Ukrainians who fled the Russian invasion are struggling to be reunited with their families in the US


Inna Kozyar feels guilty and helpless in the US

Kozyar, a 44-year-old mother of two from a town outside of Kyiv, was able to come to the United States with her daughters two days after starting in Russia invasion of Ukraine. Now, thousands of miles away in Pennsylvania, she has witnessed a ruthless war that has ravaged her homeland, killing thousands of civilians and driving millions of refugees.

“I can’t sleep at night,” Kozyar said, citing CBS News the recent bombing raids of a theater providing shelter to women and children in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. “I wake up in the middle of the night.”

In a way, Kozyar and her daughters – Anya, 20, and Sophia, 17 – are lucky. Their US tourist visas were approved before the Russian invasion. They were able to flee their homeland to Poland, where they boarded a flight to the United States. Kozyar’s sister-in-law is now taking her to her home in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

In another way, Kozyar finds himself in the same predicament as other Ukrainians or Ukrainian-Americans in the US struggling to help their family members flee Ukraine or other European countries where more than 3.6 million people are transiting expelled by the Russian invasion.

Kozyar’s parents, both in their 80s, managed to flee to Poland. She wants them to join her in the US, but they don’t have a visa that is required to legally enter the US. It usually takes months to process as the backlog of applications at American consulates is increasing.

“They also cry because they are alone in Poland and are not young anymore,” said Kozyar. “They want to be with their family.”

From left: Anya, Inna and Sophia Kozyar.

Courtesy of Sarah Kuzmenko

Kozyar’s elderly parents are among an unknown number of Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion who currently have no legal way to get to the US, although they have immediate family members here who are willing and willing to welcome them.

While President Biden has expressed support for taking in Ukrainian refugees and has approved millions of dollars in aid for those displaced by the war, his administration has yet to announce concrete plans to speed up the processing of Ukrainians hoping to come here. Officials have also said that the vast majority of Ukrainians will remain in Europe.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said The US will only handle refugee cases of Ukrainians in third countries “who cannot be protected”. But even that process, crippled by the pandemic and Trump administration cutbacks, typically takes years due to interviews, security clearances, medical exams and other steps.

So far in March, the US has taken in a dozen Ukrainians as refugees, most likely all of whom were in the resettlement pipeline well before the Russian invasion, according to internal government data shared with CBS News.

The U.S. can expedite visa-free Ukrainians into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds through a process known as probation. But the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has set strict requirements for this process and is currently reviewing tens of thousands of parole applications from Afghans trying to flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Also, unlike refugee status, parole does not offer permanent U.S. residency to immigrants. Since February 23, the US has received 168 humanitarian parole applications from Ukrainians, according to unreleased USCIS data available to CBS News. Some applications for children seeking medical treatment in the US have already been decided, a person familiar with the matter said.

Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, a US refugee resettlement group, said the US should prioritize family reunification in its efforts to help displaced Ukrainians. Expanding the refugee program’s infrastructure, reducing application backlogs, and hiring a White House official to oversee those efforts would help Ukrainians and others flee wars around the world, she said.

“In recent years, the US resettlement program has been undercut and marginalized, and for many who don’t realize the importance of this lifeline, this current crisis will be an eye-opener,” Owen told CBS News.

Sarah Kuzmenko, 38, Kozyar’s sister-in-law, said she’s noticed overwhelming support for helping Ukrainians in her local community in Pennsylvania, a sentiment that has echoed across the US

“That’s the frustrating thing. I get daily, weekly calls, emails, text messages from people who want to help in all sorts of ways, either by providing rooms, or money, or clothes, or just any other way,” Kuzmenko said. “And we can’t bring the Ukrainians that we know, and some of them are even our extended family, here because they don’t have a valid visa.”

According to 2019 government estimates, around 1 million people of Ukrainian descent live in the United States, including an estimated 355,000 Ukrainian-born immigrants.

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created an 18-month temporary protected status (TPS) program for an estimated 75,100 Ukrainian immigrants who settled in Ukraine on April 1.

Kozyar and her daughters qualify for the TPS program because they arrived in the United States on February 26th. But DHS has yet to open the program to applications, meaning the only status the family has is their tourist visas, which don’t entitle them to work.

While relieved that her daughters are safe in the US, Kozyar still worries about her family in Europe and her uncertain legal status here.

“In Ukraine we still have bombs every day and it’s not far from my home and actually I don’t know if I have a home. But of course I don’t have a home here either and I can’t work,” she said.

Anya was studying at a university in Ukraine before the Russian invasion, but she cannot continue her studies in the US on her tourist visa. She also worries about her grandparents and father, who stayed in Ukraine along with other men who were ordered to stay and help fight the Russians.

“It’s just an awful feeling when you say goodbye to your father and grandparents and you don’t know if you’ll see them again,” Anya said. “That’s the worst.”

Sophia, the youngest daughter, said she was reluctant to tell her friends in Ukraine that she had come to the US, where she enrolled in a local high school. Despite turning 17 on Thursday, she feels an obligation to be in Ukraine as her homeland struggles to defend its right to exist.

“I think many Ukrainians who left Ukraine feel that we are not in the right place, that we need to protect our country and not leave it,” Sophia said.

But Sarah said Sophia and her family are where they should be, noting she often reminds them they’re in the US for a reason.

“They are building the future because there are soldiers in Ukraine who are brave enough to defend the country,” she said. “Putin’s goal is to eliminate all Ukrainians, but that’s not going to happen. We have future Ukrainians and if it is safe and if Ukraine wins the war, they can go back and they will have that future there because of the soldiers’ sacrifices. “

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