It wasn’t the email Yaroslav Perepadya had been hoping for.
Cortney Copeland MPA/MAIEM ’15 had bad news—the potential American sponsor for him and his teenage son hadn’t checked out.
It had been six months since Perepadya MACD ’03 and his son had fled their home in Dnipro, a day after Russia invaded at the border, just 150 miles from their home. They headed first to western Ukraine, then to Ireland, where they’d been hunkering down in a hotel room for months as Perepadya looked for a long-term home in the U.S.
Copeland, a board member and volunteer with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Alliance for Ukraine (RPCV Alliance), apologized for having gotten his hopes up and said they were still looking to see if they could find a match. As she scanned his bio, a detail jumped out at her.
She followed up to ask him where he completed his American master’s degree.
“The Middlebury Institute,” Perepadya wrote back.
“Me too!” said Copeland. Little did the two know where this serendipitous connection would take them.
When the war broke out in Ukraine, Copeland knew she had to act. She had served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2017 to 2019 and was suddenly watching places she knew get bombed and getting messages from friends fleeing for their lives.
“People who study at the Middlebury Institute want to be globally engaged person to person,” said Copeland.
The Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Alliance for Ukraine was trying to figure out how best to help when President Joe Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine, an unusual new program through which Americans could sponsor Ukrainians to come to the U.S. for a two-year period of humanitarian parole. The challenge? Not only did Ukrainians need to somehow know an American, but this person had to be willing to be financially responsible for them for two years.
“It requires Americans to be mini refugee resettlement agencies,” said Copeland.
They put out a call and got to work vetting 70 would-be American sponsors and trying to match them with some of the 3,000 Ukrainian individuals and families who filled out their interest forms.
It was triage. By necessity, they focused on sponsors who could pull it off and the families that would be a good match for them and most urgently needed the support.
“Being able to act is what keeps me sane, and I was able to act because I sit at the intersection of two powerful networks — people who believe in the global nature of our society and Peace Corps volunteers. This has allowed me to accomplish stuff I couldn’t have done by myself.”
The RPCV Alliance ultimately matched 22 cases, bringing about 46 Ukrainians to the U.S.
“It’s a drop,” said Copeland. “But it’s something.”
They’ve since merged the project with the nonprofit North America for Ukraine and have turned their focus to facilitating workshops for cross-cultural understanding between newly arrived Ukrainians and American sponsors — something Copeland studied at the Institute.
After studying for his college degree in Ukraine, Perepadya first came to the U.S. as an exchange student, thanks to a scholarship from the Department of State that took him to Clemson University in South Carolina. He followed this with an MA in commercial diplomacy at the Middlebury Institute in 2003.
Although most of his previous career was in operations and logistics, in 2017, Perepadya ended up taking his skills in a different direction as a regional project manager for a German governmental international development agency supporting humanitarian areas around the world. In this role, he supported the local self-government reform in Ukraine focused on decentralization of power from the central government to local authorities—an issue that Copeland also found herself working on as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Even so, when Russia invaded in early 2022, he struggled to believe it.
“It was so unimaginable that this could happen in the 21st century. The mind refused to believe it,” said Perepadya. “The morning it happened with fighter jets and bombings, me being a single dad, I knew we needed to relocate.”
The volunteers with the RPCV Alliance heard story after story of need.
“We often bemoaned the fact that we couldn’t just sponsor everybody ourselves,” said Copeland, who became increasingly determined that if she found herself in a position to help someone she would do it.
Then she met Yaroslav, who was fluent in English and had a master’s degree, giving him a lot more career options than others might have. She conferred with her fellow volunteers and submitted the paperwork.
Just a few weeks later, Yaroslav and his son landed in California.
They were welcomed not only by Courtney but several other Institute alumni in the area who helped out with advice and networking.
Fortunately, his employer in Ukraine allowed him to keep doing his job remotely in his moves across the globe. Having settled in Davis, Perepadya identified the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as the main organization he wanted to work for here. In just a few months, he was hired on as a community integration program manager, managing federal and state grants supporting refugees arriving and settling in the Sacramento area.
“I’m excited and enthusiastic that the work is exactly what I want to do and fulfilling and where I can continue to support my fellow Ukrainians in ways that help them when they settle here,” said Perepadya.
There’s plenty of work to do as Sacramento is one of the top destinations for Ukrainians in the U.S. His team includes Americans, Ukrainians, and Afghans and is staffing up.
A few months into his new life here, his focus shifts between worrying about his family back home as he scans the daily headline and figuring out how to help the Ukrainians who have just arrived in the U.S.
“As humanitarian parolees, my son and I can’t leave the country and continue keeping our status, so we will not be able to see our family,” said Perepadya, whose elderly parents, sister, and two nieces are still in Ukraine. Also unknown is what will happen after the two years of the Uniting for Ukraine program ends.
The IRC especially focuses on recent arrivals, helping them navigate the benefits, education, and healthcare systems.
“Every day I see the trials of the people who come to the U.S. and who aren’t so fortunate, who don’t speak English,” said Perepadya. “You can breathe when you aren’t worried about your everyday security for you and your kids, but you’re always thinking about family and friends in Ukraine. I try to keep busy and dive into the work.”