Once a newcomer herself, a sponsor commits to helping others

Stories of Welcome

February 14, 2024


Sponsorship is ‘giving hope; it’s giving new life’

Once separated from her family and friends by the Berlin Wall in Cold War Germany, Rebekka Bonner had a unique perspective of her “new” home in the U.S. The feeling of immense gratitude that she felt toward her adopted country as a young girl has never left her.

“I ultimately found myself here in the United States with my brother, my mother, my cat, and one suitcase and kissing the ground,” she said. “I've never stopped kissing the ground and really align myself with efforts to help other people around the world who are looking for and aligning themselves with the same values.”

Her experience shaped her views early on, leading her to support democracy and freedom. She went on to have a successful career in politics, serving as then-Senator Joe Biden’s press secretary and later becoming an attorney in New York City.

When Rebekka learned of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it flooded her with memories and feelings from her childhood. She knew she wanted to help and quickly discovered Welcome.US and Welcome Connect through a Google search. “It was a fantastic site. Everything that I needed to know, I learned through that site,” she said. “I saw that the practical tools would allow me to do this in a way where I would feel supported and that I would be able to do right by whatever beneficiary I ended up meeting up with.”

Rebekka Bonner (right) and her mom Dorothy (left) sponsored the Shatokhin family, helping them to escape the front lines of battle in Ukraine and find safety in New York.

Rebekka first connected with an older couple temporarily living in the Czech Republic who was working to reunite with their family in Oregon. She quickly agreed to sponsor them and helped to unify the family. But Rebekka didn’t stop there. She had connected with several people through Welcome Connect and decided to support another family that was desperate to escape the dangers of the front lines in Ukraine.

The Shatokhin family lived just 20 minutes from the Eastern front line, located near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Every day, we were getting more headlines of civilian deaths from the missiles that were hitting the center of town. And the kids had been out of school for about a year, because every time there's a siren, the kids get sent home. It was just so frequent that it didn't even make sense to bother to go to school on any given day.
Rebekka Bonner, sponsor

Before the war began, the Shatokhins lived in the southeast city of Zaporizhzhia, situated along the banks of Dnieper River. Iryna worked as a successful accountant, and Oleksii was the youngest-ever Head of the Tram Depot in Zaporizhzhia, with hundreds of employees reporting to him. Their children, Rinat, 13, and Anastasiia, 6, or Natsya as her family calls her, attended school and played with their friends.

After the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, everything changed. “Our region is very close to ground zero, they call it ground zero, where the main fighting takes place,” Oleksii Shatokhin said. “We also lived kind of on the outskirts of the city, toward ground zero, so we could see and hear everything that was going on. Our city was bombed a lot, and statistically the area where most rockets hit apartment buildings, like the one we lived in. The ballistic rockets that they were using were so close that a lot of times the air raid sirens would go off after the rockets would hit.”

Daily threats and constant fear dramatically impacted their lives. “There were nights at some point we were just not sleeping at all,” Iryna shared. “At night, there would be sirens for seven hours straight, because if there's fighter jets taking off anywhere around Ukraine, the sirens in our region would just be on constantly… So the kids were tired. Obviously no one was working. No schools, no daycares, nothing. We were in constant stress.”

To make things worse, Iryna said they were located near a nuclear power plant that was under Russian control. The media reported on how unsafe and unstable the situation was, and the Shatokhin family constantly lived in survival mode.

Desperate to find safety for their family, Oleksii and Iryna began connecting with friends and community members. One friend recommended Welcome Connect, and they were able to connect with Rebekka.

The Shatokhin family enjoying time together in their hometown of Zaporizhzhia, prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

After several messages sharing more about their experience with Rebekka, they were able to make a plan to safely leave Ukraine. They first went to Spain, where an aid organization provided resources, support, and instructions on what they could take with them. A week later, the Shatokhin family arrived in New York’s JFK airport to meet Rebekka.

“We were really jetlagged, and when we came here, Rebekka was waiting for us for so long because we had to go through customs,” Oleksii said. “We came out, and we saw this kind and smiling person and she had a flag—half Ukrainian, half American—that she made… It was absolutely incredible.”

The family has experienced immense support from Rebekka and her mother, Dorothy Bonner. Irnya said Rebekka, “presented herself as such an organized and caring person, even before we got there. It was just incredible. She had all the appointments lined up, our apartment—absolutely everything.”

Rinat and Nastya are finally back in school, which was one of Iryna and Oleksii’s main concerns. Rebekka and her mother, a retired school teacher, secured an apartment for the Shatokhins in Vestal, N.Y., which is known for having some of the area’s best schools, and the kids are loving the experience. They live just a few hours north of Rebekka.

Iryna is taking English classes and hopes to transfer her credentials to begin working again as an accountant. Oleksii is now working as a repair mechanic for the region's largest pool and spa retailer. The family has become deeply connected to their community, and Oleksii shared that their hope now is to apply for permanent citizenship. “Our main hope for our future here is that somehow we can extend our stay and legalize it further, at least for the sake of the kids,” he said. “We really see the difference in the kids, how they are developing. And we want them to continue their studies here. Our son has such big plans. He wants to go to college. He already knows what he wants to do, how he's going to make money, and what he's going to buy for us.”

The Shatokhins are eternally grateful for the opportunity that Rebekka and her mother provided.

Sponsors like Rebekka, they're literally saving lives and giving people hope. My kids are smiling again… Sponsorship is more than just bringing somebody over. It's giving hope. It's giving new life and new opportunities. In return, we're hoping that we're helping the country as well.
Oleksii Shakokhin, Ukrainian newcomer

Oleksii added that they hope more sponsors rise to the occasion to help others. “There are a lot more people in Ukraine who are in similar situations there. They live on the front lines, and they're still hoping to find somebody who could help them survive.”

Rebekka remains in touch with both families that she has sponsored. “They became very self-sufficient very quickly,” she said of the Shatokhin family. She hopes to soon sponsor a third family.

“Just do it,” she said to those considering sponsorship. “You'll never be prouder, you'll never mean more to another person that you never otherwise would have met. It'll massively enrich your life and massively enrich theirs. And when your career is over, when you're in later life, reflecting back on what you contributed to this world, this is something that will always float to the top of your list if you're ever wondering if you made a difference.”

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