Russian soldiers were shooting at cars as Olena Ruban fled with two young children from Ukraine to Poland. Now she’s stuck in limbo in Tulsa, waiting for the federal government to approve her application to stay in the United States.
The war in Ukraine has displaced more than 8 million people from their homes in the country and over 6.5 million have fled to neighboring nations. In response, President Joe Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine in April, a program to allow up to 100,000 Ukrainians to stay in the United States for up to two years. While churches and nonprofits with federal refugee resettlement funding stepped in to help Afghan refugees who began arriving in the United States last year, the Uniting for Ukraine program works differently. Ukrainians must instead have a U.S. host family or company agree to sponsor them financially.
Catholic Charities in Oklahoma has helped resettle 1,800 Afghan refugees in the state over the past year, but only five Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Oklahoma as of June 30, according to federal admissions data. That number doesn’t include Ukrainians who might have arrived in the state on tourist visas or under other circumstances. Without large-scale, organized support services from a nongovernmental organization, some of the few Ukrainians seeking refuge in Oklahoma say they have been left to navigate the cumbersome immigration process with little help.
The Synagogue in Tulsa has federal funding to provide resettlement services for refugees from other countries, but money to help people in the Uniting for Ukraine program isn’t in the budget. Under President Donald Trump, the United States cut refugee admissions to historic lows.
“We have a system, in the first year of the Biden administration, that is bracing itself for new numbers and has not yet been rebuilt to get to its regular capacity, or to its ideal capacity, during very significant influxes of refugees,” Rabbi Daniel Kaiman of The Synagogue said.
The nonprofit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has called on the U.S. to provide more support to Ukrainians, calling it a “moral obligation.”
“The ideal scenario is a co-sponsorship model where individual sponsors partner with resettlement nonprofits to provide support, given that many refugees have complex needs that may require dedicated professional expertise,” Timothy Young, a spokesman for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services said.
‘No diapers, food or medicine’
Food and other essential goods quickly became scarce after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Ruban was forced to leave her husband Igor and her job as a travel agent in Kiev as living conditions deteriorated. He and most other Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 were not allowed to leave the country in anticipation they would be called to fight against Russian soldiers.
“We said goodbye to each other because we realized at that moment there was nothing in the stores — no diapers, food or medicine,” Ruban said.
Ruban was lucky to have had a multiple-entry tourist visa, which allowed her and her children to arrive in the United States faster than other Ukrainian refugees. But the tourist visa only allows her to stay in the United States for six months at a time and she is not permitted to hold a job. Staying longer than six months would violate U.S. immigration law and the government would likely deny any future request for a visa.
When Ruban arrived in the United States in March, she applied to remain in the country as a temporary protected immigrant and paid a $575 processing fee. But more than three months later, she’s still waiting to get approved.
She’s frustrated that she still can’t look for work.
If approved, Ruban and her children can receive cash and food assistance, health insurance, help finding a job and English language training through the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Ruban and her children, Nikol, 6 and Arthur, 2, are now staying at a small house in Tulsa that belongs to a local couple. The couple met Ruban’s husband when they adopted a young girl from a Ukrainian adoption center where he worked as a translator. When war broke out, they agreed to take in Ruban and her children.
Ruban is taking English language classes online and trying to remain hopeful.
“Everybody asked me about my plans for the future and I don’t know any more than tomorrow,” she said. “My life has changed.”
Without U.S. ties or passports, few options for Ukranians
Dee Dee Owings, a hairdresser in Tulsa, adopted her daughter Oksana, 25, from Ukraine in 2012. A decade later, she and her family are helping friends in Ukraine flee their war-torn country.
“If there is a Ukrainian citizen that doesn’t have a passport and doesn’t have a connection to somebody in an outside country, they don’t have an option,” Owings said.
Before the Biden Administration launched Uniting for Ukraine, Dee Dee Owings applied in April to sponsor the wife and 5-year old daughter of Oksana’s cousin and another friend and her 2-year-old son. She paid U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services $575 per person to expedite the Ukrainians’ applications to stay in the United States as temporary protected immigrants while the two mothers and children waited in Poland for a month.
After 80 days of no response from the federal government, the Owings’ Ukrainian friends were forced to return to Ukraine to apply for their passports, which were expedited in 30 days. They were approved for the Uniting for Ukraine program within a week and arrived in Tulsa in July.
Dee Dee Owings has since applied for a refund for the $575 per person that her family paid to process their temporary protected immigration applications. The four Ukrainians are now staying at Oksana Owings house in Tulsa. The Owings are supporting the Ukrainians financially until they can get settled.
The Ukrainian women can apply for SoonerCare and work permits, but the applications will take 4 to 6 months. Their children can also attend public school.
Dee Dee Owings hopes there will eventually be a community of Ukrainian refugees in Tulsa to help give her friends a sense of community.
“It would be nice for them to not feel so isolated,” Owings said. “It is a whole new country and a whole new language they did not have a connection with before.”
To donate to The Frontier and help support our efforts to grow investigative journalism in Oklahoma, click here.