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Waveney Ann Moore: Easing transitions for newcomers

Waveney Ann Moore



Lilliya Soyfer, a substitute teacher in Sarasota County and a Russian-speaking volunteer with NicerFL, speaks at the initial outreach to Ukrainian newcomers on April 30 in North Port. Photo provided.

At the top of the news these days are stories of people fleeing home countries because of war, authoritarianism, gangs or dire poverty.

They come to America from places like Ukraine, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Afghanistan filled with hope, yet burdened by fear and anxiety. Many have a rudimentary knowledge of English, or none at all, and little understanding of American culture and how to make a life here.

Maya Lane, an educator who immigrated from Bulgaria, understands the uncertainty that can face newcomers and decided to launch a free, grassroots program to help the most vulnerable adapt.

She is the founder and president of the nonprofit SW Florida Newcomer Immigrant Educational Center Inc., or more succinctly, NicerFL.

Participants learn or improve English-speaking skills, get familiarized with American culture and receive guidance about key resources. Their children are tutored in English and math. 

A quote from Nelson Mandela prominently displayed on the program’s website expresses Lane’s philosophy: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 

The online and in-person program made a big push in North Port with Ukrainian arrivals, expanded to Sarasota and Tampa, and Saturday will begin in Pinellas Park. Lane is optimistic about broadening its reach to Pinellas County because of the potential to reach immigrants from a variety of countries.

She’s inviting new immigrants, their children and volunteers to an inaugural gathering Saturday at Pinellas Park’s Barbara S. Ponce Library.   

Library Director David McMurrin spoke about hosting the program. “We think it fulfills a need that our citizens have,” he said. “We have a fairly large immigrant population across many groups.”

Among them, McMurrin said, are Vietnamese, Hmong, Chinese, Lao, newcomers from Latin American countries, and a growing number of Eastern Europeans.

Lane, who until recently had been a language arts teacher at Pinellas MYcroSchool, a charter school in St. Petersburg, said NicerFL began working with Ukrainian refugees this spring because of the urgent need to help them as they began arriving in the Sarasota and Tampa Bay areas.

“They are very humble. The first thing they want to do is to learn English,” she said. “They are not complaining. I want them to become leaders and to help others. We do have a teacher who is a Ukrainian refugee.”

One of the newcomers is Lena Dzyubenko. She and her middle son were visiting her brother in America when Vladimir Putin invaded their country. The rest of their family was back home.

“They woke up from explosions, put their belongings in suitcases and left everything behind. It was an unplanned immigration,” she said this week.

She’s grateful for Lane’s education and mentoring program, which has had the added advantage of giving displaced Ukrainians a chance to connect and find comfort in each other.

“This is a big opportunity for us. We found new friends. We protect each other. We share information,” Dzyubenko said.

 “My family speaks English well, but we are not native speakers. I was very lucky to meet Maya. This is an absolutely amazing and sunny woman. She tries to find any information that we refugees need. Also, she is a wonderful English teacher.”

Lane’s program also gives those it helps the opportunity to interact with people who “tell us about America,” she said. “This is very interesting. We are like blind kittens sometimes. Everything is new for us.”

She, her husband, their three sons and her 80-year-old mother are working at putting down roots in Sarasota. For now, her husband, an IT software engineer, works remotely for a Ukrainian agency. Their older sons, 20 and 18, hope to enroll in college here. Their 13-year-old attends Sarasota School of Arts & Sciences.

“For him, everything is new, too, but step by step, his language becomes better and better,” Dzyubenko said of her youngest son.

“It’s not so easy to start from scratch when you had everything, house, apartments, documents. But what to do? We don’t have a way back. It is the war.”

Fortunately, they were able to bring their dogs, two Chihuahuas, one 7 years old, the other 3, but the older dog has a pinched nerve in his neck. “And when we went to the clinic, the bill for the MRI and surgery was about $7,000. We hope, maybe, we will find something more cheaper,” she said. “But we are grateful that the United States provided asylum and is providing weapons to defeat the aggressor.”

Dzyubenko, Lane said, was one of NicerFL’s first students. She credits Lilliya Soyfer, a substitute teacher in Sarasota County and a Russian-speaking volunteer, with the initial outreach to the North Port area. Soyfer had noticed that many Ukrainian children did not speak English and needed help, both with the language and academics. Soyfer contacted parents, who spread word to their friends about a program that could help. On April 30, more than 60 Ukrainians gathered at the North Port Library to learn more. They wanted help not only with English, but also to find out about their new community and to ask questions about immigration, Lane said.  

These days the program has more than 100 students and 40-plus tutors. Besides in-person sessions, there’s also online tutoring in English for adults and online math and reading tutoring for children.

In North Port, sessions are currently being held at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. First United Methodist Church of Sarasota lets NicerFL meet rent-free on its property. In Tampa, the English Language Program (ELP) at the University of South Florida has made classrooms available. Two professors with the program, Dr. Ariadne Miranda and Dr. Jane Harvey, along with students, volunteer. The location seems a perfect host for NicerFL’s program. The university’s ELP program teaches academic English to multilingual students for whom English is an additional language. Those students need English language support before they begin their USF studies.

Tom Perrin, a former banker and business owner, is a NicerFL volunteer tutor. “The extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people and their resilience and their adaptability” inspired him to help, he said. “There isn’t a whiner in the lot.”

Perrin, who moved to Venice from New Jersey seven years ago, works with adults, helping them with pronunciation, introducing them to American idioms and answering questions about American culture.

“They are concerned about taxes and what does a particular word mean, or phrase,” he said of some of the questions he’s asked.

“They are concerned about their children in school. Some have difficulty with the American system of teaching mathematics.”

Dorothy Gray, another volunteer, also lives in Venice. She learned of the need through a friend’s post on Facebook. “I was so taken by this and I timidly called Maya and she was so inviting,” Gray recalled.

“It is the best thing I have ever done in my life. This really touches me. I particularly work with teenagers and they are extremely shy and they are so polite. I keep reinforcing how brave and courageous they are to come to a new country.”

To encourage conversation, she started taking board games to the sessions. She also uses Google Translate. “They say their teachers are wonderful and open to them and the other students are too,” said Gray, who moved from New York about 20 years ago.

But she’s also learned from their talks that the teens worry about family left behind in war-torn Ukraine. It’s a common anxiety throughout the community. They also ask about things to do, Gray said, adding that she’s told them about the drum circle her late husband was involved in.

“That transcends all generations,” she said, adding that she and the teens have also been discussing a possible gathering to celebrate Ukrainian culture.

Lane cherishes the unselfishness and dedication of her volunteers. “These tutors are just so amazing. They always show up,” she said. “I have a tutor who works with a girl in Ukraine.” 

Another, Tampa high schooler Savin Karki, works online with a student in the North Port area. “He is amazing,” Lane said.

At present, the program gets no outside funding and is dependent on contributions from family and friends. Lane said, though, that she plans to apply for grants.

Born in the small city of Vidin in Bulgaria, she learned to speak English in high school and went on to earn a master’s degree in English Language and Literature. She also has a doctoral degree in Instructional Leadership.

She believed that she should use her education to help new immigrants. It’s her way of “giving back” and using “what I know to do something I believe in,” she explained.

She founded her program in 2020 and began offering online mentoring in 2021, but the effort did not hit full stride until this spring.

“It is very gratifying,” she said. 

Perrin, the volunteer from Venice, finds it fulfilling to contribute to the cause. “I enjoy it immensely. I think it’s a very pleasant way to help the Ukrainians against the Russian aggression and their crimes … This is one way to redress them,” he said.

“I particularly like to see the children, to hear them laugh.”


To learn more

Find out about the English Conversation Club for new immigrants and tutoring in English and math for new immigrant children, Saturday (Oct. 15), 2 to 4 p.m., at the Barbara S. Ponce Library, 7770 52nd St N, Pinellas Park.

To volunteer or learn about the conversation sessions, in-person and online classes, contact Maya Lane at or (727) 280-6804, or visit

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  1. Avatar

    Maya Lane

    October 14, 2022at12:57 pm

    Thank you for the thorough and accurate report of NICERFL. We hope more new immigrants will join us and more tutors will come. It’s a great cross- cultural experience for both.

  2. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    October 15, 2022at11:50 am

    Where will these people live and work????Locals are suffering for decent wage jobs and affordable places to live

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