Ukrainians are streaming out of the country. What are faith-based organizations doing to help?
As fighting between Russia and Ukraine intensifies, U.S. groups are calling for the government to repair the system that offers support to refugees
As fighting in Ukraine intensifies, refugees are pouring out of the country and into Eastern Europe. As of Wednesday, an estimated 1 million Ukrainians had fled the country. Inside Ukraine, around 160,000 people have been displaced; photos show some of them sheltering in the subway system.
Although Ukrainians fleeing the violence have yet to arrive on American shores, faith-based and secular groups in the United States are already taking steps to help. Many organizations called on the Biden administration to offer temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure to the Ukrainians who are already in the country so that they can remain here and not face deportation to a country embroiled in war.
“It would be an inhumane time to send anyone back,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, one of the organizations urging the secretary of homeland security to extend temporary protected status to Ukrainians. On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators made the same request of President Joe Biden.
Thursday evening, the Biden administration responded to these calls and granted temporary protected status to Ukrainians, a move that was welcomed by immigration and human rights advocates.
“President Biden’s decision to grant TPS to Ukrainians currently in the U.S. is an important move that speaks to our history as a safe haven for those facing oppression,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, in a press release.
Since Ukrainians are able to enter Europe and travel between European countries, it is unlikely that a large number of those recently displaced by the war will end up in the United States anytime soon, experts said.
However, we could see a trickle of Ukrainians who already hold U.S. visas arriving in the near future, said Soerens. “My understanding is that there are a few hundred thousand Ukrainians who have tourist visas to the U.S. We think they might come and seek asylum once they’re here,” he said, adding that was the case with the first wave of Venezuelans fleeing political turmoil who arrived in America.
The United States could examine the possibility of opening a humanitarian corridor to Ukrainians, said Stefan Lehmeier, deputy director of Europe for the International Rescue Committee, a secular humanitarian aid organization.
Lehmeier added that, since there are large Ukrainian diasporas in the United States and Canada already, some people fleeing the current war might want to join these existing communities. It’s important not just to offer Ukrainians protection, he said, but also “protection where they want to go.”
In addition to advocating for legal protection in the U.S., some organizations are monitoring the flow of Ukrainian refugees so they can best mobilize to help those affected by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “The thing that we’re encouraged by in Europe ... is people are being mostly welcomed into European territory and are able to transit through the countries,” said Katherine Rehberg, vice president of programs at Church World Services.
Should that change, she added, “We’re ready and engaged.”
Catholic Relief Services is working with its sister organizations of Caritas Ukraine and Caritas Moldova to respond to the crisis, said Eastern Europe representative Britton Buckner.
”Inside Ukraine, we are working with our local partners to get food, water and hygiene needs to families affected by shelling,” said Buckner. Through a church network of 3,500 parishes, the organizations are setting up “safe, dignified” accommodations for people in community centers.
In addition to supplying beds and hot meals for displaced Ukrainians, Catholic Relief Services is working with other groups to provide cash to refugees “to make sure people have the resources they need to purchase supplies or move to safer areas,” Buckner said.
In neighboring Moldova — a poor country that has seen an influx of Ukrainians and where the government and citizens alike are rallying to help the refugees — Catholic Relief Services and its sister organization are coordinating to find shelter and resources for refugees. Buckner said that child protection is also a significant part of the response.
“In any displacement you’ve got vulnerable children,” she said, adding that the Ukrainian policy forbidding men between the ages of 18 to 60 from leaving the country means that only women, children and the elderly can exit. Among those being relocated, Buckner said, are the over 100,000 Ukrainian children who were in orphanages and institutions prior to the war.
Lehmeier reflected that Europe needs to prepare itself for a large-scale migration wave distinct from those that came before it. Previous influxes have been largely composed of young, single men.
“This is the exact opposite,” Lehmeier said. Countries and organizations need to be ready to help Ukrainian refugees with the unique issues that stem from families separated by war and mothers under the extreme psychological and emotional stress of parenting alone while displaced.
Regardless of how many Ukrainians end up in the United States, or when or how they arrive, the crisis underscores the need to strengthen the United States’ refugee resettlement network, Soerens said, so we can be ready to absorb them.
“If we want to be able to take Ukrainians a year from now we need to rebuild” the refugee resettlement network now, said Soerens.
Much of the refugee resettlement network was dismantled under President Donald Trump, who slashed funding and drastically reduced the number of annual refugee admissions. While the Biden administration has raised the refugee ceiling, those involved in the resettlement process say that relationships with landlords still need to be rebuilt, new staff with appropriate language skills need to be hired, and connections between organizations and communities need to be renewed, among other things.
“There has been funding for the Afghans but it’s not just a switch you turn back on,” said Soerens, adding, “I hope that they (the U.S. government) don’t turn the switch off and then turn it back on.”