by Rachel L. Richardson
Into the Unknown
For Anastasia Omarova, the trip to the United States began with a twenty-eight-hour journey from Poltava, Ukraine to Poland by bus before the overseas flight to San Francisco. At nineteen years of age, Omarova—the only one in her family to make the trip—was one of the many to flee Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of the country.
“Our plan was I came here for three months,” Omarova says, “for summer. Just to wait till the war ended.”
That was about ten months ago.
- As part of the program, Uniting for Ukraine, Anastasia Omarova sought refuge in the States, under the sponsorship of her godmother, Yulia Ferguson.
- Ferguson and her colleague in the Valbridge Property Advisors | NorCal office worked with the VWC last spring to rally support for Ukraine through donations.
- Norm Hulberg, MAI and Senior Managing Director of the NorCal office provided some work for Omarova. He shares about this and other ways their office has reached out during her time in the States.
- Omarova shares about her experience and how much it means to be accepted and remembered
Uniting for Ukraine
In late February of 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalated the extant conflict between the countries, it caused not only a cascading instability in the region but also a widespread displacement of the Ukrainian people. Since the invasion, about 19.5 million people have fled the country, reports The Centre for Research & Analysis of Migration. They add that about 11 million have since returned, leaving about 8.5 million still displaced.
In April of 2022, the U.S. government established Uniting for Ukraine, a program by which U.S. citizens could sponsor Ukrainian refugees under a special residency known as parole. Sponsors are reviewed to ensure they can financially support those they are sponsoring, and the program guarantees the refugee a stay of up to two years in the country. As of February 2023, people in the States have applied to sponsor the arrival of more than 216,000 refugees; of those, 115,000 have arrived—of which Omarova is one. Omarova is sponsored by her godmother, Yulia Ferguson, Appraisal Analyst with Valbridge Property Advisors | NorCal an office under the leadership of Norm Hulberg, MAI.
Last spring, Ferguson and her colleague, Christine Ryczkowski (also an Appraisal Analyst), shared about their ties to Ukraine and partnered with the Community Involvement Committee in the Valbridge Women’s Council (VWC) to promote donations to a vetted list of nonprofits providing aid and relief to the Ukrainian people.
Experiences in a New Country
“First we were going to go to Sweden with my mother,” Omarova shares, “but then the U.S. created this program for Ukrainians who were fleeing the war. My godmother sent in the application for me, and in June—in one week—I got permission to enter the U.S.”
Shortly after her arrival in San Francisco, Hulberg offered Omarova some work with their NorCal office.
“She landed at a time when it was helpful,” Hulberg shares.
“It was a great experience working with such great and kind people,” Omarova says of her time with the NorCal office. “I was scanning and archiving documents. Also I helped with packing as they moved to a new office. And in December and January I helped with site inspection. I was measuring the site and taking photos.”
“We had all kinds of paper that we wanted to get rid of before the move,” Hulberg says, “so she did all kinds of scanning. That has to be incredibly boring,” he added, “but she was very cheerful about it the whole time.”
“She’s just a delightful young person,” Hulberg adds with a smile. “She’s just so nice! The fact that she’s so fluent in English made it so easy for her to come here and [then] help her, help us… I’m on the alert for other opportunities to have her help.”
After they moved offices, Hulberg found an opportunity in the form of a mobile home park appraisal with a quick deadline. At first, he thought, taking the job meant their appraiser had to look at each of the homes, measure them, and take detailed notes, which would have been a challenge in the timeframe allotted. “And I got to thinking about it,” Hulberg remarked. “Did that require any special training or research? No, it just required a person with some intelligence to help. And so [Omarova] jumped in and really was great in assisting our appraiser. [She] appreciated having some work to do and it was just a matter of thinking of more creative ways of helping another person assist. So, that was a big win.”
“She did something else that really impressed me,” says Hulberg. “I had her come as a guest to my Rotary Club of San Jose. And she had a five-minute talk—in front of two hundred and fifty people she didn’t know—about what it was like getting out of Ukraine. How many nineteen-year-olds have the confidence to go to a foreign country and stand up in front of a whole bunch of business leaders and deliver some comments like that?”
“I was so nervous,” Omarova admits, “and it was actually my first time to speak in public in front of so many people. And I’m so grateful to [Hulberg] because I think that somehow it helps Ukraine: so we’re not forgotten about; we speak about it… But everything went so well,” she adds. “After my speech, people came to me with support and said, ‘Oh you were great,’ and I was so happy.”
Her time working with the Valbridge office “was amazing,” Omarova enthused. “It couldn’t be better.” Because it was her first job, and in a foreign country on top of it, she admitted she was nervous about what it would be like to work with a group of strangers.
“I didn’t know if they would like me,” she says. “I was so shy to say anything. And now they’re so open and friendly, and they helped me to not be afraid to speak.”
“They accept me,” she says with a smile. “And Christmas—there also was a Christmas party in the office—and they invited me. And I’m so grateful that they think [of me], they care.”
“I am so thankful to all of the team,” she adds, “and especially Norm for supporting and helping Ukraine and me. It was a wonderful experience working there.”
Omarova celebrated a birthday while in the States, and she has now begun online classes through her Ukrainian university, studying in the faculty psychology, philology, and pedagogy, while working toward her bachelor’s degree. She is also studying languages—English, German, and Polish—and enjoying quality assurance courses.
Though all her family and friends are in Ukraine, the timing of Omarova’s return is uncertain.
For Hulberg, it was sobering to hear of Omarova’s trip to the U.S. and to think of what it would be like to have those experiences—to wonder about the people and places you are leaving behind and how things could change between your departure and the day you may return.
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for somebody that can go through that,” he says.
“You know, our company donated money to Ukraine, but as [Omarova’s godmother] said, I don’t think it’s the money that’s the most important—it’s just that feeling of support.”
“Think about little things that you can do,” Hulberg urges. Of the refugees, or those still in Ukraine, “try to think about what it would be like to be them. Doesn’t have to be that you’re sending money. You could write a letter. You could take a photo of yourself with that person… There are little kindnesses that we can do to support people.” These little acts, he explains, let them know they are not forgotten.
“I don’t know where things are going for [Omarova],” he says, “but she’s intelligent, diligent, and I think she’s got a bright future ahead of her. It’s a clouded future but I think ultimately, it’ll be a good future. And she’s picking up skills here—whether she stays in the U.S. or goes back to Ukraine—she’s picking up a lot of skills here that I think will serve her well.”
“I just hope others can do some little things to support,” he concludes. “Even kind words.”