Ukrainian Refugee Starts New Life in America, Credits Manor College with Setting a Foundation

Dr. Yelyzaveta Mazepa completed the necessary courses that will allow her to enroll in an accelerated BSN program at Holy Family University.

Yelyzaveta Mazepa

The alarm clock on Dr. Yelyzaveta Mazepa’s phone chirped as it always did at 7:30 a.m. As she began her morning scroll, she realized she had 76 missed calls and 100 missed text messages. She knew something had happened. 

She looked out of her apartment window. The usual sounds of Lviv, Ukraine were gone, replaced by the clop-clop-clop of helicopter blades cutting through the air. She felt her building shake as military tanks rumbled down the street below.

On February 24, 2022, Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For Mazepa, it became the beginning of a two-year journey that included fleeing her home country with a family that includes an eight-month-old and finding a new life in the United States. 

‘It Was Like A Bad Dream’

Mazepa heard the warnings of an invasion in the days leading up to the first troop movements. Advice from Ukraine’s Western Allies advised residents to keep a “go bag.” This contained essential documents and items in case of an invasion. 

On February 24, Mazepa grabbed her bag, her son, Pylyp, and her dog, Ronald, and tried to leave Ukraine. She quickly discovered that leaving wasn’t an option. 

“Everyone was panicking,” Mazepa said. “Every gas station was empty. All the roads were closed. I went back to my apartment and stared out the window. It was like a bad dream.” 

Finally, that night, Mazepa got in her car, left Lviv and hid in one of the villages with family members. She remembers how dark it was driving on the roads. The Ukrainian government ordered all street lights turned off for safety. 

“I kept trying to keep with a car in front of me so I didn’t go off the road,” Mazepa said. 

Mazepa stayed in the village for the next month. The nights were the worst, she said. Sirens went off constantly, warning of incoming attacks. There was continual worry about where rockets would land. When they did sleep, the family stayed in the doorways between two rooms – the safest place to be in case the building collapsed. 

When the attacks weren’t happening, the war remained inescapable. She’d turn on the television to see emergency messages or news reports on the death and destruction. 

“During the first months of the attack, you’d hear how soldiers found mass cemeteries left behind,” Mazepa said. “I don’t understand why they hate us so much.” 

‘I Can Breathe Again’

With Ronald in a small bag over her shoulder and Pylyp in a sling across her chest, Mazepa left the village and exited the country. Aside from each other and the small go bag, she left everything in Ukraine. Even her car remains parked in the village outside Lviv. She doesn’t know what’s happened to it or if it even still runs.

The first steps to the United States began after she left Ukraine. The family entered Poland by bus. Over the next three months, Mazepa and the family flew to two cities in Spain, and then to Frankfurt, Germany. 

Stateside, family members already in the U.S. called the embassy every day trying to acquire the documents to get Mazepa and Pylyp to the United States. 

Mazepa with her son, Pylyp at Manor College’s Grad & Family Picnic.

For two and a half months, every day was the same. A family member called the embassy promptly at 9 a.m. The embassy put them on hold soon after. They would stay on hold all day until the embassy closed. 

In late May, a family member finally got through to the embassy. By June 3, Mazepa, Pylyp and Ronald were on a plane from Frankfurt to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Mazepa remembers coming through customs and hearing the agent say, “Enjoy the United States.”

“It was honey for my ears,” she said.

In the parking lot an hour later, the family reunited. There was no big motion picture-style emotional breakdown. Mazepa, who describes herself as a cryer, didn’t shed a tear. After every tense moment of fleeing Ukraine, sleeping in doorways, making their way to Europe and finally arriving in the United States after a nine-hour flight, Mazepa was spent. She was the “lemon that was already squeezed.”

“All that time, it was tense,” Mazepa said. “But at that moment, I understood that I could breathe again.”

Rebuilding a Life

While living in Lviv, Mazepa worked as a pediatrician. She studied at university for eight years and had seven years of experience in the field, but in the United States, her degrees and licenses didn’t transfer. 

Mazepa began working at the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown not long after she came to the United States. While she loved her work with children, it wasn’t financially feasible to continue. Her heart longed to care for them through medicine. 

Mazepa scoured the area looking at colleges. She needed to complete a degree in the United States to begin working in medicine. The biggest hurdle? She didn’t want to start over.

“I didn’t want to spend more time in school than I needed to,” Mazepa said. “I already did that.”

Mazepa’s search wasn’t met with open doors. Many colleges in the area didn’t accept her life experience or her degree. She was continually told that she’d need to start over fresh. One admissions counselor told her that she should “throw (her degree) in the trash” because “this diploma was nothing.”

Knowing her battle, a coworker at the daycare mentioned Manor College. The institution held a longstanding Ukrainian tradition. The worker introduced her to Nicholas Rudnytzky, the institution’s Dean of Academic Services. The pair’s first conversation was in her native tongue, Ukrainian. 

“I remember the day he met us because he was the person that gave me some calm,” Mazepa said. “He told me everything would be fine.”

Mazepa’s prior degree and work experience did count for something. With help from Julie Senecoff, Dean of the Division of Arts and Sciences, Mazepa enrolled in an accelerated program. She additionally received financial support through the Madeleine Dean Congressional Grant.

“I don’t know what would happen if it wasn’t for them,” Mazepa said. “They are my angels sent from God.” 

In May, just two years after fleeing Ukraine, Mazepa completed her courses at Manor College that will allow her to enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Holy Family University. 

“At Manor College, it’s not only about the education for me,” Mazepa said. “Studying here gave me the confidence to communicate with people more. Manor College gave me self-confidence. Before Manor, I was scared because I couldn’t see my future. I didn’t know what I needed to do. Now, I’m more calm. I can see my path.”

Finding Opportunity

Even after arriving in the safety of the United States, Mazepa feels the scars left behind from the war. 

A few days after arriving in Philadelphia, Mazepa heard the long, loud drone of an air raid siren. Instinctively, she ran and hid in the closet. A family member arrived and assured her it was the siren from the nearby volunteer firehouse. 

When helicopters fly overhead, Mazepa looks up to check to see if they are from the military. When the Philadelphia area experienced a magnitude 4.8 earthquake in April, Mazepa had a panic attack. 

When she was headed for the United States, she thought she might only be in the country for a few months. The longer the war continues, the less she believes she’ll ever return permanently. 

“At the moment, we have nowhere to return, the country is destroyed,” Mazepa said. “But I want to help Ukraine after getting additional education here. I’ll be able to help with the knowledge and resources I gained.”

Recently, she started getting texts and calls from her patients’ parents. Ukraine has a three-year maternity leave policy, and with her son approaching his third birthday, many of those patients are trying to schedule new appointments with her. She’s had difficulty telling them that she won’t be returning.

Then, there’s the dreaded Facebook scroll. Mazepa can’t pull herself away from video after video of death and destruction in Ukraine. 

As Mazepa continues to battle her scars, she moves forward praying for peace in Ukraine while simultaneously striving for the American Dream. She thanks God daily for keeping her alive and providing the little things most take for granted – dry diapers for Pylyp, safe walks with Ronald, nights watching Charmed and a private shower every night. 

Most of all, she’s grateful for the chance for a better life for Pylyp and the opportunities America can give them. 

“We already left everything we owned in Ukraine,” Mazepa said. “I’m here to give something to my son for the future. I need to give him everything to make him feel happy and in a safe place. I know I can do that here.”

Meet our Graduates

Diego Peralta

Brooke Strassle

Eddie Fortesque

Neysha Medina

Yelyzaveta Mazepa

Wandell Scott

Keith Donofrio

Hailey Ramirez

Tamara Ellerbe

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