Finding a Home in Sevierville

In the summer of 2023, when Svitlana Bielun and her family arrived in the United States from Ukraine, they made a new home in Sevierville, a small city southeast of Knoxville. After a brief stay in a hotel, Svitlana and her husband, Illia, rented an apartment for themselves and their two young children. They bought a car and Illia found a job.

“For a long time, we tried to make it by ourselves,” said Svitlana, who is 36. But, after their third child was born last fall, the family was struggling. Svitlana heard about Bridge Refugee Services and decided to ask for help.

Calling Bridge, Svitlana said, was her “best decision.” Since 2022, Bridge has served approximately 600 Ukrainian clients, many of whom are here through the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian parolee/asylee program. Two years later, more than 100 of those clients are still receiving Bridge’s extended services.

Bridge has provided the Bielun family with food, clothing, diapers, home supplies and kitchenware, and helped with financial aid for rent and car repairs. “It’s support,” she said. “It’s [a] good feeling that you’re not alone. Open hearts. It means a lot.”

A Sudden Departure from Ukraine

In early 2022, nervousness filled the air in Kyiv. “Everyone was thinking, ‘what to do, where to go,’” Svitlana said. She and Illia, both Kyiv natives, were living in Ukraine’s capital city with their daughters, Mira and Sasha, then ages 5 and 2. Illia was the director of a trichology clinic, and Svitlana’s work was in the healthcare field, providing physical rehabilitation support for pregnant and postpartum women.

As tensions with Russia grew, Svitlana packed a bag with clothes and important documents so that her family could leave Kyiv quickly if they needed to. By February 2022, Russia was gathering troops on the Ukrainian border and an invasion appeared imminent. The Bielun family had the opportunity to leave the country on vacation, and they wrestled with the timing: go right away or wait? They decided to go. On February 16, they flew to Sri Lanka with Svitlana’s mother. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

From Sri Lanka, they watched the invasion unfold. “We were in a safe place,” Svitlana said. “We were thankful every day we were in a safe place.” But they worried for their country and their future, finding it hard to eat and sleep. Svitlana said she struggled with depression. She hoped the invasion was just a misunderstanding, and that the war would end. Her family continued to pay rent on their Kyiv home, hoping they could soon return.

As the invasion continued, millions of Svitlana’s fellow citizens were streaming out of Ukraine. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the conflict has forcibly displaced nearly 6.5 million people as of March 2024.

Finding a Home in Sevierville

Svitlana’s family decided they could not return to Ukraine. As the war continued, their time in Sri Lanka stretched past a year. With their money running low and feeling anxious now that she was pregnant with her third child, Svitlana and her husband searched for where to go.

A friend in Sevierville encouraged them to come to the United States. Svitlana and Illia applied to the Uniting For Ukraine program and received humanitarian parole.

They arrived in Sevierville in June 2023, and with their friend’s help stayed in a hotel for a few weeks. They bought a car and started looking for apartments. “ Ukrainians…we never give up,” Svitlana said. “We believed that our place is waiting for us.” After a lot of searching, they found an apartment.

The Uniting for Ukraine program enables participants to begin working immediately, and Illia, who is 40, found a job right away, as a warehouse loader for Amazon in Knoxville. “We really appreciate the United States for this opportunity, that we can be legal here, that we have opportunity to work, we have this work authorization that allows us to work from the first day,” Svitlana said.

A month after Illia started his new job, their third child, Maria, was born.

Connecting to Bridge

Like many young families, Svitlana and her daughters spend a lot of time at playgrounds. There, they found new friends, including other families from Ukraine. “It’s really nice when you meet your people, and just can hug them.” When she had her baby, they showered her with baby necessities like a stroller and a car seat.

After the new baby arrived, and with her husband not receiving as many shifts as he needed, Svitlana’s family was struggling. She heard about Bridge Refugee Services, but she hesitated to call at first since their offices were in Knoxville, rather than in Sevierville. But, she discovered, it “wasn’t far.”

“My best decision was just to call the Bridge Refugee center,” she said. Bridge has helped Svitlana complete various applications and helped with financial assistance for rent, car repairs and other bills.

Bridge also provided donations from local groups like Helping Mamas organization and Second Harvest Food Bank. Svitlana drove from Sevierville to Bridge’s Knoxville branch to pick up kitchenware and home goods items. She has received clothes for the kids and for her and her husband, too. “Now we feel more comfortable,” she said. “More happy, really.”

Her advice to other families is, “Don’t be afraid to call.” She knows some people might find it difficult to ask for help, but she encouraged them to seek the support that Bridge offers. “They know exactly what you need. They know exactly where to go, what to write, which applications to put,” she said.

Hope for a Return to Ukraine

Svitlana devotes her days to caring for her three daughters, Mira, now 7, Sasha, 4, and Maria, the six-month-old, who’s already crawling. She has the car during the day, so she can drive Mira to school and take her younger girls to the playground.

Illia works the night shift at Amazon. “They like when they have him on shift,” Svitlana said. He is looking for a second job to bring in more income, and Svitlana is starting to think about her plans for next fall when her two older daughters will be in school. She’d like to return to her life’s mission of helping people in recovery, maybe go back to school and then work in a hospital. An immediate goal is to purchase a second car, to make it easier for Svitlana to take her daughters where they need to go while her husband is working.

They still have family and friends in Ukraine. “We worry about them every day,” Svitlana said. She hopes to return to Ukraine once it’s safe. While they wait, they are grateful to be in Sevierville. “We really appreciate that we have the opportunity to stay in a safe place,” she said. “Every day I wake up. Every day I see the clear sky. I am grateful that my kids can just grow up in a normal world.”

Program Specialist – Special Populations, Irina Popova, with Svitlana and Illia