Russia’s war on Ukraine has displaced the most civilians in Europe at any time since World War II. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, 8 million Ukrainians have fled for neighboring countries since the war began in February 2022.
Over 100,000 Ukrainians have entered the U.S. since then, according to UNHCR. Washington is one of their top destinations, with nearly 16,000 coming here since January 2022. Nearly 3,000 Ukrainians have settled in Clark County, according to March figures from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.
While a bevy of local organizations — from humanitarian nonprofits to school districts to private employers — have worked to meet Ukrainians’ needs and launch them on new lives, government policies and dollars have been slow to catch up with the flood of incoming people.
“Our refugee resettlement office in Vancouver is waiting for more direction from the government to determine how we can assist people seeking asylum, including Ukrainians with humanitarian parole status,” says a long-standing message on the website of Lutheran Community Services Northwest. That’s the locally designated agency partner that works with the U.S. government to resettle refugees and asylum-seekers in the Portland-Vancouver area.
Lack of direction and resources leaves many Ukrainians already here languishing in something like limbo. Limited by lack of English, they have struggled to plug into complicated bureaucratic systems — or private markets — in search of housing, training and job opportunities.
“Some of them have degrees and had good jobs, and now they wind up with nothing,” said Christine Zabel, executive director of Vancouver job-help agency Partners in Careers. “They think the American dream is going to be easy to achieve, but it’s not. It turns out to be so expensive to live here, and job skills don’t transfer without language.”
Even while struggling to build a better present, Ukrainians in Clark County are keeping anxious eyes on the future — because there’s no guarantee that they can stay in the U.S. in the long term. According to U.S. government policy, most can count on just two years of temporary protected status.
“A lot of our clients fear what the future will bring,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told CNN. “It’s creating an immense amount of anxiety and uncertainty. And it makes it virtually impossible to set down roots with any sort of confidence.”
The legal status of people who fled war or other crises abroad and resettled here has never been more muddled than right now, according to Matt Misterek, the local spokesman for Lutheran Community Services Northwest. Both Ukrainians and Afghans have flooded various immigrant pipelines in recent years due to crises in their native countries, Misterek said, but the government planning and responsiveness to their situations has been very different.
Before the war
Waves of Ukrainians started arriving in the U.S. long before the current war began. Migration was forbidden by the Soviet government, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians immediately started flocking to the U.S. Between 1992 and 1997, 108,000 Ukrainians came here, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The formal refugee pipeline from Ukraine was sped up by the Lautenberg Program, which provided for resettlement and family reunification for people in danger of religious persecution in former Soviet bloc countries.
“We have been resettling Ukrainian refugees for years,” Misterek said. “During the Trump administration, it was the highest numbers of refugees admitted.” The Portland-Vancouver area was the seventh-highest recipient of Ukrainian immigrants from 2015 to 2019, with 13,000 arriving, according to Migration Policy Institute.
“There is a very well-settled Ukrainian population in Vancouver,” Misterek said. “Some of them are American citizens now. Many of them are the ones now sponsoring newcomers. That’s why so many Ukrainian asylum-seekers are gravitating to Vancouver.”
Meanwhile, Misterek said, refugees from other places are still waiting their turns.
“We have people from places like Congo, Central America, other places in Eastern Europe, who have been waiting for years to get refugee status,” he said.
In August 2020, the crisis in Afghanistan abruptly forced a new immigration focus for the U.S. Tens of thousands of Western-aligned Afghans who’d worked with the U.S. or Afghan governments were threatened by the return of the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban regime and fled the country.
“It was a very dire situation and a mess of our own making, so the U.S. came up with this program to evacuate them,” said Misterek. “They were brought here in a hurry because their lives were in danger.”
Incoming Afghans are resettled by experienced government-partner agencies like Lutheran Community Services Northwest. They are provided temporary help with rent, housing and employment. But to stay permanently, they must apply for asylum and undergo a rigorous vetting process.
“They don’t have full-fledged refugee status. They have temporary parole status as war evacuees,” Misterek said.
That may sound precarious for Afghans, but their situation has been “more structured than the Ukraine one,” Misterek said. “(The U.S. government) didn’t create a program for Ukrainians like they did for Afghans.”
The lack of any formal process for escaping to the U.S. early in the Ukraine war even saw some Ukrainians flee to Mexico first, then come across the U.S. border from there. Their legal status was murky indeed, Misterek said, until just last month. On March 13, President Joe Biden announced a one-year extension for all Ukrainians stuck in that particular predicament.
Biden’s announcement was a relief to Ukrainians like Partners in Careers’ own Sasha Cheban, who works as a translator. In Ukraine she was a university professor who taught literature. She’s also the mother of two.
Pregnant with her third child when the war broke out, Cheban and her children fled to Romania and then Mexico. They entered the U.S. from there.
The journey was characterized by tragedy as well as hope. Cheban’s husband could not legally leave Ukraine with her because he is of fighting age. Cheban miscarried along the way, and her aged mother died (of natural causes) in Ukraine, she said.
Cheban used to hope to return to Ukraine, but now she never wants to leave the U.S. Her husband’s prospects of coming here as a legal refugee are good, she said. Working at PIC, and helping her fellow Ukrainians, has brought her deep satisfaction, she said.
“I don’t want to uproot my children again,” she said. “We really like it here. My children have a chance for a better life here. We are grateful for peaceful skies. Here, there are no missiles in the sky.”
United for Ukraine
Eventually, in late April 2022, the Biden administration launched a program called United for Ukraine, or U4U. The program offers the same two-year temporary protected status that Afghans get — along with the possibility of applying for permanent asylum — but there’s one significant difference: To resettle here through U4U, Ukrainians need private local sponsors who guarantee financial support for an up to two-year stay in the U.S.
“Our agency does not sponsor them,” Misterek said.
Who does? Previously resettled Ukrainians, for the most part.
“Since Day 1 of the invasion, we have been getting calls from relatives and households who knew about us because we were their resettlement agency,” said Iryna Pivkach, a case manager with LCSNW in Vancouver.
“The Ukrainian community in Clark County … opened their homes and they opened their churches. There were mattresses all over the place,” Pivkach said. “At this point, one year after the invasion, I don’t know one Ukrainian who hasn’t hosted someone. Everyone has pitched in, even for people they never met before.”
“We have 3,000 new arrivals in Clark County, and the fact that we don’t have people in massive crisis, living on the streets, is because of church efforts,” said LCSNW’s Nikki Chung, resettlement program supervisor for Vancouver. “There are countless heroes in the community.”
While private volunteerism is heartwarming, Misterek said, it’s a problematic way to orient newcomers to a strange country.
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“The situation the Biden administration created is so decentralized — we don’t think that’s the best strategy,” he said.
It’s been hard to track people and numbers of people, LCSNW and PIC staffers both said, and to connect them with resources they qualified for. Many settled sponsors are themselves still working toward stable, secure lives here and find that feeding and caring for additional newcomers from overseas a major challenge. Sponsor situations sometimes fall apart, Misterek said, and new sponsors or other backup help are needed.
If you think working through government bureaucracy is tough for native English speakers, just try applying for programs and benefits — and building an effective resume, for that matter — entirely through Google Translate.
“Clark College doesn’t have the capacity” to provide English language classes for all who want them, Zabel said. “But without that, getting a job is really hard.”
Construction jobs are one possibility for men, but not usually for women. Women who came without husbands face an especially tough challenge in paying the rent and feeding their families, Zabel said.
“Cash assistance is not huge. For two people it’s around $400 a month,” said Lutheran Community Services Northwest Vancouver case manager Valentina Kmich. It’s just a little more for families, she said. All of which amounts to peanuts in today’s pricey rental market.
The soaring cost of daily life has even prompted some older Ukrainians — those at greatest risk, but with fewest prospects here in the U.S. — to return to Ukraine, Zabel said.
Local philanthropic powerhouses like the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Cowlitz Tribe and the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington have helped fill the gap. Thanks to those resources, mental health help and appropriate cultural orientation based in Portland are just starting to come across the river now, according to community outreach specialist Yulia Shipulina.
Mental health care is sorely needed for deeply traumatized people, Shipulina said. “Some of those people have lost houses, families, everything,” she said. “We want to reduce their traumatic experience and post-traumatic stress.”
Art therapy is one way, she said. For children who aren’t capable of voicing difficult feelings — and for many Ukrainian men, who don’t like doing it — expressing trauma through art can be quite effective. Lutheran Community Services Northwest hosts “art evenings” in Portland and is looking to bring them north too.
“Ukrainian men are rarely coming asking for mental health help,” Shipulina said. “So we try to do it with art.”
One of the most comforting and positive benefits for Ukrainians new to the area is meeting the existing Ukrainian community, Shipulina said. Hundreds on both sides of that line have signed up to participate in social mixers and networking sessions, both in person and online.
“People who came from Ukraine 10 years ago, they’re the experts,” said Pivkach. “They are great community support.”