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Omaha-area residents relate to Ukrainian refugee pain: 'A feeling I would not wish on anybody else'

Posted at 7:17 PM, Mar 07, 2022

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — With more than a million Ukrainians fleeing the country, area residents reflect on their own backgrounds as refugees.

Fr. Ben Varnum, a priest and rector at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, has a story that involves a woman two generations ago: his grandmother, Felicia Maciulis.

"My grandmother was a Lithuanian refugee after World War II. She and her husband fled as the Soviet Union moved to occupy Lithuania and other parts of Europe and she left her home, her parents. There was a big conflict in leaving," Varnum said.

After living in camps for a couple of years, Felicia's husband left her.

"He wound up meeting some other woman on the boat. Left my grandma, pregnant with her third child. My mom, who was born in Chicago. She arrived here. Got the ten dollars from Ellis Island (and) a job posting through the refugee resettlement process in the Chicago Campbell's Soup factory," Varnum said.

With a "spine of steel," Felicia gave her grandson some new perspective when he would refuse to finish the food on his plate.

"She would scold me for not eating the peas that she served me because I didn't like them. Talk about not knowing how good you had it — she had lived through real hardship, actual trauma, having her life upended — and here was her grandson annoyed about what he had to eat instead of rejoicing that there was food," Varnum said.

Now, Varnum is doing his part to pass that perspective to his parish.

"I share my grandma's story because I think the best way for us to learn is to empathize and I understand the story of family is something they can relate to because they know me," Varnum said.

"I was one of those refugees who fled Afghanistan with my family to Pakistan in the midst of war when the Soviet invasion happened in Afghanistan. Now Russia invading Ukraine brings all of us — the Afghans, especially the memories of Soviet Union — same Russians invading Afghanistan," said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, Director of UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies.

Ahmadzai harbors both empathy and pain for crosses that Ukrainian refugees currently bear.

"To just grab a bag and flee your own home to somewhere considered more safer than your own home. It is a horrible feeling anyone can have. A feeling I would not wish on anybody else," Ahmadzai said.

"I don't know we've got the answers to all those questions yet, but to be unsettled in that way is an act of faithfulness and it's a discipline that's not easy and it's not automatic," Varnum said.

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