Sam Giangreco (left), Olena Abramova (middle) and Sheila Giangreco (right) pose in the couple's living room at their home in Auburn, NY. | Photo by Sarah Dolgin.

Reflecting on One Year of War

Olena's story is part of the "Reflecting on One Year of War" series, created by Central Current to offer a space to document and elevate the many Ukrainian voices of our local community. If you or someone you know would like to be part of the series, email Sarah Dolgin at

At 4 a.m. on a brisk October morning in 2022, the moment long-awaited by Auburn residents Sam and Sheila Giangreco had finally come: 

Olena Abramova had arrived from Ukraine. 

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” Sheila said as the couple ushered Olena into the house and showed her to the bedroom she would call her own for the months to come. 

The Giangrecos are longtime residents of Auburn, which has a rich, thriving Ukrainian community – though the Italian family has no connection to Ukraine, and had never been to the local Ukrainian church before the war. 

When war broke out in February 2022, Sam was disturbed by the gruesome images he saw on the news. He reached out to Vasile Colopelnic, pastor at St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church to let him know that he and his wife wanted to open their home to a Ukrainian refugee. With six grown kids out of the house, they knew they could provide a comfortable setup. 

Sam did not hear from Colopelnic for a few months following his offer, so he was excited when he received the pastor’s call wondering if it still stood, as a few other volunteers had since withdrawn. 

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re not backing out here.” 

In preparation for Olena’s arrival, Sam attended mass at Colopelnic’s church and began communicating with Olena through phone calls and messaging. Sam enjoyed the church service, which differed from what he was used to at St. Mary’s of the Lake, the Roman Catholic parish in Skaneateles.   

Olena calls Bila Tserkva home. Her husband Mykola continues to work for a territorial defense force in the city, located in the Kyiv oblast in central Ukraine. Her mother, along with the rest of her family, also remains in Ukraine. 

When the Russian military invaded Kyiv, Olena fled to Poland where she has friends, but did not know where to go after. Olena cast a wide net across her thousands of Facebook followers, joining groups planning programs for Ukrainians to come to America. After networking for a while, she eventually connected with someone from Auburn and would soon receive sponsorship from Colopelnic to fly from Europe to New York. 

Olena has planted firm roots in the community during the nearly five months she’s spent with the Giangrecos. The Ukrainian church offers English classes twice a week for the refugees staying with Auburn families, and Olena joins the friends she’s made at weekly mass and gatherings where traditional Ukrainian food is served. 

Sam, who worked as custodial maintenance for Seward Elementary School in Auburn for 35 years, was able to help Olena get a job as a teacher’s aid. The school welcomed Ukrainian children who are also taking refuge in the area, and Olena spends time in her new position helping them connect with their teachers and peers. Some have to use translating applications on their phones to communicate at school. Olena said translation is often harder for the children than the subject matter itself, which she attributes to the strong education provided in Ukrainian schools. 

While Olena and the Giangrecos come from different backgrounds, they celebrate their cultural identities by showing one another their favorite dishes, customs and activities. 

Sam and Sheila raved about Olena’s Ukrainian recipes, and while she said she does not particularly enjoy hot dogs or the way Italians put their sausage in the sauce, she too has developed a knack for Sam’s cooking. 

So far, Olena’s favorite Italian dishes include lasagna, meatballs and chicken marsala. She’s learned the American way of dipping everything in ranch dressing, and Sheila laughed as she spoke of Olena’s love for shopping in department stores like Kohl’s — especially on Black Friday. 

Olena cooks borscht (soup), olivye (potato salad) and many dishes that involve a very popular produce item in Ukraine: beets. 

The Giangreco house is decorated with Ukrainian flags, and blue lights that glow in the windows. Olena took a liking to the way the American flag encompasses the field at the beginning of football games, and is now a Bills fan, according to Sam. 

Outside the Giangreco family home, a flagpole with both the American and Ukrainian flags stands in the front yard, in addition to a blue and yellow lawn celebrating Olena’s presence in Auburn. | Photo by Sarah Dolgin.

A kinship has developed among the three. Like all families and housemates, Sam said that he and Olena bicker about silly things. Whether it’s what kind of meat to put into stuffed peppers or whether ice belongs in a cocktail, they find amusement when they come across a custom that seems odd to the other. 

For example, Sam recently discovered that if he is the one to open a bottle of wine, Olena tells him that he must pour the wine for the rest of the day. Once the bottle is empty, she places it on the floor. 

Sam and Sheila have found a new love for taking Olena out dancing and drinking, and the women are excited for a trip they are planning to Las Vegas for Sheila’s daughter’s 50th birthday. They plan to bring Olena to Zion National Park and Death Valley, and she’s excited to experience the American landmarks she knows from movies. 

While the time spent with the Giangreco family has been exciting for Olena, living over 4,000 miles from her family, apart from her career in editing and publishing, has its challenges. 

Sam said that some days Olena will be on the quieter side with tears in her eyes, retreating to her room for privacy. She tries to call her husband and her mother when she can, but the mobile connection is spotty from the damage to service grids in Ukraine caused by bombs. Her husband keeps her in the loop about the status of their home, and she sends him photos of life in America. 

She hopes he can join her in the future. 

In the meantime, Olena is working to get a New York driver’s license and plans to continue living with the Giangrecos as she navigates her new home. 

The Giangrecos see Olena as one of their daughters, excited for her to stay as long as she can. 

“She’s family,” Sam said. “There’s no question about it.”

Olena Abramova’s story is part of the “Reflecting on One Year of War” series, created by Central Current to offer a space to document and elevate the many Ukrainian voices of our local community. If you or someone you know would like to be part of the series, email Sarah Dolgin at

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Sarah Dolgin is a graduating senior at Syracuse University studying digital journalism and data analytics. Sarah enjoys covering arts and culture, equity and more. Have a tip? Contact Sarah at