Efforts to help Ukrainian refugees: some families reunited, others still in flux

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Ukrainian American Vladimir Besser, 41, traveled across a war zone to get his wife and son to safety during the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now the Pikesville resident is separated from them once again, waiting out the complicated immigration process others in the Jewish community are encountering as they strive to reunite their families in the United States.

Vladimir Besser with his wife, Karolina, and their son, Ari. (Courtesy of Besser)

Ukrainian American couple Eugene Datsenko, 39, and his wife, Dina, 33, were ready to move heaven and earth to get Dina’s grandmother out of Ukraine before the war even started. With the help of two organizations that cater to Baltimore’s Eastern European Jewish population, along with heroic evacuation efforts by Chabad and other institutions in the city of Odessa, Dina’s grandmother made the journey to the Datsenko home in Pikesville. Now the family faces new challenges to secure health insurance and medication for the 80-year-old matriarch.

Even as national and local Jewish organizations continue to solicit donations, food, goods and physical help on the ground to support embattled Ukrainian communities, stories like those of the Bessers and Datsenkos illustrate the struggles people are facing to bring their loved ones to safety.

‘We heard the sirens all day long’

Seven months ago, Vladimir was busy with his local auto-parts business, his eye on the prize: Once he secured a place to settle as a family, he could bring his wife Karolina and their baby, Ari, to the United States. In the meantime, Karolina and Ari were living in the family’s apartment in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Then on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. Mother and son managed to flee to Kyiv’s suburban outskirts, but the Russian onslaught was taking place just 20 miles away, reported Besser. Air-raid sirens and shelters were a way of life. He had to get his family out.

In early March, Besser flew to Poland’s capital of Warsaw. Next he took a train to the Ukrainian border. He crossed on foot and connected with a friend, who drove him to his family’s location outside Kyiv.

During the next few days, Besser experienced firsthand what his family and countrymen had been living through, fleeing to the basement bomb shelter with his wife and child multiple times. “We couldn’t see what was going on. We heard the sirens going all day long because whenever something goes flying, sirens go off, and that’s a horrible feeling,” he said.

Once the Bessers packed up their necessities, they drove with a small convoy of other families to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Thousands of families, mostly women and children, were doing the same.

“The problem I ran into when we were taking them from Kyiv to the border is there were checkpoints everywhere. That was an uncomfortable feeling,” said Besser. “People would check your documents, your baggage, where you were coming from … so that took a little while.”

After the two-day journey, they were confronted with a long line at the border. “Some people would stand there like for three days,” recalled Besser.

The Besser family was lucky on multiple accounts. They came prepared with food and water, and the children from the different families kept each other company. There were also many volunteers and aid workers there to assist those waiting. Ultimately, the family and the others from their convoy made it through the line in two days.

“It was a slow wait. I wouldn’t say it was terrible, but a lot of thoughts are going through your head at that moment,” said Besser. “That was probably the hardest thing. Just thoughts like that made it more unbearable. But we tried to give each other emotional support.”

After the Bessers made it into Poland, where they remained for a month, they continued on to Munich, Germany, where they stayed with Vladimir’s two sisters. By June, when Russian forces were largely expelled from Kyiv and the Bessers felt it was safe to return, they made the journey back to the Ukrainian capital.

Yet Vladimir finds himself separated from Karolina and Ari once again, at least for now.

The “Uniting for Ukraine” program, announced in April by U.S. President Joe Biden, “provides a pathway for displaced Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members who are outside the United States to come to the United States and stay temporarily for up to two years,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Participating Ukrainians must have a supporter in the United States who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in the United States.”

Vladimir and Ari are American citizens; Karolina is not. “If she comes to the U.S., eventually she has to go back. She can’t stay here legally,” said Besser. “We actually had to go back to Ukraine because we had to do the paperwork for her to get the refugee status, which is great. Right now, I am going back in September to get her and the child to come here, and we’re going to live here permanently.”

Refugee status is the goal for many wanting to relocate and work in the United States. Non-immigrant visas such tourist visas are not considered “an appropriate tool to begin an immigrant, refugee or resettlement process,” according to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Beyond his nuclear family, Besser’s extended family and friends are helping others relocate to the United States. “I know a lot of families. My sister supported a family from Ukraine, [as did] another friend, so I know myself two families we’ve brought over here.”

‘It was like her personal Exodus’

While Besser was traveling across Poland and Ukraine to reunite with his wife, Eugene Datsenko and his family were trying to convince his wife’s grandmother to leave Ukraine — as they had been since the Russian military buildup began along the border in the weeks before the invasion.

Eugene and Dina Datsenko
and their family are gratefull and relieved to have Babushka Larysa (pictured) safe with them in Pikesville after her intense
journey from Odessa, Ukraine. (Courtesy of Datsenko family)

But Babushka Larysa hesitated. The 80-year-old did not want to leave behind her home and farm in in the suburbs of Odessa.

Finally, in April, after the country was in the throes of war — and Russian troops were moving through Ukrainian cities and launching attacks on Odessa— Larysa agreed to leave.

“She didn’t want to come,” said Datsenko. “She came because there was one or two days where it was heavy shelling near Odessa.”

Datsenko was born in Kyiv but has lived in the United States for 20 years. An eighth-grade teacher at Torah Institute in Owings Mills, Datsenko, like Besser, lives in Pikesville.

Datsenko’s wife, who is originally from Odessa, is by his side, along with their five children.

Datsenko contacted multiple organizations that said they were raising money for Ukrainian refugees but couldn’t find anyone who could help with the logistics of getting Dina’s grandmother to them. Then he spoke with Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, spiritual leader of the ARIEL Jewish Community Center and Synagogue a few blocks from Datsenko’s house.

ARIEL is Chabad-affiliated institution serving the Baltimore area’s Eastern European Jewish community.

The rabbi “was instrumental with advice and the right people to talk to,” said Datsenko. “He gave me a contact in Odessa. We were able to get grandmother out of Odessa to Moldova because there’s no such thing as direct flights to Ukraine.”

Additionally, Rabbi Paysach Diskind at ACHIM, a community-building network in Baltimore for Jews from the former Soviet Union, helped with arranging a doctor and funding Larysa’s ticket.

Thanks to the efforts of Chabad and other Jewish organizations in Odessa, Larysa was able to board a bus in Odessa that would take her to Moldova, where flights to the United States were available.

“There’s this beautiful thing they did, the Chabad community, and I think the general Jewish community in Odessa. They made what they were referring to as the ‘green corridor’ for the Jewish buses — a kind of a security escort,” explained Datsenko. These buses for Jewish refugees were pre-checked and able to pass security checkpoints.

Larysa was met on the border of Moldova by a liaison who helped her get to a hotel booked for Jewish refugees. She stayed there for about 10 days while she got her passport extended and secured a flight to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Although there was some delay in U.S. Customs because of language issues and her temporary passport extension, Larysa was finally reunited with her family in mid-April, the day before Passover began.

“It was literally hours before Passover,” said Datsenko. “She was joking that it was like her personal Exodus.”

‘Without help, it cannot stand’

While the ARIEL Center held a fundraiser for Ukraine in March, Belinsky said that most of his energy now is focused on helping families navigate the governmental red tape surrounding tourist visas, employment and refugee status, acknowledging that “we are hitting many brick walls along the way.”

Uriel Kovolenko of Rescuers Without
Borders helped Larysa get out of
Ukraine to Moldova. (Courtesy of Datsenko family)

It seems like there is like no established system for helping refugees, he observed. “There are many organizations that say that they help with documents, legal help or otherwise, whatever it is; but we’ve been turning to so many organizations, and none of them has been helpful so far. So that’s actually the biggest challenge. It’s a nightmare to deal with the realities of it.”

When the “Uniting for Ukraine” program was announced, JFNA managing director of public affairs Darcy Hirsh praised “the implementation of “new processes to help Ukrainian refugees obtain work authorization permits more quickly” in a public statement. “This is an issue we have advocated for and a positive step the government is taking to ensure refugees can start working sooner after they arrive to their new communities. We understand that work-permit backlogs affect many refugee populations, and we will continue working with the administration as well as local agencies across the country to enhance support of refugee resettlement.”

Nevertheless, even this new digital streamlined process it can take months for individuals to receive results. For Datsenko, difficulties have included getting health insurance or even prescriptions refilled for Babushka Larysa. He has contacted multiple private and government organizations, in addition to a Washington, D.C. immigration lawyer in an effort to get her Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

“My point is not to complain about the situation,” said Datsenko. “Our point is, if we can just get some support or some help.”

Nevertheless, Besser affirmed that Ukrainians are united in their hope.

“Most of the families I speak to want to go back and are ready to rebuild. But we are asking — and I’m sure everybody’s heard — we are asking for help. Ukraine needs help. Without help from its allies such as the United States and other NATO members, it cannot stand.”

In the case of Besser’s immediate family, however, the future he envisions will take place in the United States. As September slips away due to unforeseen circumstances, Besser is planning to make his way to Ukraine in October. Even when his wife and son are allowed to emigrate, he doesn’t feel it’s safe for Karolina and Ari to travel in their country alone. When they reunite this time, hopefully, it will be the beginning of the end of their saga — the final leg of their journey to live in the Baltimore Jewish community, as a family.

How to help

The Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore and its international partners, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and World ORT, have been on the ground supporting refugees in Ukraine with supplies, housing, transportation, and both medical and mental health services. In Baltimore, Jewish Volunteer Connection, an agency of The Associated, is reaching out to people who may be able to offer housing, furniture and household goods for Ukrainian Jews resettling in Baltimore.

For more information on Jewish Volunteer Connection’s Ukrainian Refugee Resettlement Support, visit: associated.org/ukraineupdate.

Rabbi Belinsky at the ARIEL Center and Rabbi Paysach Diskind of ACHIM are helping the Bessers, Datsenkos and other Ukrainian Jewish families.

For more information on how to support their efforts, email info@arielcenter.org and
paysach@achim.org.

To learn more about the U.S. Department of State Uniting for Ukraine program, visit uscis.gov/ukraine.

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