The Forgione family first met Oleh in 2016 as part of an international exchange program. The teenager from Ukraine was shy and kind, relying on a combination of Google translate and charades to communicate. Over the course of four years, he visited Heidi, Mike, and their son in Texas over Christmas and during summer vacations, quickly becoming a fixture at their home—and a big fan of their three cats, Daisy, Duke, and Fuzzball, and their dog Luke.
The pandemic brought an end to the visits, but the family kept in touch with Oleh over Instagram and Facebook Messenger. Though he’d spent part of his childhood in an orphanage, he was now staying with a foster family and enjoying life in Ukraine.
“I would go to school, ride my bike a lot, and hang out with my friends,” he recalls.
When the war broke out, Oleh and his 10 foster brothers and sisters were forced to flee to Poland—and after living there for several months, Oleh turned 18.
“His foster mom reached out to me because she wasn’t sure how much longer they could stay in Poland,” Heidi shares. “She was worried about him returning to Ukraine, because they were bringing all adult males into the military, and she had some concerns about whether that would be good for him.”
Oleh’s foster mom asked the Forgione family if they would be open to bringing him to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine, a new humanitarian parole program that allows groups in the U.S. to sponsor Ukrainian individuals and families. Their answer was immediate: of course. Oleh was family.
“If you have an opportunity to help, you do,” says Heidi. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through there—[Oleh’s] life had been in limbo for months at that point. There was nothing for him. And so we thought, if we can bring him here, we can at least give him a safe place to live.”
The process was quick; within two weeks, the application was approved and Oleh was on his way back to Texas. The journey itself, however, was not as easy—Oleh got briefly stuck in Germany and recalls being questioned by immigration officials several times throughout the voyage, including in the United States.
It was, as Heidi put it, “quite a trip,” but the family quickly settled back into their routines as if nothing had changed.
“There were some hugs for us, but lots of hugs for the animals,” Mike recalls with a laugh.
“He always has a cat on his lap,” adds Heidi.
Living together is easy and comfortable, the family says, but navigating what services are available to Oleh has been harder.
That’s why Heidi reached out to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service’s new San Antonio office, which recently hired Ukrainian Humanitarian Parole (UHP) Service Coordinator Jesse Kireyev.
“They’ve just been an incredible help in navigating the different steps, because there’s so much more to it than I initially thought,” says Heidi.
LIRS staff helped the family connect with local resources such as the Refugee Clinic in San Antonio and assisted with the processes of applying for a Social Security number, Medicaid, and employment authorization.
Though enrolling Oleh in school has been a challenge due to his age, he was able to find his first job in the U.S. at a car wash.
“I like it,” he says, with Jesse translating. “Especially when cool sports cars come through.”
Oleh is now enrolled in an ESL class, LIRS and the family are currently working with the Texas Workforce Commission to see if Oleh is eligible for any vocational training programs.
“He’s very good with his hands, very mechanically inclined.” Heidi says, “I’d like for him to be able to use that in some way.”
For now, Oleh is happy to put his skills to use through woodworking and assembling Lego sets. He’s still following European soccer, and Mike is teaching him how to golf—and, of course, he’s spending plenty of time with the cats and dog.
Unfortunately, his future in the United States is uncertain; most Ukrainians who came to the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine are paroled for only two years. But for now, the family is focusing on the good: Oleh is safe at home.
“We’re taking things day by day,” says Heidi. “He’s always been, like we say, a ‘son of our hearts.’ We’re happy to have him with us.”