St. Louis sponsors struggle to help Ukrainians whose U.S. stay may only be temporary
When Sarah Gregor heard that Russia invaded Ukraine, she immediately thought of one family.
Volodomyr Zolotov had visited the Chatham Bible Church in Hazelwood in the past as a traveling pastor, said Gregor, the congregation’s office manager. When Ukrainians were uprooted by war, church members mobilized to help bring Zolotov, his wife, Yevheniia, and their four children to safety in the U.S.
The Biden administration in April announced the Uniting for Ukraine program to bring up to 100,000 Ukrainians to the U.S. for up to two years if they found a U.S. sponsor.
But since Zolotov and his family arrived, Gregor has found it confusing to get them help under the program. As Ukrainians admitted under the program are on humanitarian parole, they aren’t entitled to many benefits that refugees who come through resettlement programs are.
“It's still new enough and still fresh enough [that] we really need to help people that want to do this,” said Gregor, who is the family's sponsor. “Because there's no point in having this program if you can't actually navigate it.”
More than 200 Ukrainians are coming to the St. Louis area, many of them through the Uniting for Ukraine program, according to the International Institute. Over 700 Missourians have applied to sponsor Ukrainians statewide, the institute said.
Because the program is so new and different from refugee programs, many sponsors and volunteers aren’t sure exactly how to help the new arrivals.
More than 50 Chatham Bible Church volunteers help members of the family with everything — including driving them to the grocery store and teaching them English.
“Without help of church, it would be much difficult to move here and to try to start new life here in the United States,” Zolotov said.
Even local refugee centers and government agencies aren’t exactly sure how to navigate the program, said Dave and Maureen Greiner, who met Zolotov’s family through the church years ago.
“Even when we call the agencies, everyone's kind of scratching their heads,” Dave Greiner said. “No one has a template for how to do this.”
Gregor, who said she has spent hours on the phone with federal officials and refugee advocates trying to learn how to help the family, compiled a document to help other confused sponsors.
She posted her experience navigating the program online and immediately started hearing from local refugee programs and the Uniting for Ukraine program itself.
“I'm hearing from these organizations that people are confused, Ukrainians are confused, [and] American sponsors are confused,” Gregor said. “And I said, ‘Well, how do we just put all of this together?’”
Because the program only lasts for two years, many Ukrainians aren’t sure if they’ll be able to stay in the U.S., said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee assistance program in Washington, D.C.
Former President Donald Trump largely dismantled refugee programs by cutting the number of refugees allowed in the U.S. by more than 80%, and Nezer said that has made it difficult to help Ukrainians.
The Biden administration had to move quickly and almost entirely rebuild refugee programs in the U.S., which could explain why Uniting for Ukraine is so confusing, she said.
“The impulse to move quickly is a good one,” Nezer said. “But sometimes, some of those safeguards are lost in the interest of moving quickly.”
The International Institute of St. Louis is working to help Ukrainians who have arrived in the U.S. and their sponsors navigate the program. Ukrainians can apply for asylum within a year of being in the U.S., said Arrey Obenson, the institute’s president and CEO.
Being granted asylum would help Ukrainians become permanent U.S. residents, Obenson said. But the time frame worries many of the institute’s clients, he said.
“Once that two-year period elapses and you have not gone from being recorded as a humanitarian parolee to a resident, your stay in the United States expires, and you may be forced to leave the country,” he said. “That's what makes people nervous.”
The Biden administration should offer Ukrainians permanent refugee status, Nezer said, so they have more control over their future.
“Whether a Ukrainian decides it's time to go home or a Ukrainian decides they need to stay here longer, they should have that agency to make that decision,” Nezer said.
It’s a balancing act, she said, to move people quickly and to make sure the program is set up.
Filling the time
Many Ukrainians who come to the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine want to work. But work authorization isn’t guaranteed for humanitarian parolees, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ukrainians can apply, but it can take up to eight months to receive an answer, Sarah Gregor said.
Lily Parker, who lives in St. Louis County, is sponsoring Irina Pavlova, a relative who fled her home in Odessa this summer. Pavlova said she was forced to leave her husband, two dogs and job as a hotel manager when bombs started exploding near their city.
Parker usually works full time at a bank but had to cut down her hours to part time to help Pavlova get settled in the U.S.
Pavlova hasn’t been able to get a work permit in the U.S. yet. She said she wants to distract herself so she won’t miss her life in Ukraine.
“I will work anywhere,” Pavlova said, as Parker translated for her. “It will bring peace of mind to me that I am not just sitting here in your house doing nothing and having you taking care of me.”
Volodomyr Zolotov also is eager to work, so he won’t have to depend so much on the Greiners and other volunteers. But the Greiners said they’re grateful they can help one family that needs them.
“If we didn't already have this connection, we would be like many Americans going: ‘What can I do? What can I do?’” Maureen Greiner said.
Farrah Anderson is the newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter: @farrahsoa