Yesterday she was fleeing  from  war, and today she serves the Ukrainian community in Southern California 

Nataliya Mikhnova, her husband and two young children arrived in California at the end of April 2022. They were out of the country when Russia invaded Ukraine and found themselves unable to return home.   Seeking a safe haven, they found out that America had opened its doors to Ukrainians.  With  only 4 backpacks, they set off for another continent. 

Their path to California was not easy, because at the time of their arrival, the United for Ukraine program, which allows Ukrainian refugees with a sponsor to enter the US on a special visa, had not yet started, and the only possible way was crossing the US border from Mexico on foot. The family did not have any friends or relatives in America, so they took a leap of faith in coming to the US. For most people, the idea of flying to Mexico and crossing the border on foot with 2 small children might seem impossible, or at least very daunting, but Nataliya had a lot of hopes and expectations about the possibilities for  life in the USA.  She persuaded her husband to take the risk and it paid off. 

“We were very lucky, because for the first few months we were sheltered by the beautiful Frankel family, who live in  Santa Monica. We did not know each other before, and we found them on a special website for Ukrainian refugees seeking shelter in the USA. They helped us to adapt and understand how everything works here. They helped to get the children into school,” says Nataliya. 

Nataliya immediately started reaching out to other  Ukrainian refugees  in Los Angeles to find new acquaintances and possible support. Most people told her that she would have to start from the bottom, cleaning, taking care of children, delivering food, etc. But Nataliya wanted to find a job which better matched her professional experience as a specialist in political communications in Ukraine. 

One day she saw an announcement about the launch of the Matching Grant program for Ukrainians  at the  International Institute of Los Angeles.  Although the meeting place was quite some distance, she felt compelled to make the journey. Two and a half hours by two subways and one bus later, and she was there. Thus began a new chapter in the life of Nataliya’s family. They became participants in the Matching Grant program, which is an accelerated employment program for refugees that provides rental assistance for 6 months. The cost of rent is the largest expense in the budget of most families, so the Matching Grant played a decisive role in the Mikhnova family’s  successful integration into US life. 

After helping IILA program staff with translation for a Ukrainian family who did not speak English, Nataliya became a volunteer at IILA, regularly providing translation on the phone and in person.   After several months, IILA hired Nataliya as a Ukrainian Integration Coordinator, assisting Ukrainian refugees make the transition to their new lives in the US. Since the end of 2022, Nataliya has been making a difference in the lives of dozens and dozens of new Ukrainian refugee arrivals, helping them sign up for public benefits and making referrals to different organizations.  In October of this year, Nataliya began working in a new Ukrainian health promotion project, helping Ukrainian refugees understand the US medical system and access necessary medical services. 

“I am extremely grateful to IILA for the help my family received through the Matching Grant program, and I am also grateful for the opportunity to work and help Ukrainians in Southern California. IILA does not just implement various programs for refugees, the organization really changes their lives,” says Nataliya.