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Ukrainian war refugees helped through efforts of Omaha nonprofits

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Little Vitalina Oleksandr smiled with her whole face.

The 8-year-old child had peered into a forest of furniture and spotted a storybook treasure: an ivory-colored vanity table with gold-painted highlights on its frame and gently curved legs. Her parents helped a worker lift the table out for a closer look. It matched a dresser they had already chosen. What’s more, they discovered, the top of the table folds open to reveal a mirror.

Vitalina hopped with happiness. Her glee was reflected in her mother’s and father’s and big brother’s and little sister’s faces.

“She’s very happy,” said her father, Tkachuk Oleksandr. “She’s excited.”

“She had a dream about such a dresser,” said her mother, Inna Oleksandr. “Like in a fairy tale.”

The discovery came last week at the furniture bank warehouse, a joint effort of the Omaha nonprofits Restoring Dignity and The Furniture Project, that serves primarily refugees but also others in need in the community. Finding the dresser set was part of a happy day in what has been a nightmarish year for the Oleksandr family.

They fled their home in Ukraine in November because of the Russian invasion of their nation. The Oleksandrs had survived months of war, but Russian attacks on utilities and other infrastructure, including missile strikes on the family’s home city of Shepetivka, left the family facing not only the danger of missiles, but a winter with no electricity and no heat.

They left for Poland Nov. 14 with little more than their clothes. They arrived in Omaha about two weeks ago. The Refugee Empowerment Center worked with the family’s sponsor on housing, and connected them with Restoring Dignity and The Furniture project. At the warehouse, the family found donated household items and furnishings to begin making their house a home.

“We are very thankful,” Inna Oleksandr said, speaking through an interpreter. “There are no words to express all the thankfulness we feel.”

The Oleksander family is among 209,000 Ukrainians who have come to the United States since the war began with Russia’s invasion in February, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. Nebraska is not one of the main destinations for Ukrainians. Still, 743 people from Ukraine have come to Nebraska so far through the federal government’s Uniting for Ukraine initiative, according to the latest tally by the State of Nebraska Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Ukrainians coming to America face many challenges. Those include not receiving the usual refugee financial assistance because of their special status, and uncertainty about whether they will be able to stay long term if they can’t safely return to Ukraine.

Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s ongoing attack on their country are the latest group of people displaced by upheavals around the globe to be helped by Restoring Dignity and The Furniture Project. The two are among many community organizations that have stepped up in recent years to help refugee resettlement agencies assist people from such countries as Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar and Afghanistan get a good start on their lives in Omaha.

“Agencies just can’t do it on their own,” said Tanya DeWolf, director of refugee services at Refugee Empowerment Center, one of two refugee resettlement agencies in Omaha. The other is Lutheran Family Services.

“We are trying to involve the community much more,” said DeWolf, whose agency recently created a Ukrainian Family Assistance program.

Matthew Martin, assistant vice president of refugee and immigrant programs at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, said The Furniture Project helps fill in gaps when his agency doesn’t have enough furnishings on hand in setting up refugees’ homes.

Restoring Dignity founder Hannah Vlach and The Furniture Project founder Drew Gerken joined forces and ramped up their efforts about a year ago, as Afghans began coming to Omaha in significant numbers after the fall of Kabul in August 2021.

At the time, Restoring Dignity, which also provides home care, cleaning and safety classes to hundreds of refugees and immigrants each year, had only a very small storage facility.

“With so many people wanting to help Afghan families, we got to a point where we could barely even close the doors,” Vlach said.

The Furniture Project needed a place to put donated furniture. Restoring Dignity needed help getting furniture to families. Gerken, who’s an Omaha firefighter, and Vlach, having watched needs grow for years as their fledgling organizations tried to meet them, believed Omaha needed a furniture bank, a place that can serve people throughout the community.

Vlach sought help. More than a dozen philanthropic foundations responded. Restoring Dignity and The Furniture Project opened an 18,000-square-foot warehouse at 10818 J St. in January. So far this year, they have provided furniture and other household goods to 619 families, totaling 2,681 individuals.

Of those, about 80% were refugees or former refugees. The other 20% were from the wider community. The Furniture Project works with more than 80 agencies, serving such people as women fleeing domestic violence and families who lost homes to fires, said Matt Hoppe, executive director of The Furniture Project.

The nonprofits have gone from straining for space to straining for more help. They need donations of furniture and household items, particularly beds and mattresses. They also need consistent volunteers. Details on how to help are on the website rdomaha.org.

“This (the furniture bank) started with helping the 1,000-plus Afghan refugees, but the goal is that it would become a citywide furniture bank,” Vlach said. “Most major cities have them. It’s Omaha’s time.”

Refugee families can “shop” for items, allowing them to have choice. With the help of volunteers and staff, donated furniture is cleaned and sorted, some of it reconditioned, and delivered.

One recent day, the Oleksandrs and their caseworker, guided by Hoppe and Vlach, towed carts through the warehouse. They selected such necessities as cutlery, blankets, a coffee maker, children’s books and cleaning supplies. They chose such furniture as a dining table and chairs, a sofa and beds.

Later, Tkachuk, a 42-year-old construction worker, and Inna, a 37-year-old nurse, could worry about work, and learning English, and whether their home country will survive. On this day, they can go to a home and tuck their children into bed with hopes.

“We hope that they will go to school daily, that they will be safe,” Inna said.

“And that they will have a fulfilling life,” Tkachuk added.

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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