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‘He Just Went’: Lincoln Man Races to Border, Works to Bring Ukranian Home

Apr 15, 2022 02:27PM ● By Cindy Lange-Kubick | Flatwater Free Press
a man walks by ukraine flag signs reading 'thank you matthew'

Photo by Eric Gregory | Flatwater Free Press

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

She searched 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. They posted stories about a man on his way to rescue a woman he’d never met.

Matthew Wegener.

This Matthew lives in a big old house with wife Donna Gould, daughter Verity, a three-legged rescue dog and two cats. A few neighbors on Ryons Street had those signs in their yards, blazing with the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

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

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

Four years ago, Wegener and Gould were host parents for a foriegn exchange student – Oksana’s daughter, Yuliia.

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

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.


It’s 3 a.m. on March 12 when the white Toyota, peppered in sand, pulls into the petrol station near 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 and a friend had been waiting at the gas station, preparing to film this first meeting while watching Iziumova’s progress on Google’s location app.

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

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

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

And there she stood.



Wegener left Lincoln to help one woman. 

But he learned he 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 help:  The Budapest train station, a scene of heartbreak in real time. 

Train after train rumbled in, filled with women and children and grandmothers far from home. They traveled with strollers, their suitcases and shopping bags stuffed with all they could carry.

It struck Wegener that many 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, becoming 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 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 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 longer. 

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

Wegener and Gould are onboard as sponsors, promising to be responsible for the Ukrainian 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. They have been amazed by the outpouring from friends and strangers.

The Nebraska tech executive, the Ukrainian accountant and others have passed their down time playing board games.

Oksana 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. Of shells dropping near her hometown.

They watch for progress on Oksana Iziumova’s application 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 thinks: “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, and she worries.

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

She’s now 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 return 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. Hopefully it will 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 always looking to build community,” his wife said. 

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

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

“He has a heart of gold.”

And those signs blooming on Ryons Street? 

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

The woman who wondered who this Matthew 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.”

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