Ukrainians in US rally to help 100,000 expected refugees

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FILE— Members of the Ukrainian community and others gather at the State Capitol to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a rally in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Approximately 18,000 Ukrainians live in the Sacramento area and the region is bracing for the possibility of many more Ukrainians arriving after US President Joe Biden announced the country would accept up to 100,000 refugees from the country. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

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As the United States prepares to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees after Russia invaded their country, existing communities in cities like Sacramento and Seattle are already stepping up to provide food, shelter and support for those fleeing war.

The federal government has not said when the official resettlement process will begin, but Ukrainian groups in the United States are already providing support for people entering the country through other channels, including with visas that will eventually expire or by taking the plane to Mexico and crossing the border.

“No refugee is waiting for you to be ready for them,” said Eduard Kislyanka, senior pastor of the House of Bread church near Sacramento, which has sent teams of people to Poland and prepared dozens of its member families for accommodate people arriving in Poland. California.

Since the start of the war in late February, around 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine and millions more have been internally displaced. President Joe Biden said last week that the United States would admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and provide $1 billion in humanitarian aid to countries affected by the exodus.

The federal government has yet to provide a timeline for refugee resettlement — often a lengthy process — or details about where the refugees will be resettled. The United States is unlikely to see a massive influx of Ukrainians on charter and military flights as happened with Afghan refugees last year.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chairman of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said the White House commitment to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians does not come with a minimum. Besides the refugee resettlement program, their main recourses will be to apply for humanitarian parole and report to the border with Mexico, she said.

Many of those who reach the United States will likely go to cities that already have strong Ukrainian communities.

The Sacramento area is home to the highest concentration of Ukrainian immigrants in the country, with about 18,000 people, according to census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. The Seattle, Chicago and New York areas are also hubs.

Word is spreading about resources available in Sacramento, where churches like House of Bread connect Ukrainians who have already arrived with host families who can offer shelter and help access government resources and transportation. Kislyanka called the church’s actions a “stop-gap” measure designed to help people wait for more clarity on the government’s formal resettlement process.

“Most of these people don’t have any relationships, like they don’t know anyone here,” said Kislyanka, who came to the United States as a child in the early 1990s. which can help them through culture shock and navigate the system…it makes things a lot easier and smoother.”

Sacramento has been a destination for Ukrainians since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many of those arriving were Christians taking advantage of a US law offering entry to anyone fleeing religious persecution in the former Soviet Union.

Another wave of refugees began arriving after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Of the 8,000 Ukrainians resettled by World Relief since then, 3,000 have come to Sacramento, Vanassa Hamra said. , the group’s community engagement manager in Sacramento.

Beyond the dozens of Slavic churches in the Sacramento area, there are schools that serve mostly Ukrainian and Russian students. Grocery stores and restaurants in Eastern Europe carry favorite foods like borscht, a type of beetroot soup, and varenyky, a boiled dumpling. Companies created by Ukrainians try to hire other nationals of their country.

All of this makes it easy for young people to maintain a connection to their heritage and for older immigrants to adapt without having to master a new language and culture.

“It’s very easy when you come here. All doors are open to you,” said Oleksandra Datsenko, who came to the United States six years ago and works as a waitress at the Firebird Russian Restaurant, which serves Eastern European dishes in a Sacramento suburb. .

Valeriy Goloborodko, who immigrated to Southern California in 2006, wanted to return to Ukraine until he settled with his wife in the Seattle area. There he found a thriving Ukrainian community and became the country’s honorary consul in Seattle in 2015, helping to organize an annual festival where up to 16,000 people a day turned up to feast on traditional food, listen to Ukrainian musicians and wear traditionally embroidered clothes.

“The Ukrainian community in Washington helped me feel at home – and it’s my home now,” Goloborodko said. “We feel like it’s a small Ukraine.”

Since the invasion, Goloborodko and other members of Washington’s Ukrainian community have lobbied for support from state officials. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee pledged that Washington would welcome Ukrainians fleeing violence. The Legislative Assembly has earmarked nearly $20 million to help pay the expected costs of housing, job training, health care and legal aid for Ukrainian refugees. The Port of Seattle has promised to help welcome refugees to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where they can start connecting to services.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, the state’s housing crisis could prove difficult as resettlement and community organizations seek housing for newcomers. Like much of California, the area is facing a housing crisis with limited supply and rising rents.

“People come here; we can help them; we can provide something. But it’s going to be overwhelmed so quickly,” said Kislyanka, the head pastor of House of Bread.

The Sacramento branch of the International Rescue Committee has an affiliated immigrant welcome center that already helps people who entered the country illegally, said IRC Sacramento director Lisa Welze. Many are nervous about engaging with resettlement agencies but need resources – especially housing – as well as help navigating the immigration system to see if they can find a legal route. to stay.

As for when the more formal resettlement process will begin, “we’ve been told we just have to wait,” Welze said.

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Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed.

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