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I had been to Sea-Tac airport many times before, but this night was different. I was now a World Relief staff member, and for the first time, I was meeting a family resettling in the U.S. after being forced from their home country.
The first step was connecting with Ana, the sister of the arriving family. I crept forward in the stop-and-go traffic, inching toward the arrivals. With each stop, I sent a text, “I’m getting closer.” “Should I bring the booster seats in or can I meet at your car?”
Ana and Roman wait for Luda’s family to arrive.
ANA Ana had just arrived to the U.S. from Ukraine on February 2, 2022 – right before the war broke out. For four years, she had waited for her application to come to the U.S. to be approved, after experiencing persecution for her Pentecostal Christian faith. Now Ana was ready to welcome her sister Luda, her brother-in-law, and her two nieces to their new home.
Ana and her uncle rolled up in their minivan, “Are you Liz?” We transferred the two booster seats, so the 4 and 6-year-old daughters could safely make the final leg of their 40-hour journey. Ana popped out of the car with a smile, two treat bags brimming with candy, a bouquet of Calla Lilies, two U.S. flags, and a bunch of red, white, and blue balloons.
ROMAN Roman, Ana, and I waited at the bottom of the escalator for the family to arrive, and they recounted some of their stories. Roman had fled Ukraine in 1995 and resettled in the U.S. as a refugee. It pained him to see Ukrainians suffering even after all these years from Russia’s military; “they don’t care if it is soldiers or civilians… they have been raping and killing and bombing…” I could hear the pain and disappointment in his voice as he reflected on the horrors facing those who remained in the country.
His church in the U.S. has gathered together to regularly send money, supplies, and relief to those throughout Ukraine. Tonight, he got to welcome some of his family to safety in the U.S. even as he continues to care for those still in Ukraine.
LUDA & FAMILY Ana was busy texting and making calls, trying to connect with her sister. We got news they bypassed our escalator and made it to baggage claim carousel 5. Ana rushed with the balloons trailing behind her, gently bumping a few passerbys in their wake.
We turned a corner and saw the matching blue and yellow Ukraine shirts Luda and her family had made for their journey. Ana hurried in for a warm hug with her sister. “I can’t believe you are here. Is this really you in the flesh?” she said with a laugh and a few joking probes to confirm her presence. Ana had seen her sister before she had left Ukraine, just about 4 months ago. But 4 months of war had felt like a lifetime – constantly worrying that the bombing would land in her sister’s town.
Like Ana, Luda and her family had faced persecution for their faith prior to the war, and had been waiting 4 years to resettle to the U.S. Finally, she was given a travel date in May, but then Russia invaded Ukraine, and the airports throughout the country were bombed and shut down. They didn’t know if they would ever make it.
Luda, her husband, and her two girls fled to Moldova, rescheduled their flights, and finally arrived in Seattle that night of June 9, 2022. The girls embraced their aunt, dug into the candies she shared, and joyously waved the American flags. They shared stories in Ukrainian as we waited for their final bag to pop out on the carousel.
Reflections from the Author, Liz- For me, I stood by taking it all in, knowing the privilege it was to share this important moment with these families. I was an outsider, but the welcome they gave me into their family in that moment showed me a piece of what reciprocal welcome and hospitality is all about. It wasn’t about me bringing booster seats or saving the day with my theoretical knowledge of the airport.
I received hospitality with the piece of strawberry candy Ana shared with me, “these were my favorite growing up.” It was them asking me multiple times if I wanted to be in the picture as if I was a part of their family. It was Luda starting to go for a hug when I had extended a hand to say “Welcome to the U.S.”
I have a lot to think about this World Refugee Day. Being a community of welcome is giving and it’s receiving. It’s tired hugs after a long journey, sitting in traffic at the airport, and bunches of balloons. It’s the many months and years of building relationships and walking alongside each other as neighbors.