ANKENY, Iowa– A family in Ankeny is proving that the American Dream still exists.
Earlier this year, Mike and Sally Merritt decided to take part in Welcome.US, a non-profit organization provided by the Biden Administration’s United for Ukraine Initiative. Under this program, the Merritts became sponsors of a Ukrainian family in need, allowing them to come to Iowa.
The family is originally from Kharkiv, a city that was targeted early on in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Witnessing the horrific start of the war, the family decided to head to Poland, but they weren’t allowed to stay for long. Then, they went to Germany, where they stayed for a year and a half before connecting with the Merritts.
Sally Merritt’s grandparents came to the United States around 1910 after being persecuted in Eastern Europe.
She said, “And I always wondered, what was life like for my grandfather when they got here and didn’t speak the language and didn’t know anybody… It’s like, well, we’re retired people. Here’s a chance we can give back and pay the debt that I owe to my grandfather and whoever it was that helped him when he first came here.”
Inspired by her family history, Sally and her husband read about Welcome.US at the beginning of the year and were eager to learn more.
The program allows families in the United States to connect with refugees from several countries. The Merritts connected with the Ukrainian family online soon after. They spent a few weeks getting to know each other virtually before the Merritts officially decided to be their sponsors. It took around a month’s time for the family to come to America, which is extremely fast considering the normal American immigration process.
The Merritts’s role as sponsors was to help the family start their life in this country. The journey came with surprises and setbacks that no one imagined, but they didn’t go through it alone.
“Many of our family and friends stepped forward to give them money, to give them resources, help furnish their apartment,” said Mike Merritt.
The Merritts said it was heartwarming to see the whole community come together to help a family in an unimaginable situation.
Anya McMurray is an Iowa City native and the President and Chief Operating Officer of Welcome.US.
McMurray said, “It’s a testament to who we are as a country that people are willing to do this work. It’s not always easy, but it’s incredibly powerful and transformational.”
McMurray also noted that Iowa is no stranger to helping refugees.
She said, “Iowa was at the forefront of resettling the Vietnamese in the 1970s. And that is, in many ways, the roots of what we [Welcome.US] are doing now again. It’s private sponsorship. It’s saying that the American people are ready and eager to do this work… not just relying on the government to do the work.”
According to McMurray, Ukrainian refugees are coming into the United States on Humanitarian Parole, which she says has a limit of two years. What will happen when the two years expires is still unknown.
In the meantime, the Merritts are meeting with Drake University’s Law School regarding Ukrainian immigration. They say that the university outlined two options for Ukrainian families to stay past this two-year window. These options are asylum or temporary protected status.
The Merritts say that they will pursue both possibilities.
For more information on Welcome.US and sponsoring people in need, visit their website here.