JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A local Ukrainian-Jewish refugee is changing the lives of hundreds of refugee families settling on the First Coast.
Galina Volkovinskaya immigrated to the U.S. with her family in the late 80s. At the time, her hometown of Odessa, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
"I want freedom, but it was a common decision between my husband and I, to take our kids to have better futures," said Volkovinskaya.
Volkovinskaya's husband's last name is Jewish and if she and her daughters would have taken his last name, they would have faced discrimination under the Soviets. Volkovinskaya says at the time, you had to live where you were born and were not allowed to move around Ukraine. The whole family lived in a small apartment with her parents.
"My dream and my husband's dream would be just dreaming about our [own] place to live," added Volkovinskaya.
After several attempts over an entire decade, they finally got permission to move to America. Volunteers with refugee integration met the family at the airport and provided them with their own place to call home.
"I cried, and cried, and cried," said Volkovinskaya as she described the joy she felt to have her very own three-bedroom apartment to live in with her husband and two daughters.
Volkovinskaya says her family struggled at first, but adapted. They learned English, American laws, and learned to drive. They settled in Jacksonville. Years later, Volkovinskaya joined Lutheran Social Services to support other refugee families.
"What's going on right now in Ukraine, in Russia, it's so crazy that we are happy some of our parents are not alive," said Volkovinskaya.
Volkovinskaya's two daughters went to college in the U.S. and are now married. She says her oldest daughter was shocked to hear Jews are being forced to register in Ukraine or face deportation, and feels lucky her family and others got out.
"She called me 'hero', she said 'Mom, you and Dad [are] just heroes to bring everyone here," said Volkovinskaya.
She still has family that chose to stay in Ukraine, but has dedicated her new life in America to helping other refugees start over by working with Lutheran Social Services in Jacksonville.