When Russia invaded Ukraine, countless Americans watched the images of war in horror. But for one couple in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the conflict hit close to home in a number of ways.
Anastasiya Veli is Ukrainian and Orhan Veli is half Russian – but he also knows all too well what it’s like to be a refugee.
At the age of 11, Orhan’s family fled Azerbaijan when conflict began in the region after the Soviet Union broke apart.
“I was a kid without anything. My parents had nothing. And little by little we were able to kind of build that,” Orhan told CBS News.
His dad, once an engineer, became a pizza delivery driver when he moved to the U.S. Eventually, he became a business owner, running several Saladworks locations. Orhan became his business partner.
Orhan met Anastasiya, who moved to the U.S. from Ukraine when she was 11. The couple had three kids and found themselves now in position to help others trying to come to the U.S.
“Having walked in those shoes, it made perfect sense to want to give somebody else those opportunities too,” Orhan said.
When the war in Ukraine began, Anastasiya felt an urge to help people fleeing her home country. She reached out to her niece, a single mother, who she became desperate to save.
“Once they crossed into Poland, then the big question came: How do we get to America?”
She said she spoke with countless lawyers, but at the start of the war, there didn’t seem to be an easy path for Ukrainians to move to the U.S.
“Any refugee program takes years. Orhan can attest to that,” she said.
But a few weeks into the war, the U.S. opened Uniting for Ukraine — a pathway for people in the U.S. to sponsor Ukrainian refugees.
Anastasiya filled out an application to bring her niece and her daughter over, saying the process was simple.
“You just have to provide an explanation of how you will help the people coming over assimilate and how you will support them financially, with housing, with work opportunity and so on,” she said.
They met the qualifications and felt grateful they had the finances to sponsor people. So, after brining two people over, they brought another friend over. Then another. And eventually, they had helped save 11 people.
Two of the people they sponsored are Anastasiya’s cousin Katya and her husband, Sasha. They not only invited them into their home, but helped them start bank accounts, get their drivers’ licenses and find jobs — little things most people take for granted, Orhan said.
“For most immigrants, or especially refugees immigrants, when you come over. It’s not like you have a choice, ‘Am I going to work or not?'” he said. “It’s like, ‘Alright, I got to hit the ground running and go for it.’ My experience with Sasha was he landed and he was like, ‘I don’t need any time. I got to start working.'”
Orhan was able to get Sasha a job at one of his Saladworks locations, and he’s already moved up at the company.
The couple doesn’t take all the credit for bringing over 11 people. Some people in their community offered to grocery shop or donate car seats to the refugees they sponsored. Others opened up their homes.
“This horrible, horrible situation has really highlighted so much goodness out there that has come to the surface. And I believe most people probably think of it the way we take on this whole situation. It’s like, well, we want to help,” Orhan said.
Orhan said he had nothing when he moved to the U.S. as a refugee. Now, he has more than he ever hoped for.
“[We] have something that allows you to go and help other people,” he said. “It’s a great little circle that fulfills.”