Grand Lake woman looks to help Ukrainian refugees |

Grand Lake woman looks to help Ukrainian refugees

Grand Lake resident Avis Gray meets in April with Stian Ringdal Abrahamsen from the Norwegian Refugee Council in Oslo, Norway.
Avis Gray/Courtesy Photo

Although she has lived in Grand Lake for over 40 years, Avis Gray travels abroad regularly. Her son, Ryan, works as the Director of Service Learning and teaches geography at the Oslo International School in Norway. Avis normally visits once or twice a year, but could not make the trip for two and a half years because of COVID-19. 

Avis returned to Oslo in April, and as she sat in a German airport waiting for her connecting flight, she called Ryan to tell him how excited she was for the trip. Ryan told her that she would have a roommate.

“(Ryan) said, ‘She’s about six foot two. Her name is Diana,’” Avis said. “‘She has just arrived from Ukraine.’”

Refugees in Oslo

Diana came to Oslo in March from Bucha, Ukraine, which is outside the country’s capital, Kyiv, as a refugee from Russia’s invasion of her country. Ryan and Avis decided not to share Diana’s last name with Sky-Hi News to keep her as safe as possible. She arrived with $88 and a change of clothes.

“(Diana’s family) had hoarded all of the American money that they could find for a while,” Avis said. “And this was the extent of what she had.”

Avis said Ryan has worked with the Norwegian Refugee Council for around four years, and through that work, he met Justyna Bell, a Senior Researcher at Oslo Metropolitan University who studies migration.

Bell asked Ryan and his wife Emilie to host Diana. Bell, originally from Poland herself, used her connections in the country to bring some Ukrainian refugees from Poland to Norway. Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine, has seen over 3.5 million refugees enter the country, although many moved on to other countries. 

Diana’s mother, who remains in Ukraine and teaches translation and interpretation, taught Diana English and German. Although they could communicate well, Avis thought Diana felt uncomfortable in Oslo. 

“I became, I decided, the grandma,” Avis said. “There was nothing threatening about a grandma.”

Avis told Diana that she heard Ukrainians made great pancakes and asked her to help make some. Working together made Diana feel less threatened and she started to open up, Avis said. 

Ukrainian refugee Diana, left, poses with one of her hosts, Emilie de Lajarte Gray, during an April marathon in Oslo.
Avis Gray/Courtesy Photo

A few days later, Diana told Avis she trusted Ukrainian newspapers and sources over other international newspapers for information about the war. That conversation led Diana to ask Avis if she would like to meet her mother.

“I said, ‘Of course,’ so we got on WhatsApp, and I, for days, was able to talk to her mother about what was happening in Ukraine,” Avis said. “One day, probably the second day, she said Diana’s school was just bombed out.”

Diana’s hometown of Bucha, an early target of the Russian invasion, has already started rebuilding. Russians killed more than 300 civilians in the town, though, during the month-long battle.

In her conversations with Diana’s mother, Avis felt like they were two mothers sharing a daughter. Avis appreciated her sense of humor when Diana’s mother told her she spoke perfect American English.

“As an interpreter, she said, ‘I have chosen American English over British English, and someday I would love to come visit you, and we can speak the tongue of Americans,’” Avis said.

Avis met more refugees than just Diana on her visit to Oslo. She helped take care of some Ukrainian children, six of which Bell hosted herself. Overall, Avis said 51 refugees were staying in the city, and many did not come prepared for the cold Norwegian weather.

“My son and Justyna, and the others, all bought them boots and jackets, and things that you wouldn’t think about as being part of the duties of (hosting) refugees,” Avis said.

The hosts thought of ways to entertain the refugees, who seemed traumatized, Avis said. Ryan took some of the children to a soccer game, which Avis said allowed the boys to let out their emotions through cheering while the girls seemed more reflective.

A few of the refugees came to Emilie’s birthday party at an Indian restaurant, and Avis said since some of the children’s families grew all their food, it was the first time they had eaten at a restaurant. 

“They were worried about what to do and what to eat,” Avis said. “They were very reluctant to just dig in.”

The birthday party made Avis think about the culture shock the refugees experienced.

Grand Lake resident Avis Gray eats at an Indian restaurant with Ukrainian refugee children staying in Oslo to celebrate her daughter-in-law’s birthday.
Avis Gray/Courtesy Photo

Helping from home

Avis said refugees like the ones she met in Oslo want to go back home, but doing so is not safe. Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said he “can’t give guarantee safety for every citizen” and said returning refugees would have to do so at their own risk.

While the U.S. promised to take 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, only around 30,000 have arrived so far. Avis said the difficulty of getting to the U.S. and a desire to remain close to home makes many Ukrainian refugees prefer to stay in Europe.

Ryan encouraged his mother to learn about the situation while in Oslo and go back home with an idea of how she and her community in Grand Lake could help the refugees. He set up meetings for Avis with Anna Maria Aune-Moore from the International Organization for Migration and Stian Ringdal Abrahamsen from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Aune-Moore works on resettlement and family reunification with the International Organization for Migration and told Avis about her work with Ukrainians, especially in Poland. Avis asked her how Americans could best help the situation, and Aune-Moore recommended donating to Caritas, the refugee council, Doctors Without Borders and World Central Kitchen.

Abrahamsen told Avis about how the refugee council works with displaced people with “dignity,” which she thought was wonderful. The organization gives legal assistance, informational assistance, emergency food and cash to refugees, Avis said. 

The meetings convinced Avis to try to get her Grand Lake Rotary Club to send money to the Norwegian Refugee Council. When she came back to Grand Lake, though, she found out the club had already sent money to other charities helping Ukrainian refugees.

Avis decided to give a speech to her Rotary club and ask members to give to the club, which will send the money to Ryan so he can split the funds between the refugee council and host families. Avis said the money sent to hosts would reimburse them for some of the money they have spent on their guests.

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