It was 21 years ago when Ukrainian Alex Tyutyunnyk arrived at the University of Maine to study business. After falling in love with the country, he decided to stay and has been fighting an immigration battle ever since.
“A combination of community support and petitioning the family situation, we were able to become legal permanent residents,” he said Monday, standing in his Orono kitchen. “But to finish this long and difficult process we had to go back to Ukraine.”
“We were really hoping to be back in three weeks, but it took much longer. It took three months,” said his wife, Natalya.
That's because their first application was denied. A scary situation for the couple and their 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, who is a naturally born U.S. citizen. The family's last green card came a few days ago.
“It was Natasha's late mother's birthday,” Alex Tyutyunnyk said, breaking into tears. “It was the greatest gift because at that point we knew that we were coming home.”
Since arriving in the U.S., Alex's sister and parents have been able to immigate legally and earned their permanent residency years ago.
Over the years, there were some extremely hard days.
"Not to be able to see your family. Not to be able to travel,” Natalya Tyutyunnyk said. “Because both of my parents passed away and I couldn't even go to their funerals.”
One parent died in 2000 and the other one died in 2016. Her grandmother lived to see them return to Ukraine, and died while they were there.
Sophia said when it comes to her friends in Orono...
“I don't know what I am going to tell them,” she said with a giggle, that quickly turned serious. “Kiev is a really nice city if you're in the right place, like in the right spots in Kiev. Some spots really aren't that nice. They're kind of dirty, the air is really smoky. You can't go outside by yourself.”
Their other daughter, Diana, was 7-months old when she arrived in the U.S. She qualified as a "Dreamer" under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. That gives protections to immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. She arrived in the Ukraine in early December to go through the process to get her Green Card.
“It was a small apartment and we were just together, waiting and believing,” said Diana Tyutyunnyk, a Carleton College honor student and former Orono sports star. “I think this will be a moment that I will never forget it. I'm so proud of my family for their resilience while they were in Ukraine.”
Her message to other "Dreamers" is to keep fighting.