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Ukrainian Refugees Struggle to Access Housing and Resources in the US

More than 100,000 Ukrainians have entered the U.S. as short-term refugees. Their ability to stay remains uncertain.

A person from Ukraine holds their Ukrainian passport before being allowed to cross the San Ysidro Port of Entry into the United States to seek asylum on March 22, 2022, in Tijuana, Mexico.

As soon as Russia’s war on Ukraine began last February, Jo Ann Radioli, a retired librarian living in Brooklyn, New York, knew that she wanted to help people who were being displaced. She quickly reached out to a number of agencies including the nonprofit Catholic Charities USA and a Ukrainian church, and asked what she could do. A week or two later, she saw a request from Catholic Charities to help a Ukrainian woman travel to the U.S. and immediately offered her SkyMiles to enable the trip. The 24-year-old travel recipient, Maryna Kobchuk, is now living in the finished basement of Radioli’s home with her 16-year-old brother, Ruslan Kobchuk.

Maryna entered the U.S. last spring through the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program, the largest private refugee-support initiative in U.S. history. The program allows Ukrainians to live in the country for up to two years. While here, they are permitted to work and can receive food stamps and Medicaid. The catch is that they need a U.S.-based sponsor, an individual or organization that agrees, at least on paper, to provide them with financial support during their stay.

Radioli — who is considered a host rather than a financial sponsor — describes Maryna’s sponsors as “fantastic” and says that they have not only oriented her to life in New York City but have assisted her in getting a job as a professional pastry chef.

“Uniting for Ukraine helped me a lot,” Maryna told Truthout. “Jo Ann has also helped me. My brother and I don’t have to pay rent, and she has bought us clothing and other things we need. And I love New York. It’s become my second home.”

Despite her effusive comments, Radioli says that Maryna’s life is still somewhat unsettled. Her mother remains in Ukraine, while her brother is here on a tourist visa that expires in June. He arrived in December.

Radioli finds his immigration status, and the precarity it implies, worrisome. Still, she says that she is grateful to Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program for helping Ruslan enroll in a public high school where he is studying English and taking traditional high school classes.

“Sixteen is a difficult age for any kid, but having to enter a new school, make new friends and deal with new situations in a foreign environment is really hard,” Radioli told Truthout. “Everyone agrees that it is better for Ruslan to be here, but he is going to have to go back home when his visa expires and then apply for asylum in order to return.”

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, has been monitoring the U.S. response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis since the war began. She told Truthout that Ukrainians’ legal status depends on when and how they entered the country. For example, less than two weeks after the war began, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that the U.S. was giving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians who were already in the country. This status, impacting 59,600 people, allows recipients to stay for an additional 18 months. Seven weeks later, on April 21, Mayorkas announced the U4U program, and stated that the country expected to welcome an additional 100,000 Ukrainians. Lastly, the 20,000 Ukrainian people who’d entered the U.S. through the Mexican border in the first weeks of the war were granted humanitarian parole, a status that gave them — unlike migrants from other countries — one year’s authorized stay.

“We have kids living in the shelter system far from the schools they attend.”

Between April 2022 and January 2023, approximately 104,000 Ukrainians entered the U.S. through U4U, Gelatt said. “For the moment, they’re protected. But those who came in February, March or April [2022], before U4U, are now facing their humanitarian parole running out. I think it’s likely that parole will be extended,” she says. “I don’t see law-abiding Ukrainian women and children being the targets of deportation.” At the same time, she continues, those granted Temporary Protected Status are also watching a ticking clock. “In advance of their TPS expiration, the government can extend the protections, open up the program further or cancel it,” Gelatt said.

As for U4U, she said that while the program has been well-utilized, no one is collecting comprehensive data on sponsors. “Anecdotally,” she said, “we know that many relatives and community members have opened up their homes and offered support of all kinds. But we’ve also heard that some sponsors don’t even show up at the airport to greet the people they sponsored. There is no enforcement mechanism to ensure that the support that was promised is given.”

Still, she says, the program works as a quick pathway to safety. “A sponsor’s application can be approved in a matter of days and Ukrainian asylees can be here in a matter of weeks,” she said. The sticking point is that U4U was created as a temporary response to what was expected to be a temporary crisis. “We don’t know how long the conflict will last and even if the war ends tomorrow, we don’t know how many people will want to return to a country that will need extensive rebuilding,” she said. “For me, the question is whether we should continue to talk about U4U as something temporary.”

Hosts like Radioli agree. What’s more, Radioli told Truthout that she not only worries about kids like Ruslan, but she worries about the many issues they face once they’re in the United States, among them having to enroll as English language learners in overburdened public school systems in numerous cities.

Their futures, she said, hang in the balance as they learn English and acclimate to U.S. life.

Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YM-YWHA) of Brighton-Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn — home to the largest Ukrainian community in the country — is at the epicenter of the crisis and offers a range of services to Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants, from preschoolers to senior citizens.

She is particularly attuned to students entering New York City’s schools.

“All English language learners in New York City schools need to be evaluated at the beginning of each school year,” Fox told Truthout. “When Ukrainians started arriving last spring, there were resources. The kids became part of the registered school system, but when they returned in September, none of these resources were deployed because each kid needed to be tested again. The kids were confused and many went home crying. It was as if they were stuck watching a foreign language film without subtitles day after day.”

While these students were eventually placed in ESL classes, Fox says that it is clear to everyone that the “influx of immigrant children is overwhelming the system, regardless of where the kids are from.” Their needs — academic, material and emotional — are also clear, but Fox says that the biggest issue continues to be finding affordable housing. “We have kids living in the shelter system far from the schools they attend,” she said. “This can lead to complications. The idea that kids are resilient and will be fine, not to worry, can push vulnerable people to make nefarious connections. Meanwhile, kids and adults continue to arrive every single day. This crisis is not going away.”

Marina Feldman, a second-grade teacher in northeast Philadelphia, herself an immigrant from Ukraine, is one of two Ukrainian-speaking staff people at her school. “An ESL teacher comes into my class for between 60 and 75 minutes a day five days a week, but the rest of the time it’s hard for the students,” she said. “They do not know the language and having to listen in English and not know what the teacher wants is very stressful. I can translate, and we have a translator who comes into the school two days a week, but we are stretched to capacity.”

“Children are drawing pictures of dead bodies.”

In addition, she said that students are not only arriving from Ukraine, but from Belarus, Poland, Russia and Uzbekistan. “The Ukrainian and Russian-speaking kids learn English at a rapid rate because I am able to translate and help them, but I have 33 kids in my class. Everything is different for these kids, even the way children interact with one another,” she said. She described the children as scared, like “little mice” when they first arrive, and said that they are often shocked by the disdain that is directed at teachers.

“In Ukraine, teachers are respected and teaching is considered a wonderful profession. Teachers and parents work together but now parents can’t always communicate with their child’s teacher,” she continued. “They’re also shocked that classes are so large. In Ukraine, classes normally have 25 or fewer students. There is also far more discipline so when they see a classroom here, they’re in shock. Worse, some of the youngest kids don’t understand why they’re here, separated from friends and family.”

Despite these obstacles, Yuliya Zolotarevsky, a job developer at Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New York’s Refugee Resettlement Program, said many individual Ukrainians are making strides as they adjust to U.S life.

“There are so many stories of random kindness,” she told Truthout. “So many people who are not Ukrainian, who don’t speak the language, are giving support to the Ukrainian people. We are working with a woman who was a famous opera singer in Ukraine. She came to New York through U4U with her 13-year-old daughter.” Zolotarevsky says the woman’s mother sponsored her and her daughter’s applications to leave, but her husband, a famous composer, is still in Ukraine.

The 13-year-old, she continued, is a gifted violinist, and Zolotarevsky was able to get her an audition at the highly competitive Special Music School, MS 859, in Manhattan. Her advocacy succeeded and the child was accepted in the middle of the school year. But it has not been easy. “She commutes 90 minutes each way,” Zolotarevsky said. “She practices two to three hours a day on top of her other homework, and is supported by her grandmother, a home health aide.” And while she and her family are grateful that she is safe and in a wonderful academic program, they also recognize that their needs exceed what they’ve received.

“New Yorkers have been so supportive,” Zolotarevesky said. “It’s been amazing, but the housing situation is horrible and we have clients whose kids are sleeping on the floor in a room with eight family members. Yes, they’re safe, but their temporary immigration status means they’re waiting to see if they’ll be permitted to stay here. Some, whose parole expires in March or April, are panicking. They’re also worried that if their work authorization ends, they won’t be able to survive. Their employers are also concerned since they can’t legally keep them on without authorization.”

Unsurprisingly, these stressors, on top of worries about friends and family still in Ukraine, have taken a toll on the mental health of both children and adults.

“There is not a single school that has enough counselors to help them and other asylum-seeking kids.”

“Kids are likely in survival mode when they get to the U.S.,” psychotherapist Robert K. Donaldson told Truthout. “They’re in a new city, a new country, not knowing what will happen next. They have been through things most Americans can’t imagine. Even if the immediate trauma is over, these kids may be terrified that their caregiver might be deported. They can sometimes coast for a while without making waves, but the trauma festers and typically comes out later in all sorts of destructive or unhealthy ways.”

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, adolescents who experience trauma of this sort can show symptoms such as anger, agitation, anxiety, depression, hypervigilance and changes in eating and sleeping patterns, while younger kids tend to regress and begin thumb-sucking, bedwetting, clinging to adults and withdrawing from playmates.

“Mental health is not being prioritized,” Anya Lukianov, a therapist at the New York City-based Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center (PPSC) and co-coordinator of the PPSC’s Refugee Support Project, told Truthout. “These kids show up in U.S. schools and people see little angels; many of these kids are experiencing hyperarousal and anxiety but these feelings are often stuffed down. Sometimes, the issues show up as physical health problems or kids becoming hypervigilant. They can dissociate, appear checked-out, passive. The issue is made worse by the fact that throughout Eastern Europe, mental health problems are stigmatized and people typically do not seek help.”

Like all advocates, Sue Fox wants every refugee coming into the U.S. to get the resources they need to succeed, from housing subsidies to mental health support. “These are traumatized kids and adults,” she said. “They left a war zone and saw things no one should witness. Their families have been separated. Children are drawing pictures of dead bodies. They’re bringing war and bombings into their classrooms. Some have lived through such severe food shortages that they express awe when they’re given a banana. There is not a single school that has enough counselors to help them and other asylum-seeking kids. They need refuge and will likely need it for the foreseeable future.”

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