Opinion: I opened my home to a Ukrainian mother and daughter, and I filled it along with my heart

Opinion: I opened my home to a Ukrainian mother and daughter, and I filled it along with my heart

Updated: 13 days, 21 hours, 2 minutes, 12 seconds ago

Terwilliger is a voice actor/media producer and lives in Kensington.

In general, I am a very lucky person. My parking karma is off the charts. And I usually manage to make the light at El Cajon Boulevard and the I-15 southbound ramp. But right now, I feel like I won the lottery — a creative and heart-bursting lottery.

Back in February, when the war in Ukraine started, I placed my guest room on Airbnb to donate to a refugee, if needed. That need arose in early October, when I got a text saying that a woman and her 8-year-old daughter needed a place to stay for a minimum of two weeks, but suggesting that a month would be better. Vera and Vasy Ustyanskaya arrived in San Diego after spending five months in Poland to stay with a couple who had agreed to sponsor them.

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It was a precarious time, to say the least. They were completely dependent upon their sponsor for food, shelter and day to day amenities, Vasy started school, and they both began to learn English — their fourth language so far. They already spoke Ukrainian and Russian, and had just learned Polish.

Their original host unceremoniously booted them out. The shock of not knowing where they were going to stay took an emotional toll, particularly on the child. A Ukrainian school here in San Diego paid for five nights in a hotel, but Vera’s savings were depleted.

I had a brief phone call with the Ukrainian refugee coordinator in Virginia who texted me about the situation, and I said yes, “Send them over tonight.”

It has been a little over a month now, and they are welcome to stay with me until their paperwork makes its way through our immigration system or the war ends and Vera Ustyanskaya feels safe to return home to her husband and family — still in Zaporizhzhia. Her husband’s work is fixing airplanes, and while they are able to keep in touch, the situation changes daily, making it difficult for both Vera and her daughter to stay positive.

Vera is struggling with leaving her family, trying to work through our government’s paperwork, and finding ways to help her little girl understand and process what is happening.

But she is able to turn some of this emotional trauma into healing art. As it turns out, she is a very talented professional oil painter, and she has my whole garage/workshop to set up her canvases. The fact that I had this space was just fortuitous (that luck thing again). She started with still lifes of whatever fruit and vegetables have been lying around and is now working again in plein air. The canvases are starting to stack up!

Some of Vira Ustianska's paintings are displayed in her art studio in Connie Terwilliger's home.

San Diego, CA - November 17: Some of Vira Ustianska’s paintings in her art studio in Connie Terwilliger’s home in San Diego, CA on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Vera is very resourceful and has made contact with local artists and galleries, where a few of her paintings now hang, showcasing her talent. She is teaching a weekend art class at the Ukrainian school in the Tierrasanta Lutheran Church that helped her find emergency housing and filling my garage with color and the aroma of oil paint. She and her daughter are learning English at an amazingly fast pace.

We are settling into an easy pattern. And after hearing my assurances that she has a free place to stay until she finds other housing, she is transferring her daughter to a school close to my home. She has been taking city buses to school each morning for the past month — commuting one-and-a-half to two hours each way — to attend school near the house of the people who brought her here.

Vera has no income yet, but she has managed to find walls for a few of her paintings in galleries in Hillcrest and La Jolla. I am hoping to help her find additional venues where she can showcase her work and perhaps again make a living as a professional painter while she figures out what is next for her and her daughter.

In the meantime, my house is vibrating with creativity, youthful energy and the aroma of Ukrainian comfort food. I am happy to open my home and heart. Just lucky, I guess.

Vera Ustyanskaya, a Ukrainian artist, poses for a portrait in her art studio in Connie Terwilliger's home.

Vira Ustianska, a Ukrainian artist, poses for a portrait in her art studio in Connie Terwilliger’s home in San Diego, CA on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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