The humanitarians in DeWitt, Iowa, welcome 50-plus war-weary Ukrainians to the town.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DeWITT, Iowa, Feb. 18, 2024 – It was two years ago this week when the very good life that young pharmacist Ginnel Gadimova had known in the southern Odessa region of her home country of Ukraine, fell apart. 

On Feb. 24, 2022, neighboring Russia invaded its neighbor country in eastern Europe with bombs, artillery, drones, tanks and the infantry.

Millions of other lives have been changed.  Even 4,500 miles away here in DeWitt.

On Thursday, here I stood chatting back and forth with the 34-year-old Gadimova, with both of us using the Google Translate service on our mobile phones. (You know what the Ukrainian language and English have most in common? They’re both terribly difficult to learn.)

Ginnel Gadimova (left), a newcomer from Ukraine, hosting two organizers of the reettlement organization in Dewitt, Karen McWilliams (center) and Angela Boelens.

She set out fresh-brewed tea and plates of cake, chocolate-peanut butter candies, chips and a bowl of fruit.  She has a radiant smile.  She told me how happy that she, her husband Ismail Gadimov, 39, and their sons Anar, 11, and Deniz, 8, are to be alive, safe and here.

I was here for two reasons: 1) The story of what is happening here has really inspired me, and 2) I’m an officer in the new “Multicultural Family Resource Center” that our Greene County Development Corporation has launched, to grow our workforce and population in our western Iowa county. We are now partnering with the DeWitt organizations to welcome Ukrainians in our area, too.   

Ginnel Gadimova was wearing a T-shirt that, on the front, portrays the characters in “The Wizard of Oz.” On the back is a famous quote from that story, “It’s not where you go, but who you meet along the way.”

And isn’t that the truth?

Ginnel Gadimova shows off the slogan on her T-shirt.

Among many others, Ginnel and her family chanced to meet Angela Boelens and Karen McWilliams, of DeWitt, who sat with us Thursday at the kitchen table for tea, the goodies and a friendly chat.

Boelens, 54, a business professor who commutes to Augustana College in nearby Rock Island, Illinois, heads a new and extraordinary group of volunteers here in DeWitt, “IA NICE,” a registered non-profit organization. 

That name is an acronym standing for “Iowa” and “Newcomer Integration Community & Exchange.”  (And you know how all in this state try to live up to being “Iowa Nice.”)

“I have the title of ‘President’ of IA NICE,” Boelens said. “Karen has the title of ‘The Person Who Gets Everything Done’.”

There are about five people who, like Boelens and McWilliams, 55, a retired nurse, do at least some work every day for IA NICE.  There are about 30 who support them on the IA NICE committee.  And “there are 100+” others around town or the area who’ve contributed in one way or another.

The extraordinary part of IA NICE is that in the past 17 months, they have sponsored, welcomed and provided all kinds of assistance to make it possible for 50 war-weary Ukrainians – there are 18 families among them – to get re-settled in DeWitt and nearby Grand Mound.  The count includes 31 adults, 18 children and one senior citizen.  Two young adult Ukrainians, who’d only known big city life back home, decided to move on to Chicago.  There are 10 more Ukrainians “in the pipeline,” Boelens reports.

“I am very grateful to Angela, Karen and everybody else here who has helped us come from Ukraine,” said Gadimova. “They found us houses, helped our children get into schools, found jobs for many of us.  We have been very lucky to find all this help.”

She said the Ukrainians “have adjusted very quickly, especially the children – they love it here. We feel safe. The people are friendly.  It’s like we are living dreams – America! And now we are here!”

Angela Boelens and Karen McWilliams lead IA NICE in DeWitt.

They are here on what the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services calls “Humanitarian Parole” visas.  That’s a legal status the federal government has provided occasionally, since the years following the Vietnam War in the 1970s.  It’s used to get innocent civilians out of harm’s way in countries suffering with war, oppression, economic and weather disasters.

People with “Humanitarian Parole” visas are not refugees or asylees. Those designations have permanent resident status.

These “HP” visas are good for only 24 months in this country, and normally, the holders are then to return to their home countries.  There are some limited possibilities they can extend their stays if they can find a way to get “Temporary Protected Status,” or become a permanent resident (or “green card” holder), or start the long and complicated process to achieve U.S. citizenship.

The countries that are eligible to have people here on Humanitarian Parole are changed from time to time.  There are now 10 including Ukraine and several nations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

“I think almost all of our Ukrainian people here would like to stay in the U.S. permanently and become citizens,” Boelens said. “They all understand how difficult that will be.  So we stay focused on the two years they can be here, and we can always hope for meaningful immigration reform from Congress.  In an election year, though, we know that’s not going to happen.”

One of the houses in DeWitt that was purchased for Ukrainians to use as they began new lives in the Iowa town. The Phoenix Group sign promotes a new construction company that two Ukrainian newcomers Maksym Hedzhymov and Yaroslav “Yari” Holovash started. The IA NICE group bought a truck, trailer and tools to help them get started.

So, how did it all come together here in DeWitt?

Well, you’ve probably heard that we should never doubt what a difference one determined person can make.

As Angela Boelens tells it, “I think everyone has a moment in life when you think about what you’re doing and how you got there.”

For her, “that moment came back in the year 2000 or so, about 7 p.m. one night when I was working late in my office on the seventh floor of the John Deere ‘glass palace’ headquarters building, with a postcard view” of the sprawling Deere complex outside Moline, Illinois. She was about 30 then, working in advertising and marketing, getting a promotional campaign ready to send out.

“I was actually waiting for a Papa Johns pizza to be delivered, and it just hit me – this is very wrong!” she recalled thinking. “I’m not here because Angela Boelens put me here. I’m here because I was lucky to have good parents, I was able to get a good education and learn how to do all this stuff.  I’ve worked for good employers, with good bosses and co-workers showing me what to do.  I should be giving back!

She would continue her career, she concluded, but once past 40, “I’m going to work to help underprivileged people.”

And she did.  She volunteered with several charities and public campaigns over time, and served on the Catholic school board in Rock Island.  She moved to DeWitt a half-dozen years ago.

Watching media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 horrified Boelens as much as it did the rest of us.  Her concern led her to find a website Welcome.US, an organization formed to help match interested American citizens to sponsor people around the world who need help.  The Clintons, Bushes, Obamas are among those encouraging the effort.

When I was interviewing Ginnel Gadimova, we communicated using the Google Translate app on our mobile phones, and it worked very well.

She went through the online process to sponsor two Ukrainian families herself, and at first put them in her former home in Rock Island. 

“When I realized how big the need was, I knew I needed to get more people to volunteer,” she said.

That’s what led to forming the non-profit IA NICE.

“We’re always tight on housing in DeWitt,” Boelens said.  “I was driving through town one day in late summer, and on the spur of the moment, I stopped at the DeWitt Bank & Trust and see Greg Gannon,” the bank president and CEO.  “Greg and his wife Cathy are really good community people. He’s one of the most innovative, ‘get-’er-done’ kind of guys.  So I told him we just had to get more people out of Ukraine, and if we were going to bring them to DeWitt, we were going to have to find places for them to live.  I asked him to keep his eyes open for any possibilities in town, or even on farms in the area.

“He was really quiet as we were talking.  I think he and Cathy may have already talked some about what they could do to help.  A couple of weeks later, he called me and told me he was going to raise enough money from local investors to buy a couple of houses that we could use to get families started here.”

Indeed, Gannon, 59, a banker for 28 years here in his hometown, found 21 investors willing to invest $20,000 each – for a pool of $420,000 to use on buying two houses as starter places for Ukrainians.

Greg Gannon, the DeWitt bank president.

“We had a meeting of the interested investors at the bank, and we talked about the concept of ‘helping out’,” Gannon said.  “We all agreed that we didn’t need to get our investment of $20,000 back.  Most of us would have been willing to write checks to support IA NICE in other ways.  But we decided our money would go a lot farther if we were providing houses for new families in town.”

That’s what they did, forming “NICE PROPERTIES LLC,” as a for-profit organization.

Was it surprising that local people would invest so substantially in a community project?

“That isn’t unusual for DeWitt,” Gannon said. “There’s a spirit in this town for investing in making things better.  You look around and you can see we’ve done that for churches, our aquatic center, school auditorium, athletic facilities, a terrific library, our little theater and other amenities.  This is a very supportive community.”

What are the Ukrainians now here like?

“Back home in Ukraine before the war, all of them were very successful, high-functioning families,” Boelens said. “Unfortunately, the families in more precarious situations financially pre-war, are either still in Ukraine or now in refugee situations in neighboring countries.”

The IA NICE committee stands ready to subsidize the newcomers for up to 120 days before “they’re on their own,” as Boelens says.  “All of them so far have become self-sufficient by 90 days.”

Another of the active volunteers for the IA NICE effort is Don Thiltgen, 77, who for 22 years served as mayor of DeWitt. He hosted international exchange students in his home, and led the establishment of a “sister city” relationship for DeWitt with Bredstedt, Germany. “As mayor, I always welcomed people, organizations and businesses,” he said. “I think having the Ukrainians settle here now is real positive. DeWitt has always been an open community. I like the diversity. I really enjoy it.”

Local and area industries, services and retail operations have lots of jobs available, and the Ukrainians are working in a wide variety of them.  Three have qualified for licensing in positions that require that.  Three families have now purchased homes of their own, after using the starter houses at first, then renting elsewhere for a time.  Fifteen cars have been purchased.  The Ukrainian kids are competing in six different sports, as well as being involved in music. The people reflect Ukraine’s diversity of religion – Muslim, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant.

What will launching this tremendous effort do for DeWitt?

“It’s a humanitarian thing, first of all,” said banker Gannon. “But it also has a little economic development to it, and it’s definitely a culture enhancement.  We’re close to having our immigrants getting together on some events that will have some real cultural influence in our community.  They are also helping us see the good in our community.”

And Karen McWilliams, the volunteer who is “The Person Who Gets Everything Done,” put a nice cap on our discussion. “There’s a new understanding in our community recently,” she said, “and that’s how much we can all do to help other people.”

The flag of Ukraine flies in front of a home in DeWitt that was once a church.

WE WITH THE MULTICULTURAL FAMILY RESOURCE CENTER IN GREENE COUNTY became aware of the IA NICE success because of the friendship of banker Greg Gannon in DeWitt and John Rigler III, president and chief operating officer of Peoples Bank.  Rigler’s bank has locations in three Greene County towns – Jefferson, Scranton and Grand Junction.

We are working closely with IA NICE President Angela Boelens as we move to sponsor Ukrainian families, and the first two families that could settle in Greene County have been identified.  The first could arrive in Greene County as early as mid-March.

The multicultural growth initiative in Greene County will also be recruiting families from many other cultures across the U.S. and around the world.

On our host committee for Ukrainians, these are the volunteer positions we’ve identified that we now want to fill:

–School system contact.
–Medical Center contact.
–Real estate connection.
–Community leader/ambassador.
–A Certified Public Accountant, or equivalent to help with tax education and preparation.
–A connection for community college classes & adult education programs.
–An organizer for collections of non-cash donations, like furniture, and subsequent distribution.
–A manager of home set-ups for the new families.
–An overall project manager and communication outreach.
–A person knowledge about U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services regulations.

From what I saw in DeWitt, I can say with certainty this will be very interesting and satisfying volunteer work.

Volunteers in Greene County can contact Rigler at jprigler@mypeoples.bank or the author of this column at chuck@offenburger.com.

2 thoughts on “The humanitarians in DeWitt, Iowa, welcome 50-plus war-weary Ukrainians to the town.

  1. How inspiring to read of the remarkable and HUGE difference IA NICE is making for so many Ukrainian families as well as for Iowa. I love the quote from the Wizard of Oz on the back of the T-shirts, which reads, “ it’s not where you go in life, but the people you meet along the way.” Thanks to Chuck for sharing this story and making us all want to find ways to be nice and to reach out and make a difference to others.

    • City - Denver
    • State - CO

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