In the aftermath of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Thomas Ehlman and his wife, Oksana Kovalenko, were making plans.
For weeks, the Broomfield couple had been researching US immigration laws and communicating with Oksana’s family members—who are just seven of the more than 7 million Ukrainians who were forced to escape the country not long after the war started. Their goal was to bring them to the United States as soon as possible.
Oksana’s two aunts, uncle, and four nephews had fled Ukraine for Poland in March, but their living situation wasn’t ideal or permanent. “They were sleeping in a hotel lobby-turned-refugee center along with probably 30 or 40 others ranging from babies to elderly adults,” says Oksana, who immigrated to the United States herself with her parents in 1998. She’s been living in Colorado for most of that time. “They were safe, but the children weren’t in school and their future was no longer promised or certain.”
A New Home for Now
About three months after the war in Ukraine began—and approximately six weeks after the family fled to Poland—Tom and Oksana welcomed their seven relatives to their four-bedroom house in Broomfield. The family is on temporary humanitarian parole, with the Broomfield couple working tirelessly to figure out how to get them refugee status.
“The community really stepped up when they arrived and we received donations for everything from clothing to beds to food,” Oksana says. “It’s been wonderful and so appreciated.”
Learning English Is Critical
With the family safe, the couple’s next priority was to help them acclimate to their new surroundings. “I was a refugee, too, when I arrived here in my twenties, and I know firsthand that learning English in the United States is what will make people successful,” Oksana says.
“Their housing is taken care of, and their basic needs are met. But they all need to learn English because we don’t know how long they will be here. That was important.”
The moment their family members arrived, Tom began researching English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in the Broomfield area—and they came across Front Range Community College’s ESL classes.
The oldest of their nephews, Vadim (17), and his parents, Svitlana (42) and Alex (50) Tonkoshkur, all enrolled in classes at the college’s Boulder County Campus starting in the summer term—while Tom and Oksana enrolled the four-year-old twins, Yan and Damir, in preschool. Their 13-year-old nephew, Nazar Tonkoshkur, prepared to take ESL classes through Centaurus High School, where he is now a student.
“We felt that a formal, classroom setting, as opposed to a free class at the library or local church, was the best way to entrench them in learning English,” Tom says. He and Oksana are paying for their family’s ESL courses—and most of their other living expenses—out of their own pockets. They are always researching potential funding sources and have raised several thousand dollars through a GoFundMe campaign for the family.
Building Skills for Their Future
In Ukraine, Alex was a security guard while Svitlana raised their four children. “Whenever they do get work authorization here, they’ll be starting a totally new chapter,” Oksana says.
“That’s what you do as an immigrant. You learn English first, and then you take opportunities based on your language skills.”
Tom adds that the adults in the family are not afraid to put in hard work, whether they stay in the US for a short time of permanently. “The last thing they want is to be dependent on financial assistance for however long they live here,” he says.
“They want to be self-sufficient. We’ll do whatever it takes to help them.”
A Unique ESL Program
Vadim was a year into his college education in Ukraine when his family was uprooted. FRCC instructor Fiona Mackey had him as a student in her intermediate ESL course over the summer. He has since moved on to advanced ESL this fall semester.
There isn’t really a “typical” ESL student at FRCC, Fiona says. “Everyone is coming from different countries and backgrounds, and nobody’s English skill level is exactly the same either,” she says.
What makes FRCC’s ESL program different from others is that it prepares students to continue on to a college education. “We have had many students who were doctors and lawyers in their countries and they can’t use those degrees in the US. We are teaching English, but we’re also giving students the skills needed to go to college and build their lives here.”
Working at the Student’s Pace
Vadim’s parents, Alex and Svitlana, are in Instructor Kale Hubert’s basic ESL course this fall—after starting with him over the summer. “Learning English from scratch is so difficult,” Kale says. “For them to endure what they did and then come here with nothing to try to learn a language is just commendable.”
Kale adds that FRCC’s program is a good fit for any English language learner. “This is the most academically rigorous, student-centered program I’ve been exposed to as a teacher,” he says. “When students need to slow down or speed up, we as their teachers can do that. We’re all about helping these students learn the language.”
Having a Purpose
Learning English is the functional objective of Oksana’s family members right now, but Oksana views it as important for another reason. “It’s good for their mental health to concentrate on their FRCC classes,” she says. “It keeps them busy and learning and doing something positive, which is a good distraction from everything they’ve been through.”
Tom and Oksana can’t predict what the future holds for their family, but they are grateful to their Colorado community for so much support—and to their local community college for its many resources. “You won’t find much better than the support you have right here in this area,” Tom says. “Our family members have been very pleased with FRCC—and so have we.”