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‘At least I can help refugees who are already here’

All war is local

Kent ISD — Angela Elenbaum can’t be in her native Moldova to help with the massive influx of refugees from neighboring Ukraine who are fleeing the Russian military invasion that started Feb. 24. One way she is coping: by helping other refugees where she is right now.

Elenbaum is a paraprofessional at Kent ISD’s Adult Education Program where she assists in classrooms where students – some of whom are new to the U.S. – can work on their English as a second language skills, career and technical education and earn their GEDs.

‘I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them. I know what it is to be new in a country. I still can’t imagine how it is to be forced to run.’ —

— Angela Elenbaum

She came to the U.S. six years ago with her husband, Ryan – a Michigan native she met when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in her country – and their two young sons. Her mother, brother and other relatives still live in Chișinău, Moldova. She has friends who live near her mother, whom Elenbaum says have texted her recently that they can hear bombing and firefights across the border. 

Her father lives in Ukraine, in a village outside Kharkiv, which has seen intense shelling from Russian forces. He is in the 18- to 60-year-old range of males prohibited to leave the country in case they are needed to fight, but he plans to stay because “his house is there,” Elenbaum said. “He doesn’t want to leave. And even to go, where will he go? It’s hard. 

Angela Elenbaum in Independence Square, Kyiv, Ukraine, 2007 (courtesy)

“I cried reading (the message) from him. He said two windows of his house are cracked because of the explosions, and the neighbor’s roof was blown away. He said at the grocery stores, all the produce is sold out and no trucks are coming. Food is (nearly gone). A nearby farmer said all the people can come and take the milk for free because he doesn’t have workers to milk the cows. They have food stored, but it will be a problem. 

“Still, what he last sent us was ‘Most important, don’t worry about me. I will be fine.’ In the midst of all this happening.”

The first night of the invasion, she recalled, Elenbaum and her husband, who developed friendships with Ukrainians when he worked in that country, stayed up all night watching the news. 

“I can’t imagine how people from Ukraine just had to leave their place overnight, just grab the things, some with small children and no time and no way to explain. They send him messages: ‘Should I leave? Should I stay? I don’t know which will put my kids in danger?’ ”

Helping Where She Can

Elenbaum said she is proud of the Moldovan government and people for opening its borders and homes to those fleeing Ukraine, “and at the same time I am very sad at what is happening in Ukraine. I can’t imagine how it is when they have their whole lives (there)… and overnight, when this happened, what do you do?”

Though she knows what it’s like to pull up roots and move to another country, leaving much of her previous life behind including a job in information technology, she points out that her emigration was voluntary, she said, for love.

“Of course it’s not the same, I knew we were going and I had time to prepare… but at least I can help refugees who are already here in this country, and I’m hoping that (by) me helping them, maybe somebody, if necessary, will be able to help my family back home.”

Elenbaum was headed next to a church to meet with people who recently arrived from Afghanistan.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them. I know what it is to be new in a country. I still can’t imagine how it is to be forced to run.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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