SSM Health staffers in Wisconsin host Ukrainians seeking refuge

September 15, 2022


After Maria Llewellyn and her husband bought the land for their new home last summer, they picnicked there and her husband prayed that the house would host many people.


She jokes now that perhaps he should have been more careful about what he prayed for. Since moving into their house in Madison, Wisconsin, near the end of February, the couple have rarely been alone there with their boys. The Llewellyns have boarded two families of five from her native Ukraine, one after the other. Both families fled Ukraine after Russia invaded Feb. 24.

"We have two little boys and they each had their own bedrooms in the new house and they probably stayed in their bedrooms for just a couple weeks," Llewellyn says. "We put our boys in my husband's office so that the families could have three bedrooms of their own."

The first refugee family who stayed with the Llewellyns have moved into a church parsonage along with two other Ukrainian refugee families. The other family still lives with the Llewellyns. Llewellyn and her husband, Ben, an American whom she met while he was on a missionary trip to Ukraine, are helping support all four of the Ukrainian families — nine adults and nine children in all.

This photo taken by Maria Llewellyn, a registered nurse at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Madison in Wisconsin, is of the first meal her family shared with the Sokors. They are one of four Ukrainian refugee families the Llewellyns have welcomed and the second that has shared their home. Ben Llewellyn is at left and the Llewellyns' two young sons are at right.

Llewellyn, a native of Ukraine who works full time as a registered nurse in the maternity department at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Madison, assists the families as they look for permanent housing, register their children for school, secure transportation, apply for work permits, learn to speak English and more.

Long-awaited reunion
St. Mary's pharmacy technician Yana Selivanova made room in her two-bedroom apartment for her parents, her brother and his fiancée. They've been living with her since the four managed to reach Madison from Ukraine at the end of May.

Selivanova hadn't seen her family since she settled in Wisconsin in 2013 after initially coming as a student and then getting a work visa. She says her decision not to return to Ukraine was influenced by Russia's 2014 takeover of Crimea in Southern Ukraine. "I thought maybe I shouldn't go back for some time to see how it's going to turn out," she says.

She's tried to be something of a Ukrainian ambassador among her friends and colleagues in Madison, happy to talk about her homeland's history and traditions. The Russian invasion, however, has tested her usual optimism.

Yana Selivanova, second from left, has made room for her mother, father and her brother and his fiancée at her apartment since they fled from Ukraine and reached her in Madison, Wisconsin. Selivanova, a pharmacy technician at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Madison, hadn't seen her family since she left Ukraine on a student visa in 2013.

Early on, she seldom slept while she stayed in touch with her family eight time zones away as they hunkered down in their hometown of Cherkasy, about 120 miles southeast of Kiev. They took shelter during air raids in a cellar with only enough room for the four of them to sit.

In early March, they joined the mass exodus from Ukraine, crossing Moldova, Romania and Slovakia to reach Poland, where Selivanova says they planned to wait out the conflict and return home in a couple of weeks. The ongoing violence, however, prompted them to look for ways to get farther from Ukraine and closer to Selivanova.

When Canada announced a visa program for Ukrainian refugees, Selivanova helped her family apply. By the time those visas came through, the United States had opened up a similar program so her family was able to change their destination to Madison.

"I couldn't believe it until I actually saw them in the airport," Selivanova says. "It was our only wish — birthday wish, Christmas wish — for all nine years to finally meet."

Colleagues show support
Selivanova says support from her St. Mary's colleagues has helped her cope with the stress of having her family in a war zone and then with making them comfortable in Madison. Her manager gave her extra breaks to check on her family in Ukraine, collect her thoughts and pray; other colleagues offered her moral support and brought her treats.

"And then, when I told them that my family was here and I took a couple days off, people were so happy and asking and bringing things to help — towels, food from the garden," she says. "They've just been very helpful and supportive."

Even though they qualify for some government assistance as refugees, Selivanova says her family isn't applying. "For now, we are OK," she says. "I feel like there might be more people who need it, and we are hoping that they will be able to work here soon."

Llewellyn says the adults in the families she is helping are similarly determined to find work while they decide whether they want to apply to stay indefinitely in the United States or return to Ukraine. She is hopeful some of them could eventually land jobs at St. Mary's once they have work permits.

The hospital has given gift cards to the families and her colleagues have rallied around them with financial and other support. Friends from Llewellyn's church have done the same, as have strangers from across Madison.

The children, who are ages 4-12, are attending Charis Classical Academy, a private Christian school co-founded by a friend of Llewellyn's. The school and the parents of other students are covering the tuition of the Ukrainian children.

Another of Llewellyn's friends, who is a certified English as a second language teacher, has volunteered his expertise to the families. Strangers have helped arrange swimming and soccer lessons for the children.

"Things like that, God just, it seems, answers immediately," Llewellyn says.

'We need to step up'
In addition to assisting the families in Madison, Llewellyn and her husband joined volunteers from a nonprofit Christian group in May on a weeklong trip to offer support to about 200 Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic.

The refugees were all connected before the war through a Christian school in Kiev. The families the Llewellyns are helping to resettle in Madison are part of the same group.

With the war in Ukraine being eclipsed by other news, Llewellyn says she worries that Americans will forget about the ongoing suffering of Ukrainians. "We need to step up and do what we can to help," she says.

Llewellyn was honored in June with SSM Health's Presidential Coin. Laura Kaiser, the system's president and chief executive, presented the award virtually. It recognizes the highest level of excellence in delivering SSM Health's mission to reveal the healing presence of God through exceptional health care. Kaiser chairs the CHA Board of Trustees.

On its website at, CHA offers information on programs and support being provided by Catholic agencies and partners to Ukrainians impacted by the war.

Further information:

Listen to CHA's two-part 'Health Calls' podcast episode on the Catholic response for Ukraine.


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