Tampa, Florida — When Roaya and Tony Tyson saw images of a Ukrainian family leaving their homeland in March, they toured their three-bedroom home in Tampa, Florida, and knew they had to do something.
“Some people were sending money,” Roaya said. “But we wanted to do more.”
After doing some research online, childless Tysons found the website of Spring of Life, a Ukrainian church based in Sacramento County, California, which has hundreds of Ukrainian families and American hosts paired up.
“I told them we had space for two or three people in our house,” Roaya said. “They said we had a family of four. we said ok Bring them!”
Two days later, Yuliia Venhlinska and her husband Serhii Donet arrived with their two sons, Max, 11 and Mark, 3, transforming the once quiet two-adult home in Tysons into a bustling home for six.
Another Tampa family was also growing, a 10-minute drive from Tysons. Two doctors, John and Lisa Monaco, decided to open a second floor to a Ukrainian home.
Spring of Life Church paired them with Masha and Vladimir Halytska and their three children, Vasilisa, 11, Lev, 7, Danylo.
“Two weeks ago, our house was empty and quiet.” Said John, the youngest child in college. “Now we have toys and strollers and shoes everywhere. i love you!”
Tyson and Monaco’s opening their home to Ukrainian refugees is an example of American hosts and Ukrainian refugees learning how strangers not only help strangers, but also navigate complex resettlement systems. In some ways, their experience turned out to be more difficult than the recent resettlement of refugees in the United States and more difficult than many expected.
On the one hand, American host families say they were well compensated.
“I love having a house that is loud and full of laughter,” said Lisa Monaco, teaching Vasilisa how to craft and she enjoys turning her family yard into Lev’s soccer field.
“Every night we have a family dinner of seven.
On the other hand, there is often a mountain of paperwork that is difficult to handle.
“It’s not an easy process,” Roaya Tyson said of her experience helping Venhlinska, Donet and their children settling in the United States. “It was unbelievably hard. In many cases, you can’t get one document without the other, so it’s a catch 22.”
This problem is not unique, says Chris George, managing director of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a Connecticut-based refugee resettlement agency.
“Welcome to and resettlement refugees or humanitarian parolees is not an easy task. It is inconceivable for individuals or couples to do this without help.”
‘They don’t know what they are for’
The Department of Homeland Security’s Uniting for Ukraine program allows up to 100,000 Ukrainians to resettle in the United States under a period of humanitarian parole that is separate from the State Department’s refugee acceptance program. Contrary to that program, Ukrainians entering on humanitarian parole are not entitled to the benefits of refugee status, including work permits, medical services and housing assistance.
In the fall, 78,000 Afghans came to the United States on humanitarian parole. Congress has provided emergency funds to help Afghans get medical, housing and work visas. That kind of assistance was not provided to Ukrainian refugees.
George said this puts a significant strain on individual American donors and families raising their hand to house Ukrainian refugees because of the lack of resources from aid organizations that governments typically request for refugee resettlement.
“The current system is putting too much pressure on the backers,” said George. “They are willing to take the burden, but frankly they don’t know what they are for. All of these essential tasks, such as enrolling children in school, finding health care, helping someone find a job, or helping them integrate into the community, are very time consuming.”
For Venhlinska and Masha Halytska and their families, Florida-based social worker Susan Morgan volunteered to help. Morgan serves as a liaison for several Ukrainian families resettling in the United States.
“There are a lot of responsibilities,” said Morgan.
The list of things Ukrainians have to do to settle is substantial, Morgan said. In addition to a state ID, Ukrainians coming to the United States need help obtaining a driver’s license, applying for a work visa, finding affordable housing, finding school for their children, and getting a medical examination.
Host families and supporters should also be mindful of the trauma Ukrainians have experienced, Morgan said.
“You’re bringing home and family that’s left,” Morgan said. “They are at a loss. So people come here and rejoice, but they are still traumatized.”
Complex and unequal process
In the case of Halytskas, the family was forced to leave their home in Dnipro in the middle of the night when a Russian bomb hit a neighborhood.
“The kids were really scared.” said Masha. “They could hear sirens around and see buildings with smoke and fire.”
The family fled with only a pair of bags and a ukulele. They slept in the car for several days before leaving Ukraine.
Venhlinska’s 3-year-old Mark spent the first weeks with the Tysons hiding under furniture while still fearing Russian bombardment, Morgan said.
While it may be difficult for Ukrainians to resettle in the United States in the coming weeks and months, critics say they have been treated better than other refugees seeking asylum in the United States, particularly on the U.S.-Mexico border, where Ukrainians live, in some cases. I did. In most cases, it was possible to move to the front of the line.
“It’s not their fault that the Ukrainians sometimes get favors,” George said, noting that in many cases they were treated better than refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Syria. “We shouldn’t blame them, but we should blame those on the border for the way they force others who escape from dangerous situations to wait months in dangerous situations.”
George hopes that the United for Ukraine program will launch an orientation and coaching program in the coming weeks to facilitate the resettlement process for Ukrainian refugees and host families.
“We have always believed in the ability of ordinary Americans to move forward and welcome refugees, but ordinary Americans need help.”
Venhlinska and Masha Halytska say they feel overwhelmed at times, but for now they are happy to find their way to America.
“I feel safe now,” Halytska said. “Now we can breathe.”
The two mothers enroll their children in Tampa-area public schools in the fall, and both families are awaiting work visas, which will likely take months.
“We want to work,” said Venhlinska, who was a chemist in Ukraine.
“We don’t want to depend on anyone’s support, even if we can help,” said Halytska, who works as a nutritionist in Ukraine and her husband owns and runs his own trucking company.
Their owners, once strangers and now called family, are happy to open their homes and hearts, though the resettlement process can be arduous at times.
“I now consider Yuliia as a daughter,” said Roaya Tyson.
“It’s really a gift,” agreed John Monaco. “They have a safe home, and we get the feeling that we are doing something in what I consider to be a world war between good and evil. We are grandparents and it feels like our children and grandchildren are home.”