‘He just went’: Nebraskan races to Europe to bring Ukrainian home

In early April, a Lincoln woman noticed something puzzling – yellow and blue striped signs planted in yards, printed with three words: Thank you, Matthew.

So she looked for an answer on social media: “Forgive my ignorance,” she wrote. “Who is Matthew and why is he being thanked?

Some of her neighbors on the Country Club Neighborhood Association’s Facebook page knew the answer, and they posted links to stories about a man on his way to rescue a woman he’d never met.

Matthew Wegener.

A few of them from nearby Ryons Street – where Wegener lives in a big old house with his wife Donna Gould, daughter Verity, a three-legged rescue dog and two cats –  had those signs in their yards, blazing with the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

They knew Wegener. An entrepreneur with a Lincoln software company and 30 employees. Co-founder of Turbine Flats, a hub for startups in an abandoned factory. A guy who roasted the pig for the annual neighborhood party and plowed their sidewalks and solved the world’s problems over a beer on the front porch.

A guy who, in early March, picked up his passport, flew 4,500 miles – and then drove 500 more – to help Oksana Iziumova, a 47-year-old accountant, one of the millions fleeing Ukraine in the midst of the bloody Russian invasion.

Four years ago, Wegener and Gould were host parents for Iziumova’s daughter, Yuliia, a foreign exchange student from Odesa, an historic port city on the Black Sea.

Yuliia became a daughter to them. When she returned to Lincoln as a Nebraska Wesleyan student, they sponsored her visa and opened their home during school breaks and hard times.

And a hard time came this winter. When the Russian shelling began in Ukraine, her host family quickly decided  to help her mother Oksana— a woman they’d only met over Zoom.

“We really felt she needed to leave,” Wegener said Tuesday from Germany. “We told her, ‘If you leave, I’ll meet you.’ We really didn’t talk about it.”

He just went.

* * * 

Oksana Iziumova (left) and Matthew Wegener (right) with a friend in Vienna on March 16, soon after the Lincoln tech entrepreneur united with the Ukrainian accountant and new refugee outside of Budapest. Photo courtesy of Matthew Wegener

It’s 3 a.m. on March 12 when the white Toyota, peppered in grit and sand, pulls into the petrol station on the outskirts of Budapest.

The driver is bundled in a winter coat and hat. She’s hungry and tired.

Oksana Iziumova has traveled hundreds of kilometers from a hotel room in Moldova, spun out of control on snowy switchbacks in Romania and Hungary, found herself stuck for hours at international borders and nearly ran out of gas in the 40 hours it took to reach the man waiting outside her car door.

“I’m here!,” she says, emerging from the car. “I’m happy!”

She opens her arms and hugs Wegener, a rumpled teddy bear of a man just as happy to see her.

“Wow,” she says. “Wow.”

Wegener had landed in Germany at noon, rented a car and headed to Hungary. He’d met up with Borbala Kriza in Budapest, a local who had been a dinner guest at Wegener’s in-laws in Lincoln 15 years ago, now their host and the woman filming this first meeting.

The two of them had been waiting at the gas station, watching Iziumova’s progress on Google’s location app.

They followed the little dot that was her car as it stopped and started and stopped again.

“We just sat staring nervously at our phones for two hours,” Wegener said.

Then as the night crept toward morning, they watched the virtual car turn their way.

And there she stood.

***

The scene of one small part of the Budapest train station, where thousands of Ukrainian refugees have sought refuge and where Wegener and others handed out blankets. A play area is set up for children here to occupy themselves. The open-air station is cold during the day and temps drop below freezing at night. Photo courtesy of Matthew Wegener 

Wegener left Lincoln to help one woman. 

But he learned he wanted, and needed, to do more.

The exodus of more than three million people from Ukraine is the largest mass-migration in a century.  

“This whole trip has been about how can I help more than Oksana.”

The best place to do that:  The Budapest train station. 

It was a scene of heartbreak in real time. Train after train rumbled in, filled with women and children and grandmothers far from home arriving with Ukranian currency they couldn’t use. They  traveled with backpacks and strollers, their suitcases and shopping bags stuffed with all they could carry.

It struck Wegener that many of them were middle class like Oksana Iziumova, with homes and cars, jobs and financial security.

“And potentially it’s all gone. They step off the train and they have no money. I have no idea what I would do in that situation.”

So he did what he could.

The value of Ukrainian money has plummeted to nearly nothing and become impossible to exchange.

They needed coins for the train station bathrooms, so Wegener and his companions emptied their pockets.

They needed blankets in the open-air train station, where temperatures dropped to freezing overnight. Wegener and Co. scoured store shelves, buying and handing out 60 blankets in a city nearly out of blankets.

“There was plenty of food and water,” he wrote to his friends on Facebook. “But hope was in short supply.”

***

Wegener hands out blankets at the train station. He and a group of people drove to the outskirts of Budapest to find the last remaining travel-sized blankets in the city, bought them and gave them to Ukrainian refugees at the station. Photo courtesy of Borbala Kriza 

Wegener figured he’d be gone for a week or two. 

He’s changed his departure ticket three times.

“It’s always, One more week and we’ll see what happens.’”

What happens is this: Everything has taken more time than expected. 

He’s spent days  helping the 47-year-old Ukrainian apply for humanitarian parole, a U.S. program that allows temporary admission into the country if a citizen pledges to support the applicant.

An attorney in Lincoln is helping complete the original six-page application that has mushroomed to nearly 100 pages with all the required supporting documentation.

Wegener thinks it’s crazy. And he calls the U.S. immigration system, one which is still processing refugees years after their applications “completely and intentionally broken.”

But they have hope.

Wegener and Gould are on-board as sponsors, promising to be responsible for the Ukrainian mom financially during her time in America if her status is approved.

“She will stay with us there until the war is over.”

They set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for her travel and resettlement and were amazed by the outpouring from friends and strangers.

The world got even smaller when Wegener made his plans to fly to Eastern Europe.

Borbala Kriza in Budapest. The sister of his wife’s dear friend in Vienna. A German couple who had lived in Lincoln and knew Yuliia’s German professor at Wesleyan. The people who have paid toll fees and cooked meals and plucked clothes from their closets for their homeless Ukrainian guest.

They joke that in another time, this would all seem like a Grand European Adventure. The square in Vienna, the walk along the Danube, Budapest’s ancient castles, friendly European strangers.

They’ve passed their down time playing board games. Triominos. The German version of Sorry! 

Iziumova insisted on cooking them all Borscht – careful to not buy ingredients from Russia – which they followed with shots of vodka.

They watch the news. The reports of murdered mayors, and shells dropping on the outskirts of Odesa.

They watch for progress on Oksana Iziumova’s application for humanitarian parole and hope for a small miracle.

Wegener missed his daughter‘s 13th birthday. He missed her cello concert and her rendition of the Ukrainian National Anthem. They watched the livestream from 5,000 miles away.

“Oksana cried,” he wrote on Facebook. “I may have, too.”

Matthew Wegener misses Lincoln. But every day, he contemplates this: “I have a choice to go home and she doesn’t.”

Oksana Iziumova thinks about going home every day. “I miss my country. My city. My friends. Everything.”

Her elderly father is still there. She worries about him. Her dad worries about her.

She can’t describe what this limbo is like. “Because I have no words to describe those feelings.”

For now, she is preparing for a new host family in Germany and applying for refugee status there.

She’s preparing for Wegener to board a plane in Munich and retrace his path to Lincoln.

She knows she has a place waiting for her – a big old house on a quiet street lined with blue-and-yellow signs thanking Matthew. It will hopefully be her home until she can return to her own home.

“I know we have family in America.”

***

Who is Matthew? 

“When he gets his mind zeroed in on something, he goes all out,” neighbor Matt Sahs said. “He gets it done.”

He’s a people magnet. A party planner. He’s even-keeled and easygoing when he’s not intense and driven.

“He’s always looking to build community,” his wife says. 

He’s a guy who would be “slightly mortified,” to see those public displays of gratitude, she says.

But a guy who absolutely deserves it, said neighbor Deane Finnegan.

“He has a heart of gold.”

And those signs blooming like crocuses on Ryons Street? 

“A very small way to show our collective support for Matthew and let him know how much we appreciate his kindness, compassion and big heart,” Finnegan said.

The woman on Facebook who wondered who this Matthew person was – and why people were thanking him –  joined the chorus when she got her answer.

“That is a story definitely worth knowing about,” she wrote. “How wonderful.”

By Cindy Lange-Kubick

Cindy Lange-Kubick began her writing career at the "Malcolm News," penned on her popo's Mobil Oil invoices in her grandparents' home in the small Lancaster County town. She returned to journalism years later as a harried mother of three, and happily spent the next 28 years writing columns at the Lincoln Journal Star. When she cleaned out her desk in August 2021, she carted home her three prized possessions: The Robert T. Morse Award for excellence in mental health reporting from the American Psychiatric Association, the Great Plains Journalism Award for column writing and a handmade plaque from her cribbage partner Stan, in honor of a once-in-a-lifetime feat: a perfect 29 hand.

8 Comments

A great reminder of the many good people in this chaotic world. Thank you, Matthew, best wishes to Oksana and her family, and kudos to Cindy for the well-crafted story.

Great story Cindy. Matthew is really putting himself out there. I read of the horror in Ukraine and wonder what can I do. But Matthew did it. Thanks Matthew!!

Cindy Lange-Kubik, you are the best reporter and writer I’ve read in papers from many other cities and states. Thank you for this wonderful story, and thanks to the FFP and the LJS for running it! What insights, empathy, delight, and goosebumps your writing brings. Thank you!

Cindy, I cried when I read your wonderful report. We have so few “feel good stories” about the invasion of Ukraine. Thank you!

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Thank you, Cindy for reporting about this. I am so moved at his and others’ generosity and big heart. One often thinks how can I help when there are so many? Start with one person. 🇺🇦 🌻 💙💛