A Nebraska Man Steps Up to Help Ukrainian Women to Safety

March 11, 2022, 8:30 a.m. ·

Matthew Wegener sits smiling at a small couch in a side room wearing blue jeans and a beige button-up dress shirt. He hair is thort, ruffled and grey hair with a matching beard. He sports black, square eyeglasses
Over the next few days, Matthew Wegener will travel Europe to escort his former exchange student's mother to safety. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Lincoln resident Matthew Wegener first met Yuliia Iziumova when she was a 16-year-old exchange student from Ukraine. She was taking part of an exchange program between America and former Soviet nations and the Wegeners were her "host family."

“Hosting an exchange student is life-changing, and you just form a relationship with somebody that really truly becomes your child,” Wegener said.

Yuliia, now 20, is a junior at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. She decided to come back to U.S. after the exchange program ended. She said she still keeps in touch with the Wegeners, especially since Russian forces attacked her country.

“They were very supportive at any time, but especially throughout this process,” Yuliia said. “We have a wonderful connection.”

It’s that bond that is making Wegener do something extraordinary.

Over the next few days, he’ll travel Europe to escort Yuliia’s mother, Oksana, from Budapest, Hungary to a temporary residence in Munich, Germany – and away from the conflict swallowing Ukraine. He’s never been to that part of Europe, nor does he speak Hungarian, German, Ukrainian or even Russian.

“I took German in high school 30 years ago – you know, one or two semesters,” he said. “Everybody's become very adept at using Google Translate.”

Yuliia Iziumova stands smiling on Wesleyan's Campus wearing a checkered blazer and white shirt, her hair is in a ponytail
Yuliia Iziumova on the Wesleyan campus in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

When the Russians first invaded, Yuliia’s mom fled to neighboring Moldova while her father stayed in Ukraine to help the war effort. The mom thought she might hunker down in Moldova, but Yuliia and Wegener grew concerned that, if fighting continued, they might not be able to reach her again amid a flood of refugees and tight resources. Plus, the further away from the conflict, the better, they thought.

So, the two formed a plan.

Yuliia used her German degree and reached out to professors who used to live in Germany. She got recommendations about resources, what routes to take and more.

Eventually, a friend of a professor in Germany reached out with good news. "They very generously agreed to host my mom for as long as she needs.”

The mother will just need to get there. For Wegener, helping Yuliia's mom from Budapest to Munich is the least he can do for someone he’s grown to care so much about.

“When someone we genuinely consider a member of our family now, who is heartbroken and in tears, and talking to her mom who's also just scared and crying on a zoom call, you just get to that point where you have to do something,” he said. "From my perspective, that's…I don't know what else to do. I have to do something.”

For Yuliia, she still finds herself moved by the outpouring of support she’s received from people all around the world – from Lincoln to Munich.

“I think, and I've been saying this quite a bit recently, it is amazing how in this world, we are able to connect with people from any country,” she said. “It's been overwhelming, but in a positive way.”

Eventually, Yuliia wants to get her mom to the United States permanently. But the process to get a visa can be a long one. For now, she said she's satisfied her mom will soon be safe – and far from the war at home.

“I sleep better,” she said.