When he first spotted her sitting in class, Jose Montes thought the shy Ukrainian student was no different than many other students who sign up for his English language course: a recent arrival, maybe a lawyer or engineer in her home country, looking to master a new language before building a new life.
A hard worker, Ilona Borysyak studied hard but revealed little about herself during her first six weeks at the adult education center run by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Montes said.
It took a class assignment — to write an essay about someone down on their luck and in need of a Miami Herald Wish Book profile — for Montes to learn more. Even then, Borysyak hesitated.
“She said, I’m very sorry to say this,” Montes recalled when Borysyak, 37, turned in an essay about herself. “She doesn’t want to speak about the issues, that she’s a widow and has needs, because she’s a professional and she says I can take care of myself.”
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Borysyak has two bachelor degrees in banking and merchandising, and speaks four languages. Her accomplishments won Montes’ approval. But her resiliency moved him: her first trip to Miami, her husband’s hometown, was for his funeral.
Like many others — even Montes himself left Cuba in 1981 looking for a better life — Borysyak came to Miami to start over after her husband died. She met John Thomas Gailey IV in Germany in 2006, she said, when she was still a student completing her second degree. Two years later, the retired U.S. Marine died of heart disease at 50. Staying in Germany without him would be too painfaul. Returning to her family home, a village about 300 miles from Kiev falling apart under the strain of Ukraine’s ongoing unrest, was also not an option.
Miami, she thought, would keep her husband close, at least in spirit. The move would also build on his belief that self-reliance is a lesson best lived.
“The first thing he taught me is let me help me,” she said.
But starting over in a bustling city navigating competing languages and cultures has turned out to be tougher than she anticipated. For the first time since she left Ukraine in 2001 and since leaving a position as a junior treasurer with the FTI Group in Munich in September, Borysyak has been unable to find a job. Relying on $700 a month in veterans benefits, she has been renting a room near the Viscaya Metrorail station.
But she’s hoping her Wish Book essay might catch the interest of an employer, willing to hire her for a job in finance.
“It could be a job in a bank,” she said, or any international company with an accounting department where her experience at FTI and language skills could benefit the business.
Growing up, Borysyak said she had free range of her small village, wandering neighboring woods, picking wild cherries. That inspired her appetite for adventure.
After high school, she said she enrolled in a junior college in Kiev and earned an associate’s degree with honors, then earned a bachelor degree in merchandising from Kiev National Trade & Economic University in 2004, again with honors.
Eager to see the world, she moved to Munich, got a job as a nanny and started learning German. When she learned her degree wasn’t recognized in Germany, she enrolled in Munich University of Applied Sciences and began working toward a degree in finance. Four years after arriving, she met Gainey and fell in love as they struggled to communicate in German and English.
The pair married in 2006. Two years later, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. Without insurance, Borysyak said he languished in the hospital for four months, waiting for surgery. She moved into a Catholic dorm for girls and waited, continuing her classes. Finally, as fluid continued to collect in his heart, he flew home to Miami, Borysyak said, but died soon after arriving.
Borysyak hurried to Miami on an emergency visa to attend his funeral. She returned to Germany after two weeks, resumed classes but started considering a permanent move. Ukraine was out of the question. Her mother, a retired teacher, had moved to Kiev to clean houses. Her father stayed put, but told Borysyak the small village was no longer a place to build a future.
“When I grew up, it was really, really nice. There wasn’t a war,” she said. “There were many opportunities for families and kids. Right now, I don’t know how many people are left. It’s just nothing.”
After leaving her job at FTI and moving to Miami in September, she looked around for a school offering English language classes and decided the more affordable classes offered by The English Center was the best option. Her dedication quickly caught the attention of Montes, who began teaching at the school in 1992, about a decade after he arrived in Miami from Cuba after living in Venezuela for three years. His own experience — he had earned an economics degree in Cuba but could only find a job teaching math for teenaged boys at two now defunct military academies — made him acutely aware of the difficult struggle for recent migrants.
“When you come to an adult center, the population issues are completely different. They’re more concerned with finding jobs and supporting their families,” he said.
Her move to Miami may mean starting over a second time, but Borysyak believes if she can just find a job, she can succeed.
“I’m fighting again for happiness for my future. You should never say I’m done,” she said. “You have to continue to work and see what you can get. It’s a new challenge for me, but I’m trying to stay positive.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com
▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans
Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook