I'm Here From Ukraine, Where Can I Stay?

WEST DES MOINES, USA -- Karina Mykolyuk felt hopeless, alone and stranded in the middle of suburban American strip malls.

The Protasovs, left, and the Titarenkos, right, sit with Karina Mykolyuk between them at the Protasovs’ house in West Des Moines.

The 21-year-old university student from Ukraine had dreamed all her life of visiting the United States, especially after hearing stories from many of her friends who had spent summers here.

But now that she had arrived as part of a work travel program, she was on the verge of homelessness.

This was two months ago. Mykolyuk had secured a temporary J-1 student visa and lined up a housekeeping job at Drury Inn & Suites in West Des Moines.

The hotel is situated within the West Glen shopping center. It's on the northwest corner of the busy intersection of Mills Civic Parkway and Interstate Highway 35.

Mykolyuk says her agency in Ukraine reassured her that housing would be easy to find - much easier in Des Moines than a larger city, particularly when the cost was split among three students.

But the two fellow female students who had planned to travel with Mukolyuk were refused visas and had to stay behind. And attempts to find affordable housing online from overseas had failed.

So Mukolyuk arrived May 20 in Iowa, after flying from Kiev, Ukraine, to Chicago, then traveling by Megabus from O'Hare airport to the Walnut Street drop-off in downtown Des Moines.

There she stood in the rain, clutching her lone suitcase. She lacked both an umbrella and a clear sense of what to do.

Mukolyuk is a third-year student studying both English and Spanish, but fluency is a different thing on a Midwest street corner compared to the classroom.

A friendly woman helped her board the correct bus to West Des Moines.

And Drury Inn helped Mykolyuk with a room for a couple of nights, but couldn't house her the entire summer. The work travel program contract states that "housing is participant arranged."

So Mykolyuk wandered along Mills Civic Parkway in a fruitless search for a place to stay. She had $900 in spending cash, part of the $4,000 that family and friends had scraped together to fund her trip.

She put in a frantic call to her one connection in the States: her godmother in New York City, also from Ukraine.

"Please help me," Mykolyuk begged her godmother, "because I don't know what I should do."

Later that day, Ellie Titarenko of Clive received an email from New York. The message was a desperate plea typed in all caps, seeking some sort of connection with the Russian community in Des Moines.

Titarenko's email address happened to be included in an obscure online article about a Russian spring festival in Des Moines in March.

It was buried deep within the website belonging to television station WHO, found only by scrounging on Google.

That tenuous connection was Mykolyuk's salvation.

The exasperated student roomed with Titarenko's mother for a night, then was welcomed into the home of Yuriy and Olena Protasov in West Des Moines - within walking distance of her job at Drury Inn.

The U.S. State Department tallies 105 international students in Iowa this summer in the work travel program and a total of 1,257 with J-1 visas.

J-1 visas in general provide a non-immigrant cultural exchange that "fosters global understanding." And the summer work travel program subset of these visas lets international college kids spend their school break working in the U.S.

Mykolyuk is one of three J-1 employees at the Drury hotel in West Des Moines; the other two workers are from Thailand. Placements are coordinated on this end by a human resources consultant in St. Louis, where the Drury chain also is based.

About 130,000 international college students participated last year in summer work travel, including 9,240 from Ukraine.

But Ukraine and five other countries - Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Russia - are governed this year under a stricter pilot program intended to "enhance the safeguards for participants," according to the State Department.

Officials last year received a significant increase in complaints of "fraudulent job offers, inappropriate jobs, job cancellations on arrival, insufficient number of work hours, and housing and transportation problems."

But all is well with Mykolyuk now that she's settled into the Protasovs' home. One evening last week featured a conversation over a dessert of pineapple cake, watermelon and sweet tea.

The Protasovs and their son, Anton, 21, arrived a dozen years ago from Kiev, after the collapse of both the Soviet empire and Ukraine's economy. They began learning English through church and Des Moines Area Community College.

Like Mykolyuk, Olena at first worked as a housekeeper even though she had been an accountant in Ukraine; she now works as an accountant once again. Yuriy began in the produce department at Dahl's and today runs his own trucking firm.

Titarenko and her husband, Michael, hail from western Ukraine near the Polish border. Their family has grown in the States with daughter Sofia, 3, and 10-month-old Andrew. Dozens of Titarenko's family members also live in the metro, which means that the guest list is pushing 150 for Andrew's upcoming baptism.

Titarenko works as a registered nurse in critical care at Mercy Medical Center and has emerged as a lead organizer for the local population that hails from the former Soviet nations.

She's seen the festivals in Des Moines staged by Italians, Latinos, Asians and other ethnic groups.

"Why don't we have something?" Titarenko wonders. "Our culture is so rich, and our language is beautiful."

These families worry about losing their own native tongue. So they've begun to organize Christmas shows and other events in rented rooms at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Urbandale, where 100 or more people have joined them. (Anton even dressed up as Santa.)

Titarenko also is looking for help to launch a new website to promote and unify her local community.

That way, the next student in Mykolyuk's shoes should have an easier time tracking down his or her fellow Ukrainians in Iowa.

Source: Des Moines Register