LOS ANGELES (AP) — Iryna Volvach traveled from Ukraine to California on a tour package with a friend and decided to stay for a few months. When Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving her stuck in the U.S., she worried about her children and grandchildren back home.
As Volvach, 62, tearfully told The Associated Press this week about her efforts to rescue her family, the Biden administration announced humanitarian relief that could keep thousands of Ukrainians in the U.S. without fear of deportation to their embattled homeland.
“Thank you,” Volvach said in English Thursday as the news was relayed to her through her Russian-speaking friend.
“They are happy I am here,” she said in Russian. “They are not worried about me. I am worried about them.”
Volvach’s reaction reflects emotions many Ukrainians who are currently in the U.S. may feel about the decision to grant the Temporary Protected Status they’d been seeking since the Russian invasion, which marks the largest conventional military action in Europe since World War II. The invasion has caused a humanitarian crisis that has driven more than 1.2 million people to flee Ukraine since the fighting began, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Refugee advocates applauded the move after more than 177 organizations signed a letter sent to the administration requesting the relief.
Under the federal program, Ukrainians can remain in the country for up to 18 months. In order to be eligible, individuals would have to have been in the U.S. by Tuesday.
Citizens from a dozen countries are already in the United States under the TPS program, which is designated for people fleeing ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters, or extraordinary and temporary conditions. The countries include Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Haiti and Venezuela.
About 75,100 Ukrainians are expected to be eligible, according to the latest estimates from the Department of Homeland Security. They include about 4,000 people with pending asylum claims and many others who entered the U.S. legally as tourists, business visitors or students on visas that have expired or are about to expire.
PJ Moore, executive director of World Relief’s office in Memphis, Tennessee, said the organization has helped about 18,000 Ukrainians settle in the U.S. in the past 18 years, with most of them residing in California and Washington state.
Across the country, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ukrainian national Nika Rudenko says she’ll consider seeking TPS if she decides to take leave from college and can’t meet the requirements of her student visa.
Rudenko, a 20-year-old Harvard University sophomore, says she stopped attending classes after the invasion started last week because she’s worried about her family, who remains in hiding in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Rudenko said she’s also trying to raise awareness on campus about the situation.
“My mental state is not very stable and it’s just very difficult to keep up with work and at the same time to try to do something for my country,” Rudenko said. “It feels very weird to understand that everyone else’s lives just carry on, but my life has completely changed. People just cannot feel what you’re going through, and it hurts.”
While Rudenko’s pain could be eased a bit by gaining protected status, it appears Volodymyr Bobko’s mother-in-law is not as fortunate. Bobko, 31, said he and his wife had talked about the potential for seeking TPS for his wife’s mother, who arrived Thursday from Ukraine via Poland — two days after the Tuesday cutoff.
Bobko, a resident of Boxborough, Massachusetts, came from Ukraine in 2016 and is a green card holder. He says his wife’s mother has a tourist visa and had booked a flight months ago to help with the birth of the couple’s second child later this month.
Bobko says asking his mother-in-law to stay longer than planned would likely be a tall order, in any case. Her husband and other family members are still in western Ukraine, he said.
“She wants to get back, maybe in a couple of months, but we don’t know yet what the situation is going to be in a couple of months,” Bobko said. “Right now, she’s still thinking she’s still going to live in Ukraine because it’s a beautiful country and she has a lot of friends and families over there.”
Taxin reported from Los Angeles. Marcelo reported from Woburn, Massachusetts. Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee. Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Washington and data journalist Caroline Ghisolfi in Palo Alto, California, contributed to this report.
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