When the Biden administration announced its response to a refugee crisis in Ukraine ignited by Russia’s invasion, it stressed the temporary nature of its new program.
“We’ve heard widely from Ukrainians that they really are seeking kind of temporary refuge in the U.S. with family, with other individuals they have connections with,” an administration official said in announcing Uniting for Ukraine, a program that has since welcomed more than 100,000 Ukrainians.
“They are quite keen to stay near Ukraine to return as soon as possible,” the official said last April.
But a year into a conflict with no clear end in sight, hopes of any near-term return to Ukraine have largely been dashed for a population given temporary status and just two years to remain in the U.S.
Many Ukrainians have entered the U.S. not as refugees but “parolees,” waived into the U.S. without a surefire pathway to remain at the close of their two years.
“Many families are seeing their cities reduced to rubble or essentially annexed by Russia. With regard to Russia’s air capabilities and utter disregard for civilian infrastructure, there is a real threat to existence across the entirety of Ukraine. So this is a situation with all the hallmarks of a protracted conflict, one that makes returning safely all but impossible,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“I think there needs to be reconsideration of the timeframes that we’re talking about.”
Ukrainians have been steadily arriving in the U.S. since the April rollout of the program, a journey that has often meant first fleeing to a nearby European country and waiting in limbo until receiving approval to come to the U.S.
Olena Kopchak and her husband George Kodua fled the country with their daughter Yana, as well as Olena’s parents.
It was a particularly gut-wrenching decision for Olena’s mother, Oleksandra, who ultimately agreed to join the family at the last minute with just the clothes on her back.
The group arrived in Moldova, spending three nights sleeping in the train station before eventually landing in Poland, where a friend was able to lend them an apartment.
The parents were able to join their daughter Svitlana Rogers in the U.S. more quickly, having previously secured tourism visas for a visit.
But Olena and her family had to instead pursue a months-long path to the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine, a program accessible to them only because her sister was able to serve as a financial sponsor.
The process itself meant tracking down health records and other financial records from a Ukraine in chaos, something the family was able to do largely due to Oleksandra’s connections as a nurse.
“A lot of other families don’t have this ability and at that moment, and now, hospitals are overwhelmed,” Svitlana said.
“They need to treat patients, wounded people, injured people, and they don’t have time for the paperwork.”
Olena and her daughter were approved almost immediately, while George, a Georgian citizen, didn’t have his application approved until shortly before the 90-day window to book their travel was coming to a close.
But the family is now settling into life near Princeton, N.J., and looking to leave the frenzied exit in their rearview mirror.
Yana is enrolled in third grade. Olena got a job working as a teaching assistant at a Montessori preschool. And George just started a job as a machine operator at a pharmaceutical factory, a departure from his background managing construction projects.
While all nine family members were initially living with Svitlana, Olena and George have since found their own housing, a struggle itself given that many low-income housing options require credit history or other documentation those new to the country may not yet have.
Their time has been filled with pizza parties and even a first-ever trip to the beach for Yana.
“They come in and you try and to show them normality, and this is your home now” Svitlana said. “The community here is so helpful and so supportive.”
But Olena and her family are very aware that the life they are building is a tentative one.
“I’m very worried about our immigration status because two years will pass so fast, and we’re already a year into the war anniversary and two years will go so fast. We’re trying to build our life from zero here. And again in two years to go back to zero, no one wants to do that and it’s scary. And to go back to Ukraine, it’s impossible to think about starting life again not knowing what will be there,” Olena said through Svitlana, who acted an interpreter for her and George.
Family members still living near their hometown of Mykolaiv have told them that food remains scarce and electricity is sporadic — often only functioning just a few hours a day. And they’ve had to stand in line for hours for clean drinking water.
“To be honest, we would like to stay here because America is a country of opportunities, and also to have family over here is a big plus because we always will be supportive to each other. And to go back to Ukraine now, there is no chance. There is no reason to be back to Ukraine now,” George said.
“There is nothing to be back to, there are no simple things for living, there is no water, there is a shortage of food. … There’s no work, and it’s a war zone.”
Beyond the 115,000 Ukrainians who entered the country through Uniting For Ukraine — another roughly 30,000 have received approval to do so — are a collection of those who entered the country through other means. That includes those who crossed the southern border and who came on existing tourism or immigration visas as the conflict was breaking out.
This additional groups include another more than 150,000 Ukrainians. But under 2,000 have been processed through the official U.S. refugee program since last February, the only method that allows them to stay in the country permanently.
Those who came through other methods and wish to stay in the U.S. have limited pathways to do so. The backlogged asylum system is not designed to provide shelter to those fleeing from war.
“Unfortunately, in the absence of a credible, individual threat to them, generalized warfare isn’t actually considered grounds for asylum protection,” Vignarajah said.
The administration has designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Ukrainians, a move that essentially blocks their deportation due to turmoil in their home country.
But that protected status is set to expire at the end of this October.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which administers Uniting for Ukraine and also makes determinations regarding TPS, has pledged to continue to aid Ukrainians, but the form that will take remains unclear.
“DHS remains committed to supporting Ukrainians in the United States, and we continue to explore opportunities to provide avenues for humanitarian relief and protection for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s unprovoked war,” the agency said in a statement.
It’s a top concern for Svitlana, who has seen her niece begin to thrive in the U.S. after even the sound of an airplane above would send her eyes anxiously toward the sky.
“It’s time to bring this question to our leadership because there have been no conversations about it yet,” Svitlana told The Hill.
“These families lost everything and there is no place to go back. Now they are brought here and they finally have some stability. … Do we want to take this back from them again? And send them somewhere to start life again, where it’s not safe and we don’t know when it’s going to be safe again?”