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US braces for Ukrainian refugee crisis

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

Sizable Ukrainian populations in the US and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are pressuring the Biden administration to act on the growing refugee crisis as a result of Russia’s invasion. The recent resettlement of Afghan evacuees has, to a degree, set expectations among Ukrainians in the US, desperate to have their family with them.

While most Ukrainian refugees are headed to other parts of Europe, Biden administration officials are preparing to send money to help with the cause, including a commitment of $54 million in humanitarian assistance for those fleeing.

More than half a million people are already spilling into neighboring countries, including Poland, Moldova and Slovakia, in what the United Nations refugee agency said could become “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.” Countries in the region have become the first destination for those desperately seeking refuge.

That stands in contrast to the evacuation out of Afghanistan last summer, when the US took in thousands of Afghans who had worked for or on behalf of the US during the decades-long war. The Biden administration made a series of accommodations to relocate more than 76,000 Afghans after the fall of Kabul in August. As of now, it’s unclear whether those authorities, like humanitarian parole and special refugee designations, will be similarly extended to Ukrainians.

A State Department spokesperson said the administration is working with European allies and partners, as well as international organizations and NGOs, “to support those displaced internally within Ukraine and those who may seek safety in neighboring countries.”

Getting out of Ukraine has become even harder after the country’s airspace was closed to civilian aircraft amid the invasion, leading the US to cancel outbound flights for Ukrainians approved for refugee resettlement, according to a State Department spokesperson.

“We will continue to work with those individuals fully approved for US resettlement to reschedule their travel where possible through our Resettlement Support Center,” the State Department spokesperson told CNN in a statement.

Ukrainian diaspora in US

Prior to last week’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, there had already been a steady stream of Ukrainian refugees to the United States in recent years. Dmytro, a Ukrainian national, arrived in the US and resettled in Michigan only weeks ago. The feeling is bittersweet.

“It’s pretty stressful to understand that the country you left is essentially not the same country and it’s only been three weeks,” he told CNN through an interpreter. CNN agreed to identify him only by his first name over security concerns for family still in Ukraine.

For Ukrainians in the US with family abroad, the uncertainty is disconcerting.

There are over 1 million people of Ukrainian ancestry in the United States, according to 2019 census estimates. Traverse City, Michigan, has become one of the destinations with a large Ukrainian community.

Viktoriya, a Ukrainian national, arrived in the US with her family as refugees 25 years ago. Now a US citizen, she’s frantically trying to help her relatives who had also been in the process to come to the US get out of Ukraine. CNN agreed to identify her by her first name over security concerns for family still in Ukraine.

“Right now, they are in different places, which makes us scared,” she told CNN. “They don’t know what to do.”

Last month, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, a refugee resettlement agency in the US, was ready to receive 28 Ukrainian refugees, but their flights have since been canceled, according to Timothy Young, a spokesperson for the agency.

Dmytro’s brother, sister-in-law, and their 3-year-old child have been at the Polish border for four days, waiting to cross to safety. His brother was also in the refugee resettlement process and was just waiting for travel paperwork. He and his family are now among the scores of people desperately trying to flee.

Resettlement organizations scrambling

Refugee resettlement organizations are racing to mobilize resources to neighboring countries to assist people fleeing Ukraine in what some advocates say could be the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.

“If these refugees can’t go home, the US and the international community need to support them in the region. And if the region, in the long term, can’t absorb the refugees, countries like the United States and others need to talk about resettlement,” said Melanie Nezer, a senior vice president of global public affairs at HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization.

Thousands of people — primarily women and children — have sought refuge in neighboring countries, waiting days to cross into safety after a perilous journey to the border. USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who traveled to Europe amid the crisis, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan Monday that a lot of the most populated border crossings are “chaotic.”

News of those crossings traveled thousands of miles away to Traverse City, where a community of Ukrainians is fielding desperate calls and pleas from family and friends fleeing Ukraine. Among them is Pastor of the Slavic Evangelical Church of Traverse City, Vitaliy Pavlishin. The biggest question he’s daily is: What to do?

“People have no idea how long it will be,” Pavlishin said, referring to the conflict.

Dmytro and Viktoriya, along with their families, were resettled in Traverse City with the help of Bethany Christian Services, an organization based in Michigan that serves immigrants and refugees.

Sandy Mascari-Devitt, a refugee resettlement specialist for Bethany Christian Services, says she has plenty of families willing to take in Ukrainian refugees, but getting them there is the problem. “I have families here waiting that would welcome their families with open arms,” Mascari-Devitt said. But, she added, “I have no way right now of connecting the dots.”

Calls from lawmakers

A group of Democratic and Republican senators joined together this week to acknowledge the refugee crisis and back humanitarian relief for Ukrainians already in the US in a letter directed to President Joe Biden.

Democratic lawmakers have been calling on the US to lead the way on refugee resettlement. “We also must work with our allies to prepare for a refugee crisis on a massive scale,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Thursday.

Rep. Ilhan Omar echoed her Democratic colleague, saying: “As always, the countries immediately bordering Ukraine will face the greatest burden. The United States should lead by example, and begin to resettle refugees here as soon as it becomes necessary.”

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the number of Ukrainians resettled in the United States has ticked up and then hovered in the thousands in recent years, according to government data. The refugee resettlement process, though, can be long and cumbersome, meaning that an influx of refugees to the US is not expected imminently.

“The hope is that people can return home quickly. As the days and weeks go on, that hope starts to fade,” Nezer said.

The International Rescue Committee, one of the nine major resettlement agencies, is operating in Poland and working with the Polish government on reception centers for Ukrainians and others fleeing, according to Hope Arcuri, a spokesperson at IRC, adding that the agency is reviewing the feasibility of offering funds, trying to provide information on legal services, and language interpretation on site.

The same agencies involved in the resettlement of Afghans are on the front lines of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. The progression of those efforts, and the politics intertwined with it, may be indicative of the months to come as Ukrainians seek safety.

Most recently, for example, tensions over the resettlement of Afghans erupted in Virginia, where a conference center will be used temporarily as a pit stop for evacuees before they head to their destination in the US. In a more than four-hour community meeting last week, residents of Lansdowne, a neighborhood in northern Virginia and where the conference center is located, slammed state and local officials and authorities over the lack of transparency and community input.

“No resident of Loudoun County is doubting the mission,” one resident said, expressing his anger at the lack of transparency. “All of you have failed us,” he added while pointing at local and federal officials, to applause from dozens of residents.

The arguments made by residents were like those of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who supported the resettlement of Afghan evacuees early on. Later, some in the GOP began raising questions about the vetting of those arriving. The response to Ukrainian refugees remains to be seen. But for Ukrainians, this moment, they say, is when people in their country need the US government the most.

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