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Dema Nesterenko and his mother, Oksana, at their home in Everett. (Kim Shepard/KIRO Radio)

Fighting for his sister

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A refugee from Ukraine who escaped to America is now fighting to keep his family together. The U.S Citizenship and Immigration Service in Seattle has told Dema Nesternko his mentally handicapped sister has to go back to the middle of a war zone.

Nesterenko, who lives in Everett, has been fighting for his younger sister for years, since Angelina was labeled by the Ukrainian government as "dangerous" and "retarded". He says in 2005 the government actually passed a law making it illegal for mentally handicapped children to attend public school.

Angelina's mother, Oksana Nesterenko, says there's such a stigma in Ukraine, that at birth the doctors tried to lie to her about her daughter's condition. But, she says she could tell right away something was wrong.

Dema became a political activist fighting not just for his sister's right to get an education but her right to live her life without being persecuted.

"People would laugh, pointing fingers. Like, 'Why are you taking your retarded kid? Why would we want to see that?'" Dema remembers.

Dema reached out to the local media for help, and that got the attention of the Ukranian government. They threatened to have him arrested and thrown in jail. He fled the country and was granted refugee status in the United States.

Since then, he has become an American citizen. He has also applied for his parents and his three younger sisters to join him. His mother and father were immediately given green cards. His sisters traveled to Washington on their visas, with plans to get them permanent legal residency after they arrived.

"A lawyer in Ukraine recommended [...] adjusting their status in the United States," says Dema. "So we went that route, thinking it was the right route to go."

Not only were they free from the persecution, Angelina has been able to attend school for the very first time.

Angelina has the mental capacity of a 5 to 7 year old child. While she was never taught to read or write in Russian, her native language, she is already learned to write her name in English and she is starting to read.

In March, Dema and his family went back to the immigration office in Seattle for their final interview. They were told there should be no problem, that they would probably get green cards for all three girls within ten days. Then, they got a phone call saying there had been a mistake. The girls would have to go back to Ukraine immediately.

"We're from Donetsk region. There's war right now. We don't have anything left there," Dema says. "We don't even think about this route to go back because there is no life for us there and there's no life for Angelina."

They have hired an immigration attorney and are trying to find a way to keep their family together. Dema had to give up his Ukrainian citizenship to become an American. His parents are both permanent legal residents. If the girls did go back to Ukraine, they would have to go alone.

Angelina has just turned 18. Her younger sisters are just 12 and 14 years old. So, Dema continues to fight. And his mother is very proud.

"It's amazing how he sacrificed his life to make sure we have everything, to make sure Angelina has her life. Of course I worry about him. The pressure we're putting on him is a lot," Oksana says. "I'm really proud of him."

Dema is working full time in Seattle, representing medical workers under the Service Employees International Union. His mother and father work full time as well. Dema says he's proud to be an American citizen, and he doesn't mind have to work hard to build a life here. He just hopes his sisters are given the same opportunity.

Find out how you can help the Nesterenko family here.

Kim Shepard, KIRO Radio Reporter
Kim Shepard is a news anchor and reporter for KIRO Radio and the office optimist. She's energetic, quick to laugh and has a positive outlook on life.
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