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What does it take for refugees to settle in Rhode Island?

The long and convoluted process to be a humanitarian refugee leaves many Ukrainian families fleeing war with a tough decision: emigrate or wait

Iegor, 16, back row, and his sisters, Polina, 7, and Alisa, 5, sit with their cat Zemfira (or Zema) who was brought back by their mother on a trip to Kyiv to retrieve documents about a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The photo was taken at their temporary housing in Varna, Bulgaria. (Handout)

PROVIDENCE — Veronica Convery, of Providence, who emigrated to the US from Ukraine about 20 years ago, considers her sister Elena Velikaya to be a hero.

Velikaya, 46, fled Kyiv with her husband, Andrei Dzyurak, her elderly mother, and her three children on the day of the Russian invasion. They drove for three days through fields and on small roads to avoid traffic and explosions in the distance, only to arrive at the western border and realize that they had not brought documentation showing that her husband was the father of their kids.

Velikaya left Dzyurak at his sister’s house in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy Oblast, and took her mother and the kids to Bulgaria. She left her mother there and went back to her husband in Ukraine.


As a father of three, Dzyurak was exempt from military mobilization. Without those documents as proof that he was a parent, he could be drafted. If he went back to their home to get them, he would likely be forced to fight. Or risk capture by sabotage reconnaissance groups, basically spies, in Kyiv who were questioning single men traveling in the city.

So Velikaya and her 16-year-old son, Iegor, drove back to Kyiv to get the paperwork, leaving Andrei with Polina, 7, Alisa, 5. She picked up the IDs, more clothes, and the family’s cat Zemfira, who had been left with two weeks of food.

Velikaya told Convery, at that point, she saved the cat because public transportation in Kyiv wasn’t working and there wasn’t enough fuel in the city for Andrei’s mother to pick up the pet.

The family traveled through Moldova and then Romania. They ran low on food, and strangers gave them tubes of candy, Velikaya told her sister. The snacks held them over until they reached Varna, Bulgaria, where Dzyurak’s employer, Pragmatic Play, paid for housing.


“All the way to Bulgaria, she said it was a convoy of cars barely moving,” Convery said. “My mother said once they got to Bulgaria her whole left side was numb after sleeping in the car.”

Now, Convery wants them to come to Rhode Island. The family loves their homeland, though, and would like to return.

Elena Velikaya, 46, took a selfie to prove to her sister that someone in Ukraine had not taken her phone and that she was still alive after she returned to Kyiv to retrieve documents to identify her children who were waiting with her husband at the border. (COURTESY OF VERONICA CONVERY)

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 4 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland and 6.5 million are believed to be displaced inside Ukraine. Governor Daniel McKee sent a letter to President Joe Biden four days after the Russian invasion, affirming his willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees in Rhode Island. Convery is investigating ways to help emigrate, but getting them here as humanitarian refugees won’t be easy, no matter how willing Rhode Island is to have them.

Unlike the Afghan Resettlement Program last year, which resettled 84,600 refugees, most of them without immediate family in the US, there are strong communities of Ukrainians in the U.S. already, including in New York, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. These areas will be the first choice for the 100,000 Ukrainian refugees the Biden Administration plans to accept.

On Feb. 28, 2022, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee wrote to President Joe Biden informing him that Rhode Island stands with the people of Ukraine and that Ukrainian refugees were welcome in the state.Governor Dan McKee

One of Rhode Island’s largest Ukrainian communities is in Woonsocket, once a hub of industry and mills where Ukrainian workers flocked in the late 1800s.

Father Borislav Kroner of St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church says his parish, and St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church across the street, have 60 to 70 members each. Kroner says they are a small, but mighty, community.


Since the Russian invasion, fundraisers at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church have raised $20,000 for the Ukrainian army and humanitarian aid.

“We can’t take hundreds of refugees but could we take care of a few, to find them housing or aid, yes we will absolutely do that,” Kroner said. “There are other countries like Poland who are taking hundreds of thousands of refugees right now. They are much smaller and much poorer. If they should be able to do it, the US should be able to do it.”

Julieann Cofone, the Director of Public Relations & Communications at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, a non-profit that advocates for and assists refugees, said that refugees come to the US using immigrant, work or student visas, an affidavit of support, or through the asylum process. Those with immigrant visas are not eligible for health benefits, but humanitarian refugees are.

Coming to the US as a humanitarian refugee, though, is a much more complicated path.

Every person fleeing Ukraine is considered a refugee in broad terms, according to Dorcas International. But US law does not currently allow for “sponsoring” a refugee to help them come to the US. In order for an individual to be designated as a refugee eligible for resettlement, they must first receive a referral to the US Refugee Admissions Program from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or another entity.


That process often takes years.

Once admitted, an agency like Dorcas International can resettle refugees and provide an assortment of public benefits, such as housing assistance, healthcare, and food. They can assist, but not facilitate, the movement of refugees into the US.

“Even with the Biden Administration’s recent announcement that the United States will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees over the next year, the process will not be immediate,” Dorcas International said in an email to the Globe. “As of March 28, 2022, there is no ability to bring Ukrainians to the US and there is not eligibility for any type of public benefits if they were to arrive here. It is entirely possible that in the near future the U.S. government will establish a policy or offer some sort of alternative for Ukrainians coming to the U.S., but we have no way of knowing that in advance.”

Kroner noted that the countries that border Ukraine are accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees. He disagrees with the limit on the number of refugees the US will accept.

“Look at Mariupol. Look at Kharkiv which has taken tremendous damage,” Kroner said. “Many other cities and smaller cities in Ukraine that are pretty much utterly destroyed. People used to live there, they need to go somewhere.”

Cofone said that the US government must perform “due diligence,” finding out which state’s communities can handle the influx of refugees. In Rhode Island, Cofone noted, finding affordable housing will be a challenge due to the current housing market. And finding a home isn’t the only challenge refugees face.


“Refugees may also need to learn English, obtain education and job skills, help to find employment,” she said. “Also, refugees need help navigating schools, health care, etc.”

When Velikaya and her family fled Kyiv, they left behind their careers, many personal belongings, a stunning high-rise apartment overlooking the Dnieper River, and a beautiful villa in the countryside where they spent weekends. They don’t know when or if they will ever be able to go back, Velikaya’s sister, Convery, said. But they also don’t know if they want to come to the US. There is no easy way to start with nothing, Convery said.

“How do you start life all over?” she asked. “You just escape with whatever you throw in your car. We take for granted everything you have around you.”

“When my sister had to escape the first time, they didn’t know if they would be allowed to take the cat without special vaccinations, without the documents,” Convery said. “They were afraid they could not. What could they do?”

Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.