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Ukrainian refugees and their U.S. sponsors settle in for the long haul

Nearly 110,000 Ukrainian refugees have been able to come to the United States since the war began thanks to the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian parole program and the generosity of many Americans who have offered to sponsor them.

On the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, Yurii Zaviriukha, a 42-year-old Ukrainian who lived in Kyiv with his wife and two sons, woke up to terrifying news. His brother, he said, messaged him that their country was at war.

“Awakening and getting this text … [I thought it was] like a joke or something, but it was not, not funny, you know, it [was] totally like a hit on the face,” Zaviriukha told Yahoo News.

A year ago, Russian troops poured over the Ukrainian border and launched attacks on Kyiv, as well as the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict, and some 14 million have fled their homes in what has been described as “the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II.” The majority of Ukrainian refugees, about 8 million, have gone to other European countries, and nearly as many are believed to be internally displaced.

Other Ukrainian refugees, like Zaviriukha and his family, have found refuge in the United States thanks to a humanitarian parole program created by the Biden administration last April. The program, called Uniting for Ukraine, was designed to welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion for a two-year period. To qualify, refugees must have a sponsor in the U.S. who agrees to support them financially for the duration of their stay.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) representative told Yahoo News that the United States has welcomed more than 258,000 Ukrainians since last March. These refugees, the agency said, have arrived through a series of pathways, including the Uniting for Ukraine initiative.

Since the program was created, the agency has received approximately 207,000 requests from people in the U.S. who want to support Ukrainian citizens who wish to come to the States. More than 144,000 Ukrainians have been approved so far, and “nearly 110,000 individuals have successfully arrived at United States ports of entry and been processed as part of Uniting for Ukraine,” USCIS said.

Yurii Zaviriukha and his family in Ukraine
Yurii Zaviriukha and his family in Ukraine before the war. (Courtesy Yurii Zaviriukha)

During the first months of the war, Zaviriukha and his family moved to different locations within Ukraine to remain safe, but he said that one day he realized he needed to leave the country. While most Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country and asked to join in the fight, there are a few exceptions. In Zaviriukha’s case, he said he was able to leave Ukraine because both of his boys are disabled, and his wife suffers from an illness in her hip. He had a friend in the U.S. who told him about the humanitarian parole program and encouraged him to apply.

“He gives me [a] couple of links and I start to read information. … Then I understand how it works. Like you should find somebody in [the] USA, like a sponsor who will help you go inside of the country,” Zaviriukha explained.

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, Fla., Christie Dizzia, a stay-at-home mom, heard about the program and decided she wanted to help.

“I heard about the program from a friend ... and I just thought I should do it, especially because my dad had been sponsored [through] a different program. He came from Malaysia, and I felt like this was the perfect, you know, kind of full circle [and] karma kind of thing,” she told Yahoo News.

The Uniting for Ukraine program, sometimes called U4U, is administered by USCIS. Although the agency’s website provides all the relevant information needed to participate in the program, it does not offer a platform to connect potential American sponsors with Ukrainians.

Zaviriukha and Dizzia connected the way many refugees and their U.S. sponsors have — on Facebook.

“There have been all these Facebook groups which have popped up where you can unofficially match with each other,” Dizzia explained. “You can read people’s advertisements about themselves or you can offer, you know, whatever you’re offering.”

She joined a couple of the groups, and after messaging with a few Ukrainians, she said she found Zaviriukha’s post about needing a U.S. sponsor and decided to reach out. “I just started messaging with him and we hit it off.”

Yurii Zaviriukha and his family celebrate their first Thanksgiving in the U.S. with their U.S. sponsor, Christie Dizzia.
Zaviriukha and his family celebrate their first Thanksgiving in the U.S. with their U.S. sponsor, Christie Dizzia. (Courtesy Yurii Zaviriukha)

After talking for a few weeks, Dizzia and her husband, a business owner, submitted the necessary documents to sponsor Zaviriukha, his wife and their two children, who are 5 and 8 years old. They were approved at the end of August and arrived in Florida in late September. Since then, the Zaviriukhas have been living near the Dizzias in the family’s guesthouse, and although they come from two different cultures, they have been able to forge a friendship.

“I think one big difference is the food,” Dizzia said. “They cook a lot and everything is homemade. I was talking to Yuri’s wife yesterday and she said, ‘Oh, we made hamburgers,’ and it took hours because they had to make the bread, like the hamburger buns, and I was just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh,’ so that’s been different.”

Even though hosting the Ukrainian family has come with some challenges, Dizzia explained that it has been a very rewarding experience as well. “It’s been really meaningful to see how the family is adapting and just to be able to help someone who needs help,” she said.

“We are very grateful. We are very grateful [for] this opportunity to be somewhere, in [a] quiet place and peaceful place,” Zaviriukha said, adding that he and his family are also really enjoying the Florida weather. “Me and my wife like warm very much. I mean warm weather, and because of this also we [are] happy,” he said.

Yurii Zaviriukha and his family with Christie Dizzia and her daughter
The Zaviriukha family with Dizzia and her daughter. (Courtesy Yurii Zaviriukha)

The father of two worked as a content manager for a bookstore in Ukraine and is now a part-time construction worker in Jacksonville. He told Yahoo News he hopes to find a more stable job so he’s able to provide housing and everything else his family needs. In the future, he said, his dream is to be able to bring his and his wife’s parents to the U.S. from Ukraine.

Son Duong, a former refugee from Vietnam who lives in Apex, N.C., also decided to become a U4U sponsor. Last June, he helped a Ukrainian family come to the United States. After staying a couple of months in North Carolina with Duong and his two sons, the family found work in Chicago and moved there. However, Duong decided to continue helping more refugees and is currently hosting a mother and daughter from western Ukraine who were sponsored by one of his friends.

“At first it was a little scary, because when I signed up for the program there wasn’t any sort of financial assistance,” Duong said. “It sounded like you were going to be responsible completely for everybody that you sponsored. But once we got them over and the government started opening up ... all these assistance programs, now I feel like it’s actually working really well.”

But with the war dragging on and the humanitarian parole program lasting only two years, Duong said the Ukrainian refugees he has hosted worry about their future.

“I definitely would love a little bit more certainty in the future, as far as what their future would look like. I know they stress out a little bit about what’s going to happen at the end of two years,” he said.

According to a Department of Homeland Security official, Ukrainian refugees who arrived through the U4U program may be able to adjust their legal status or extend their humanitarian parole in the future, CNN reported.

Erol Yayboke, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News that humanitarian parole is “a really useful tool ... to get people out of harm’s way.” However, it is often a temporary solution.

“Currently, as I understand it, the program does not afford any pathways to more permanent resettlement residency, as opposed to the asylum and refugee process, which does offer more permanent solutions,” Yayboke explained. But he said it is unlikely that at the two-year mark, the U.S. government will send any refugees back.

“You can’t forcibly return people to places where they would still be at risk. And I think that for the foreseeable future, unfortunately, that seems to be the case in Ukraine.”