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Ukrainian sisters reunite with help of Flossmoor host family

Jeanne Kryszyn’s online post wasn’t wordy or sentimental. The Homewood resident simply stated her request: She needed a temporary home for a young woman and her 2-year-old child hoping to flee the war in Ukraine. One room, near the train.

It took a few months, but Flossmoor residents Margaret Hagerman and Zeph Lawrence responded. In mid-November, the couple welcomed Olya Spiro and her toddler daughter, Mia, into their home.

Spiro said they had been living with her parents and siblings in a small village in Western Ukraine. The area is relatively safe, she said, but uncomfortably close to the border with Belarus. 

“I needed to get Mia out of there,” Spiro said. “I wouldn’t forgive myself if something happened to her.”

Sisters from Ukraine, Valentyna Prynak and Olya Spiro, bottom row center and right, live with their hosts, Margaret Hagerman and Zeph Lawrence, top row center and right. Connecting them all together were Jeanne and Paul Kryszyn, bottom row and top row left. Spiro’s daughter, 2-year-old Mia, hides behind her mom. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)

It was a Santa Maria medallion that propelled Kryszyn into finding housing for Spiro. She noticed the religious medal around the neck of Spiro’s sister, Valentyna Prymak, while shopping at a farmstand. Prymak was working there, and the two struck up a conversation when Kryszyn noted her Ukrainian accent.

Kryszyn asked about her situation, and wondered how Prymak was making her way in the United States.

“I said, ‘I’m OK, but I really want my sister to come here,’” Prymak said. “I already had a place at my cousin’s house, but they didn’t have any more room for Olya. Jeanne promised to find a place for us, which she did.”

Now both sisters were safe in the United States; and Prymak often rode the train from Chicago to visit her sister and niece in Flossmoor. During these visits, Hagerman and Lawrence got to know both sisters and little Mia.

“Valentyna would come over and visit, and then she would have to leave and everyone would be very sad,” Hagerman said. “Olya would be sad and Mia would be sad, and we would feel sad that they were sad. So we said, ‘Valentyna should just come live with us too.’”

Prymak agreed, and now the sisters live together in one room along with Mia. They said it’s comforting, being close to one another while their parents and other sister and brother are living far away, in a country at war.

Support for household and spirit

To help get her houseguests outfitted – especially 2-year-old Mia – Hagerman placed a request for items on a neighborhood Facebook page. Several people donated furniture and supplies, she said, including a crib, clothes and toys. 

“We are super grateful and happy that people are so generous and kind here,” Spiro said. “We are so grateful for Zeph and Margaret for having us here. We try to help in any way we can, but the only way we can help is to clean the house.”

This trade-off works well for Hagerman, who is a retired certified public accountant. She laughed and said cleaning is among her least favorite things to do, that she’d “rather do taxes, run payroll or call the IRS.”

Sisters from Ukraine Olya Spiro, left, and Valentyna Prynak, share a laugh with their host, Flossmoor resident Margaret Hagerman. Prynak holds Spiro’s daughter, 2-year-old Mia. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)

Beyond the exchange of life’s practical necessities, Lawrence said hosting the sisters has been a pleasure. 

“Just their presence is fantastic,” he said. “I wish I could write a letter to their parents – but they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Ukrainian – for having brought up two wonderful young ladies.”

Hagerman and Lawrence don’t have any children, and they said the sisters bring a youthful energy into their home.

“There’s a light in the house,” Hagerman said. “These folks are darn near young enough to be our grandkids. They’re such good company. They’re just nice people to be with.”

Facing an uncertain future

Now that they’ve made it out of Ukraine, Prynak and Spiro said it’s hard to know what will happen next. They must acclimate to their new lives in the United States while feeling emotionally tied, and in a desperate way, to their home country.

The village where their parents live is regularly without electricity, cutting off light, heat and hot water, along with the Internet access they use to stay connected with family. When the power stays off for hours and days, villagers can light fires in their homes, Prynak said, while friends in the city must “put on every item of clothing they own” to stay warm.

“We don’t know what will happen with Ukraine,” Spiro said. “We want to begin life here, but we can’t be 100% sure about the future. We can’t really have fun. We can’t be happy knowing what’s happening there.”

Spiro and Prynak are not technically “refugees.” Their legal status is as humanitarian parolees through the program Uniting for Ukraine by U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services.

Of the two sisters, Spiro, 27, has more familiarity with the United States, having previously lived here for four years while working as an au pair. Now she deals with some health problems, and spends much of her time caring for Mia. She has a high level of English fluency, and was a language tutor in Ukraine.

Before leaving Ukraine, Prynak, 25, lived in Kiev and was a nurse who worked as a phlebotomist. She may pursue getting an American nursing degree, but said her blood-drawing days are over. In the meantime she is looking for an entry-level position, hopefully at a medical or dental practice.

Support from new American friends

To curb homesickness, Hagerman and Lawrence recently took their trio of houseguests to Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. It felt good to speak with other Ukrainians in their native language, they said, and to eat familiar dishes. 

Spiro said she was especially excited to see her daughter eat enthusiastically at the restaurant, as Mia has had a difficult time adjusting to American food. Thankfully she quickly came around to liking the family pets — and playing on Lawrence’s iPad.

Jeanne Kryszyn discusses potential job options for Valentyna Prynak, with her sister Olya Spiro at the home of the Ukrainian sisters’ Flossmoor hosts, Margaret Hagerman and Zeph Lawrence. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)

Kryszyn supports the sisters however she can, buying a car seat for Mia, helping Spiro follow up with doctor appointments, and brainstorming with Prynak about job opportunities. They affectionately call Kryszyn their “godmother.”

“I believe in God, and he brought us together,” Prynak said.

While they initially felt uncertain about taking in people who were refugees of war, Hagerman said she and Lawrence are happy they made the decision to help. They had the space and time to host these sisters in need, and it is working well.

“I would like to encourage people to take a chance on helping someone this way,” Hagerman said. “I understand for some people it’s daunting to have someone you don’t know living under your roof. If people have the room, and inclination, try it.” 

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