How a unique Topeka program is welcoming immigrants and helping them thrive

Topeka, Kansas — When Angelica Chernytska and her mother Larysa left war-torn Ukraine earlier this year, they never expected Topeka, Kansas, would quickly feel like home.

“I was overwhelmed, that is how I can describe my feelings,” Angelica told CBS News.

That’s because the people of this Midwestern city have created a modern-day welcome wagon.

“It’s very rewarding to see the children thrive in school, not afraid of sirens,” said Yana Ross, president of the nonprofit group Top City Promise.

Ross, who immigrated from Ukraine herself, started the volunteer group to help new immigrants, mostly Ukrainians so far, with almost all expenses for three months, including a place to live.

Larysa said she “was overwhelmed” to walk into a fully furnished apartment the day after she arrived in Topeka.

What is unique is how the group has partnered with the community to ensure the immigrants have more than just a roof over their heads. A Latter-day Saints church welcomes the newcomers to pick up free food, while a Catholic church stores donations that furnish the homes.
Topeka Public Schools has gone as far as hiring a director of cultural innovation, Dr. Pilar Mejía, who helps ease the transition for children.

“We need to strengthen our community from the ground up, and it starts with the children, and so we need to make sure that everybody feels like they’re important,” Mejía said. “They are seen, they are welcomed.”

Topeka Public Schools now has an international flair. In the district of almost 13,000, Ukrainian and Spanish are the most common languages after English. More than 200 refugees have benefitted from the program and the helping hand extends to all nationalities.

Lisbeth Amador came from Nicaragua with her husband and 6-year-old daughter Sury. The couple have jobs, a car and a good school for Sury.

“I love it,” Amador says of her family’s new home. “…It’s different, my life here.”
The cost of welcoming a family can range anywhere from $300 to $10,000 depending on needs. Top City Promise relies on fundraising and the big hearts of the people who call Topeka home.
“Community is what makes Topeka different, because of the desire of the Topeka community to help, to help them to be successful,” Ross said.

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