After successfully enrolling 60 Afghan refugees earlier this year Access California and Valentina Purtell the president of North Orange Continuing Education hope to provide similar support to Ukrainian refugees.

NOCE is a community college in the North Orange County Community College District which is Fullerton College’s district.

Purtell who has always had the best interests of international students at heart moved to the United States in 1997 and began work in the English as a Second Language program at NOCE in 2002 and became the NOCE board president in 2015.

NOCE Board President Valentina Purtell

NOCE Board President Valentina Purtell, a Ukrainian native, poses for a photo earlier this year. Photo credit: Valentina Purtell

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 displacing millions of Ukrainians from their homes. When Purtell first saw the news of the Russian invasion she was both surprised and devastated.

“I have been shocked, as was the rest of the world, to find out about this unprovoked and absolutely unjustified war,” said Purtell. “And I do call it war, and outright invasion.”

Access California is an organization that aids immigrant families with citizenship and health services. Purtell worked with this organization earlier in the year to provide Afghan refugees with education and social services.

If possible, Purtell would like to provide this type of aid for Ukrainian refugees. She attended Access California’s annual gala Saturday and spoke with her partners about the wave of Ukrainian refugees that will likely be seeking asylum.

“We will reach out to them in the same way. We provide free English classes, access to technology, support, mental health assistance, academic counseling and career counseling,” said Purtell. “I’ll make myself available in any way I can.”

It is still too early to know if Access California will receive Ukrainian refugees but the City of Anaheim gave the organization a lease of a large center, located on Karl Kacher Drive near the NOCE Anaheim Center. This will allow for more potential collaborations between NOCE and Access California.

The recent invasion is personal to Purtell because she was born and raised in Ukraine or as it was previously known the Soviet Union. Ukraine was one of fifteen Republics that formed the USSR until it gained sovereignty in 1991.

Ukrainians achieved this freedom by voting overwhelmingly for independence in a national referendum.

“I remember witnessing it. I remember seeing it and being overjoyed with my fellow Ukrainians as we were on the streets truly celebrating our independence,” recalled Purtell. “I have seen this country gain its independence. I was there so it just really devastates me personally and breaks my heart to see my homeland be invaded and violated in such a way.”

NOCE President Valentina Purtell uses her Zoom background to remind her colleagues of her support for Ukraine.

NOCE President Valentina Purtell uses her Zoom background to remind her colleagues of her support for Ukraine. Photo credit: Julie Schoepf

Many people like Purtell are actively finding ways to help people in crisis but common citizens can help too.

“Just spreading the word, bringing awareness of the atrocity. I think educating ourselves, not just about what’s happening in Ukraine, but what’s happening around the world,” Purtell said.

She explained that college students in particular can help by showing kindness to other students who may have experienced such trauma firsthand.

“Be aware of the fact that we are surrounded by students, by community members who have experienced ugliness, brutality, and atrocity of war,” Purtell said. “Do anything you can to show understanding, empathy, compassion, and solidarity.”

Board President Valentina Purtell poses for the NOCE diversity poster.

Board President Valentina Purtell poses for the NOCE diversity poster. Photo credit: NOCE Campus Communications

Helping defend Ukraine at a national level is a delicate operation but it’s not something the American government has shied away from.

“It’s a very complex situation. I am inspired by the American government to stand beside Ukraine” said Purtell. “This invasion united Americans because it gave many Americans an opportunity to stand for what we’ve always stood for — our values of democracy and humanity.”

Ukrainians have gone through numerous hardships to gain independence and defending Ukraine from one of the world’s biggest economic and military powers may be difficult but Purtell stressed the importance of this battle.

“It’s not easy…the right of the country to choose its own path becomes an all-or-nothing fight. It’s a fight for independence, democracy, land, and national identity. So a lot is wrapped around in it,” said Purtell. “It’s very humbling and very inspiring to have lived through that history. It makes it even more devastating and hurtful to see this established democracy being threatened in such a violent way.”

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Cyrus Burton is a Fullerton resident who enjoys running, reading, and playing tabletop games in his free time.