Liliia Petrushyn looked away, emotional and still in disbelief, as she struggled to describe her arduous three-week journey to reach Massachusetts from embattled Ukraine with two children, 13 and 10.
“We didn’t have anything with us. We took just a few items because we were afraid for our lives,” said Petrushyn, 33, who rejoined her husband, Serhii, who has lived here for three years and works in construction. “I love my country. I love my Ukraine. I didn’t want to leave.”
Serhii, whose brother was killed fighting Russian soldiers outside Kyiv, had pleaded with her to bring the family to safety. And so she did, through Hungary, Italy, Belgium, and three stops in Mexico before Liliia and the children were allowed to enter the United States on March 23.
President Biden has said the United States will accept 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the brutal Russian invasion of their country. But like Liliia Petrushyn and her children, an estimated 15,000 displaced Ukrainians who have already made it through have come via Mexico, which they can enter on a simple tourist visa.
Most of those Ukrainians have been admitted under a one-year “humanitarian parole,” which can be granted for urgent reasons but does not entitle them to federal and state benefits, immigration advocates said.
Many Ukrainians used this roundabout route, advocates said, because US embassies and consulates in Europe do not have enough staff to process applications for refugee status, which allows permanent residency in the country and access to public assistance.
“The system was weakened by the past administration, and you’re seeing its effects,” said Jeffrey Thielman, president of the International Institute of New England, an advocacy group for refugees and immigrants. “The system overseas is so devastated. There are not enough people and systems in place to process people.”
As challenging as the journey to Mexico has been, even that option has been closed for Ukrainians who arrive without proper paperwork. As of April 25, Ukrainians who appear at the Mexican border are not being allowed into the United States unless they have been pre-approved through a new federal program called Uniting for Ukraine.
Overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, the program is pairing displaced Ukrainians with sponsors such as family members, volunteers, and nonprofit organizations, which, among other requirements, have shown the financial means to help support them. The arrivals will be allowed to stay for two years.
“Ukrainians should not travel to Mexico to pursue entry into the United States,” the Department of Homeland Security warns on its website. “Following the launch of ‘Uniting for Ukraine,’ Ukrainians who present at land US ports of entry without a valid visa or without pre-authorization to travel to the United States through ‘Uniting for Ukraine’ will be denied entry.”
Whether the new program simplifies and expedites admission to the country remains to be seen, immigration specialists said.
“It’s unclear how long the processing times will take for this new parole program,” said Catharine Christie, policy analyst for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a national advocacy group.
“It’s such a new way of doing things, creating a program and putting the onus on individuals to support Ukrainians,” Christie added. “There are still a lot of things that are somewhat unclear.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainians fleeing the war are being helped in myriad, grass-roots ways. The Petrushyns are being housed at the Lexington home of David and Tetiana Pronchick, who heard about the family’s plight through Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jamaica Plain.
“Everyone has to have a piece of how they can help,” said David Pronchick, a lawyer and Air Force veteran who works at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
Before the Petrushyns were offered housing by the Pronchick family, they showed up at the church’s rectory unannounced, penniless and seeking help, recalled the Reverend Yaroslav Nalysnyk, the Ukraine-born pastor of Christ the King.
“I listened to their dramatic story with tears in my eyes. It was so moving,” Nalysnyk said. “I offered them a monetary gift on behalf of our parish for food and clothing for them and their children, Andrii and Evelina.
“I said to them that our parish will be for them ‘little Ukraine,’ where they will feel welcomed and supported like family members.”
And now, more good news. The Town of Lexington has found the family an affordable-housing unit, where they will move June 10, Pronchick said. And the children have begun attending public schools there.
After Orthodox Easter services at the church, the sight and sounds of children laughing, dancing, and singing Ukrainian songs were juxtaposed with donation tables for Ukraine’s victims and its soldiers.
“There’s no ‘safe’ in Ukraine anymore,” said Larysa Colon of Portsmouth, R.I., who recalled having a telephone conversation with her sister in Ukraine while a Russian missile streaked overhead. “I didn’t know if it would be the last time talking to her.”
The number of displaced Ukrainians in Massachusetts is unknown, but arrivals are increasing every week, said Caroline Davis, program manager at the West Springfield office of Ascentria Care Alliance, a nonprofit social-services organization.
“We’ve received about 130 walk-in clients who came from across the border and made their way to Western Massachusetts,” Davis said. “Some of these cases initially had a family-reunification case pending. But when the war broke out, they realized that all travel was being canceled and chose to fly to Mexico on their own accord.”
Some families of six, 10, and even more members have shown up at Ascentria’s office, Davis said. The Springfield area already had about 10,000 Ukrainians living there, she said, making the area a magnet for family members fleeing the war.
“Some of the walk-ins have funds; some of them do not. We just saw a single mom and two kids who had very little financial resources,” Davis said.
At Christ the King Church, the parish is banding together to help not only the Petrushyns, but any Ukrainians who come seeking a safe haven until they can return to their country, whenever that might be.
“As a church, we are almost on the front line, to help people with any assistance,” said Nalysnyk, the pastor. “I’m a mediator. My families send e-mails offering rooms, a house,” from as far away as Maine and New Hampshire.
“My first reaction was to go back to Ukraine, but I have to take care of my parish,” he said.
Serhii Petrushyn lowered his head when he spoke of his older brother’s death in combat. His wife, who owned a restaurant in Ukraine, estimated that it might take three years before they see home again.
Her husband, shaking his head, thinks it will be longer.
“There is God, and there is the devil,” Serhii said. “And like people who battle the devil, this is what my brother experienced. He experienced the evil that Russian troops are doing to Ukraine.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.