Mankato Free Press

By Brian Arola 

Her hometown ravaged by Russia’s ongoing invasion, a Ukrainian mother got to celebrate her daughter’s recent graduation from Minnesota State University thanks to an expedited visa process.

Valentyna Zinchenko’s arrival in Minnesota in late April was a great relief for her daughter, Anya Hansen, a graduate student at MSU who first came to the U.S. in 2012. The timing meant Zinchenko could be there for Hansen’s commencement ceremony in Mankato last week, along with getting to spend Mother’s Day together.

The reunion came after Hansen reached out to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office, which helped her secure Zinchenko’s visa to come to the U.S.

Zinchenko lived in Chuguev near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The area has been under sustained attack since Russia’s invasion began in February.

“It’s under constant strike by the Russian military,” Hansen said. “A lot of buildings and landmarks got destroyed.”

Her mother tended to a beautiful garden back home in recent years, incorporating her flowers, vegetables and fruits into the local grocery store in a farm-to-table style. A cellar in her home proved useful for the business endeavor, then useful in an entirely different way once Russia’s bombardment began.

She and a close friend, whose home was destroyed, holed up in the cellar for safety for weeks during the night and the more frightening daylight hours. Although leaving her beloved home was the last thing Zinchenko wanted, the deteriorating situation in northeastern Ukraine gave her and her friend little alternative.

They only had about an hour to pack up as much as they could before heading to the train station to head to Poland. The station was packed with fellow civilians there for the same reason, leading to a nine-hour wait for an available train.

About 38 hours later, they made it to safety in Poland. Zinchenko laid low for the next 24 days until her daughter found out they could go to Frankfurt, Germany to petition U.S. Embassy officials for an immigration visa. 

Hansen was pursuing her master’s degree in accounting at MSU at the time. As she worked toward graduation, she balanced her course work with navigating through the visa process as her mother’s petitioner. 

The director and professors at MSU’s master of accounting, or MAcc, program were incredibly understanding of her situation, Hansen said.

While she worked through the challenging visa process, she reached out to Klobuchar in the hopes the senator could offer assistance. Since Klobuchar had visited Poland once Russia’s invasion started, Hansen thought, she’d understand the gravity of the situation.

Hansen described Klobuchar and her office’s response as “tremendous.” Klobuchar’s office helped expedite the process to secure Zinchenko’s visa.

The mother and daughter met with Klobuchar over the weekend, thanking her and her office for their help during a difficult time.

“Usually it takes people two years to go through this process,” Hansen said. “I was surprised how fast it was.”

Klobuchar brought up how Zinchenko lit up with smiles when Hansen’s graduation came up during their meeting. The mother’s pride was evident, Klobuchar said, adding that helping them get through the red tape of the visa process was rewarding.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things,” she said. “We have an incredible team of constituent workers.”

Minnesota’s large Ukrainian-American population makes the state a good fit for a refugee work permit program. Anyone with relatives in Ukraine can apply to bring them over, with Klobuchar encouraging people to email to start the process.