Olena Liashenko knows the importance of independence. The Falls Church resident fled her home country of Ukraine in May 2022 by way of Poland and Mexico. The triumphant expressions of patriotism that commence around the United States on July 4 are a long-standing ritual for those whose families have been in America for generations. But throughout our country’s history, new cohorts of people have taken part in the annual celebration of our nation’s independence from the British in 1776.
Every one of these immigrants and refugees have their own relationships with July 4, and Liashenko’s centers on her newfound American identity and hope for Ukraine.
“I feel like this is a holiday for me too,” she said. “Because I know the price of independence. I know the price of liberty.”
Liashenko lived in Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine. Kryvyi Rih endured several attacks by Russian artillery in February and April 2022, killing multiple civilians. Liashenko, with her then-12 year-old son in tow, fled to Krakow, Poland, where they stayed for nearly two months. A friend loaned her money for two plane tickets to Mexico, where she was going to try to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border.
“I arrived in Mexico on April 26 and the President of the United States closed the border for Ukrainians on April 25,” Liashenko said. “[Biden] announced the United for Ukraine program on April 25. I had to ask a friend to fill out papers for me, but we were stuck in Mexico City for three weeks.”
The United for Ukraine program is a Department of Homeland Security program that allowed 100,000 Ukrainian refugees entry into the United States if they had sponsorship from a US individual or organization. Ukrainians admitted through the program are also granted work authorization.
Once Liashenko and her son were admitted into the US, they lived at a friend’s house in Maryland for three months before moving to Falls Church. Members of Welcoming Falls Church, a non-profit organization in the Little City that helps settle refugees, took them in.
“[Welcoming Falls Church members] hosted me and my son in their basement for three months and I’m so grateful to these people,” she said. “They hosted us for free. They provided us with their help and support.”
After three months, she found a full-time job and moved into her own apartment. Now, Liashenko works as the Creative Director at the US-Ukraine Foundation.
“I don’t feel like I’m a second class person as a foreigner,” Liashenko said about her experience in America. “Almost everyone I meet, they’re immigrants too, maybe not first generation, but second. Everyone is an immigrant here.”
This Fourth of July, Liashenko dropped her son off at a summer camp on Chincoteague Island and is vacationing with her adopted cat in Virginia Beach. She planned on walking the boardwalk and watching fireworks.
“I will celebrate Independence Day with Americans, because I believe that my country will be independent one day as well,” Liashenko said.