A wartime refuge

woman standing in front of FLCC Geneva Campus Cneter
Zhanna Zalizniak

A Ukrainian mother studies at FLCC while she waits for a clearer path forward

Zhanna Zalizniak is like many non-traditional college students.

Zhanna, of Geneva, balances a full-time course load in web and mobile development with her life as a wife to Alex and mother of 8-year-old Tanya.

The difference is that she doesn’t know if she’ll use her degree here in the U.S. or back in her native Ukraine, which she fled at the start of the Russian invasion.

Zhanna and her family, which includes her mother-in-law, Katya, spent the first few months of the war in Poland. A friend in Geneva invited them to stay through the humanitarian parole program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in May 2022. They did not have work authorization until 8 months after their arrival, so Zhanna enrolled in Erica Reid’s advanced English as a Second Language class at the Geneva Campus Center.

She had a good grasp of English grammar and vocabulary. The class helped with conversation and getting acclimated.

“Erica’s classes helped me better understand American culture and how things worked in the U.S. This was a very important part for me,” Zhanna said.

While her husband found a job, she decided to continue her education to make the best use of this uncertain time in her life. “It’s a good opportunity for me while I am here to try something new,” she explained.

‘Nobody knows’

How long Zhanna and her family live in Geneva depends on many factors beyond her control, including Homeland Security policy.

“Now they want us all to be to switch to TPS, temporary protected status, and this is going to be for two years, so it’s all very uncertain. Nobody knows what will happen,” she said.

Temporary Protected Status gives those whose home countries are unsafe the right to live and work in the U.S. temporarily. Over the summer, Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary for homeland security, announced that this status would continue for Ukrainians through at least April 2025.

Today, her attention is split among her FLCC homework, Tanya’s school activities, and news from home.

“I get news all day, every day. I never expected full-scale war in my country. It’s kind of crazy,” she said.

Each passing day puts Ukraine further away. “If I can go home tomorrow, of course I would pack and leave,” she said, but her daughter’s experience is very different from her own. Tanya was just learning to read and write Ukrainian before the war, so her skills in English reading and writing skills will soon eclipse those in her native language.

“She likes it here. She hardly remembers how school was back in Ukraine,” Zhanna said. “We don’t have enough time – for her to be engaged in Ukrainian school also,” especially with the time difference. Kyiv, where they lived before the war, is six hours ahead of New York.

Scattered community

Zhanna and her family feel welcome in Geneva though it’s different from Kyiv, where the family could walk to shops or take public transportation.

Other Ukrainians have passed through Geneva, with some taking advantage of FLCC’s programming. “I started seeing them as soon as the war broke out,” said instructor Erica Reid. Before the war, her students had generally been a mix of those escaping economic hardship or spouses of academics visiting the Cornell AgriTech research facility.

Since February 2022, she has had a dozen Ukrainian students.

“I am currently working with seven students from Ukraine. Six of them arrived about a month ago or less,” she added. They are spread across the region, including Canandaigua, Honeoye and Victor.

Some have since moved to wherever they could find work, one family went as far as Texas. That has made it challenging for Ukrainians to build community.

“Everybody is helping each other in every way, but we are all new and strangers here, and we don’t have much resources,” said Zhanna.

Where to go in the U.S., whether to resettle or resolve to return home – these decisions will be different for every Ukrainian.

“If you want to wait, wait for how long? At first we thought maybe a couple of months and then this year, and this year. It’s all different for everyone. Nobody knows what you should do. If you ask me what would my advice be, I couldn’t advise anybody.”

Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the director of public relations and communications at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or Lenore.Friend@flcc.edu.

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