When the war broke out, it really hit us hard because we have ancestors from that region,” he said, adding, “I think the Ukraine war is just blatantly unfair. All this was none of their choosing. They’re just doing the best they can to survive.” 


Despite adjusting to their new life in Montrose, Kovaliv and Burdiug hold onto the hope of returning home once the war ends. 

“We do miss our country and our relatives a lot,” said Kovaliv. 

Burdiug left behind a newly built home, which she never had the chance to move into. 

"I went from a new home to homeless," Burdiug said, with Kovaliv translating.

Kovaliv addressed common misconceptions about the type of aid Ukraine needs. While some suggest sending bread, she clarified that Ukraine, being one of the top grain exporters globally, does not lack food but urgently needs weapons and military support.

“I have very positive thoughts about yesterday’s news,” Kovaliv remarked concerning the $61 billion aid package for Ukraine recently approved by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. “The aid will help slow Russia’s growing advances and will help Ukrainians to regain the offensive.”

When discussing their desires for their country, Burdiug voiced with conviction, "Even though I can speak Russian, I am not Russian and I will never be Russian."

Kovaliv echoed this sentiment with her hopes for the future.

“All my hopes and prayers are for my country to regain its territory and for Ukrainians to feel safe there,” she said. “When Russia is punished for the war crimes it committed against my countrymen and is forever deterred from invading again, we’ll see what hopes each of my family members has.”

As the end of their two-year residency under the U4U program approaches, Kovaliv and her daughters have been granted an extension until April 2025. 

Goldberg emphasized the challenges they face: “There are a lot of hoops to jump through in order to stay [in the U.S.]. Put yourself in their shoes. If we don't support them, what's going to happen? Are we just going to let Russia start to take over? You have to put your help somewhere in the world, and there are a lot of causes to support, but I find it easy to be motivated to support them.” 

To volunteer or donate, contact:

Michelle Prentice-Leslie at [email protected]

EDITOR’S NOTE: These individuals from Ukraine are not technically considered refugees as defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A refugee is someone who has fled their native country due to persecution or discrimination. Instead, these individuals are classified as humanitarian parolees, a designation for those forced to leave their country by a foreign aggressor.