State News

A Russian Vermonter is trying to help Ukraine, one refugee at a time

By Ethan Weinstein / VT Digger

Every morning, before she’s fully rubbed the sleep from her eyes, Natalia May checks social media for the latest updates from Ukraine’s more than 4 million refugees. Then, she starts digging.

“I basically became, like, a concierge of research,” said May, who grew up in Russia and has lived in Hartland since moving to the U.S. in 1997. “Refugees are posting, whether they’re in Ukraine, or in the process of going to the border, or they’re already in Europe, and they ask for specific information.”

Using her experience as a journalist in Russia and her master’s degree in information science, May sifts through the web, separating mis- and disinformation from the real stuff.

“I can’t help in any other way being here. But maybe if I give them the information — because everybody has a cellphone — I can send them the information that is better than what else is available, and maybe it’ll be helpful,” she said. “Maybe it’ll make the journey less painful.”

May has found small ways to help, disseminating the contact information of volunteers and applications for assistance. Thanks to the six-hour time difference, she answers questions while Ukrainians sleep. They wake to hopefully helpful leads. She wakes to new puzzles.

“I get up with this thought, and I go to bed with this thought,” May said. She feels duty-bound to help how she can. From her home in Hartland, she has talked to families scattered across Europe.

But since the war in Ukraine started, May has barely spoken with her mom and sister, who live in Russia.

“That’s how we handle it,” said May. “You want to know how things are, but I just could not handle the conversations about, you know, how I’m brainwashed here. That’s basically how it goes.”

Like many Russians in Vermont, May opposes Putin’s war. But not all of her family and friends back in Russia feel the same.

The annexation of Crimea, the separatist movement in Donbas, protests for democracy in Belarus — a decade of political upheaval in eastern Europe has distanced May and other Russians like her from their own families. As Putin’s government has clamped down on independent media, misinformation has seeped into the citizenry.

But the response is far from uniform, and though speech is suppressed, dissent persists.“I’ve been in touch with my friends who are in Russia, and they feel like hostages. They understand the sheer horror” of the war, May said.

Here in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott has severed the state’s official ties with Russia, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger made a similar decision to end the city’s relationship with the Russian city Yaroslavl. Yet those more intimately involved in those international relationships condemned the decisions, pointing out that dissolving ties between the two countries will only deepen the divide.

In fact, those very efforts first brought May to Vermont. While working as a journalist in Russia in the mid-1990s, she interviewed James May, a Vermonter working to establish the first legal clinic in Russia. The two hit it off, talking about their shared experience in journalism. Now, they’re married.

“That was some interview,” May joked, thinking back on her banter with James about deadlines.

James May, a professor emeritus at Vermont Law School, spent 15 years making trips to Russia to help Russians pursue aid-based legal work. The clinic he founded became a model for subsequent clinics nationwide.

The political climate in Russia gradually made similar aid efforts untenable. But relationships between individual citizens could persist — if only they were given a chance.

It’s those one-to-one connections, particularly with refugees, that May has sought with Ukrainians as a way to help the country in the midst of war.

She first got in touch with a woman named Yulia as she was forced to flee her native Ukraine with her 8-year-old daughter, Irochka. Together, May and Yulia communicated in Russian. (May declined to provide Yulia’s last name to protect the privacy of a refugee and her young daughter.)

As Yulia traveled toward the Polish border, she told May she was scared to go abroad; she’d never left Ukraine before.

“I just wrote to her, I said, ‘You know what, we’re far away. As a mom, I totally understand. I will stay in touch with you.’”

May has been in contact with Yulia as she fled Ukraine first to Poland, and then on to the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland, where she settled with a host family in a small village near Lake Geneva.

Along the way, May worked to find a jacket for Irochka, tried to connect Yulia with a Ukrainian-speaking volunteer not far from her in Switzerland, and sought out online French-language classes for her.

In Switzerland, Irochka has started school. Yulia is waiting on the approval she needs to work — perhaps she’ll find a job in hospitality at a nearby ski resort. It sounds like Vermont, May told her. As an immigrant in the Upper Valley, May too found her first work in the service industry.

She has also kept in touch with a man in Ukraine separated from his wife and two young children. The family needed baby food and diapers, so May searched for aid programs that fit their needs and for which they’d qualify. She discovered two such programs for the family.

Finding a way to help from afar can feel helpless. Spending time each day connecting with Ukrainians in need has helped May find purpose as the connections between her homeland and her adopted home dissolve.

“My heart aches for my family in Russia, for what’s coming economically. You know, I will not be denied this feeling,” she said.

Yet May’s Russianness — her knowledge of the place, the language — has allowed her to help the refugees she’s worked with. The strangeness of communicating with them in Russian is not lost on her, but it’s a matter of necessity. May doesn’t speak Ukrainian.

There is one phrase she knows, though: Dyakuyu, thank you. After corresponding in Russian, May has noticed people tend to sign off in Ukrainian.

“Yes, you’re a Ukrainian and Russian speaker, and I am Russian,” May said of these interactions. “But they recognize that we are the same in a way; we can communicate.”

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