Ukrainian communities in US prepare to support refugees

Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_64684 FILE— Members of the Ukrainian community and others gathered at the state Capitol to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine at a rally n Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Roughly 18,000 Ukrainians live in the Sacramento region and the area is preparing for the possibility of many more Ukrainians arriving after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the nation will accept up to 100,000 refugees from the country.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_59619 Edward Kislyanka, right, senior pastor at the House of Bread Church near Sacramento, Calif., meets with other church members Tuesday, March 29, 2022, to discuss efforts to assist Ukrainian refugees. The church is one of many in the Sacramento area with a primarily Ukrainian population. It has been sending teams of people to Poland to help refugees and is preparing its members to house refugees arriving in California.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_13967 Oleksandra Datsenko, who migrated from Ukraine six years ago and works as a waitress serves lunch to diners at the Firebird Russian Restaurant that serves traditional Ukrainian and other Eastern European food near Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Datsenko is one of roughly 18,000 Ukrainians living in the Sacramento region. California's capital region preparing for the possibility of many more Ukrainians arriving after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the nation will accept up to 100,000 refugees from the country.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_66138 FILE— Ivan Semukhian joined others to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a rally at the Capitol 1n Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Roughly 18,000 Ukrainians live in the Sacramento region and the area is preparing for the possibility of many more Ukrainians arriving after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the nation will accept up to 100,000 refugees from the country.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_08441 A whiteboard at the House of Bread Church near Sacramento, Calif., details the church's efforts to help refugees leaving Ukraine, is seen Tuesday, March 29, 2022. The church has sent teams of people to Poland to assist with people crossing over the country's border with Ukraine as well as food, diapers and other items for refugees leaving with few personal items.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_42690 Sacks of rice are some of the supplies being loaded into a truck to be sent overseas to aid Ukrainian refugees, at the House of Bread Church, near Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, March 29, 2022. The church has been sending people and aid to Poland to assist with refugees fleeing from Ukraine. It's also preparing to house refugees who may come to the Sacramento area which has the largest concentration of Ukrainian immigrants in the country. U.S. President Joe Biden says the nation will accept up to 100,000 refugees but it's not clear yet when that will begin.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_04185 FILE —Olena Avtukh joins others in prayer during a protest of the Russian invasion of Ukraine held at the Capitol n Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Avtukh immigrated from Ukraine in 2017 and is concerned for family members still living in Ukraine. Roughly 18,000 Ukrainians live in the Sacramento region and the area is preparing for the possibility of many more Ukrainians arriving after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the nation will accept up to 100,000 refugees from the country.
Russia-Ukraine_Invasion-US_Refugees_37767 A decal of the Ukrainian flag is seen on the door of the Firebird Russian Restaurant that serves traditional Ukrainian and other Eastern European food near Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Roughly 18,000 Ukrainians live in the Sacramento region and the area is preparing for the possibility of many more Ukrainians arriving after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the nation will accept up to 100,000 refugees from the country.
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As the United States prepares to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees following Russia’s invasion of their country, existing communities in cities like Sacramento and Seattle are already mobilizing to provide food, shelter and support to those fleeing the war.

The federal government hasn’t said when the formal resettlement process will begin, but Ukrainian groups in the U.S. are already providing support to people entering the country through other channels, including on visas that will eventually expire or by flying to Mexico and crossing over the border.

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

Since the war began in late February over 4 million people are estimated to have fled Ukraine and millions more have been displaced within the country. President Joe Biden said last week that the U.S. would admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and provide $1 billion in humanitarian assistance to countries affected by the exodus.

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

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said the White House commitment of accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainians does not come with a minimum. Aside from the refugee resettlement program, their main avenues will be seeking humanitarian parole and appearing at the border with Mexico, she said.

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

The Sacramento region 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 City areas are also hubs.

Word is spreading about the resources available in Sacramento, where churches like House of Bread are connecting 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 as people await more clarity about the formal government resettlement process.

“Most of these people do not have any relations, like they don’t know anybody here,” said Kislyanka, who came to the U.S. as a child in the early 1990s. “Having somebody who can help them navigate the cultural shock and navigate the system. . . it just 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 U.S. law offering entrance to anyone escaping 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 the organization World Relief since then, 3,000 have come to Sacramento, said Vanassa Hamra, the group’s community engagement manager in Sacramento.

Beyond the dozens of Slavic churches in the Sacramento region, there are schools that serve mainly Ukrainian and Russian students. Eastern European grocery stores and restaurants offer favorite foods like borscht, a type of beetroot soup, and varenyky, a boiled dumpling. Businesses started by Ukrainians try to hire others from their country.

All of that makes it easy for younger people to maintain a sense of connection to their heritage and for older immigrants to adapt without having to become fluent in a new language and culture.

“It’s very easy when you come here. Every door, it’s open for you,” said Oleksandra Datsenko, who came to the U.S. six years ago and works as a waitress at Firebird East European Restaurant, which serves Eastern European fare 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 went on to become the country’s honorary consul in Seattle in 2015, helping organize an annual festival where as many as 16,000 people a day would show up to feast on traditional food, listen to Ukrainian musicians and wear traditionally embroidered clothing.

“The Ukrainian community in Washington helped me to feel like I was at home — and this is my home now,” Goloborodko said. “We feel like this is a Little Ukraine.”

Since the invasion, Goloborodko and others in the Washington state Ukrainian community have lobbied hard for support from state officials. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has vowed that Washington will welcome Ukrainians fleeing the violence. The Legislature has set aside nearly $20 million to help pay anticipated costs of housing, job training, health care and legal aid for Ukrainian refugees. The Port of Seattle has promised to help welcome the refugees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where they can begin to be connected with services.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, the state’s housing crisis could prove challenging as resettlement and community organizations look for lodging for new arrivals. Like much of California, the region is facing a housing crunch with limited supply and rising rents.

“People are coming here; we can help them; we can provide something. But it’s going to get swamped so quick,” said Kislyanka, the head pastor at House of Bread.

The International Rescue Committee’s Sacramento branch has an affiliated immigrant welcome center that’s already assisting people who entered the country illegally, said Lisa Welze, director of IRC Sacramento. Many are nervous to engage with resettlement agencies but in need of resources — particularly housing — as well as help navigating the immigration system to see if they can find a legal path to stay.

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

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Associated Press journalist Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed.

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This article has been corrected to reflect that the name of the restaurant has been changed from Firebird Russian Restaurant to Firebird East European Restaurant following the invasion.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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