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Philly Ukrainian Americans say they’re ready as Biden sketches out details to bring 100,000 refugees to the U.S.

'We are getting ready for everyone that is coming. We're working on it day and night.'

Halyna Vorobkevych walks with her daughter, Sofiya, 12, after getting her off the school bus in Schwenksville, Pa. on Friday, April 22, 2022. Vorobkevych and her three daughters, who are ages 12, 18, and 21, recently arrived to the U.S. from Ukraine. They are currently living with Vorobkevych’s sister and her family.
Halyna Vorobkevych walks with her daughter, Sofiya, 12, after getting her off the school bus in Schwenksville, Pa. on Friday, April 22, 2022. Vorobkevych and her three daughters, who are ages 12, 18, and 21, recently arrived to the U.S. from Ukraine. They are currently living with Vorobkevych’s sister and her family.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

President Joe Biden has offered the details on how his administration intends to bring 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the United States.

And Ukrainian Americans in the Philadelphia region – among the nation’s largest enclaves – say they’re ready to provide a big, warm welcome.

“Everybody’s family,” said Rada Dubashinsky, 50, of Bucks County, who came to the United States from Dnipro, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, after the Soviet Union collapsed. “We’re trying to help each other within the country as much as we can, finding places to settle, finding places to live.”

She’s already assisting two newly arrived Ukrainian families, including a mother and three children who managed to escape the war and come to Schwenksville. They met through a gymnastics connection between their children, and now Dubashinsky and others help the family with everything from finding clothing to obtaining legal documents.

For Ukrainians in desperate need overseas — more than 5 million have fled the country since the Russian invasion, and millions more are displaced internally — the embrace of countrymen in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland may be the easiest part of their landing.

Under Biden’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program:

— Ukrainians would largely arrive under what’s called humanitarian parole, which is merely a permission to enter the country, not an official immigration status. It provides no path to permanent residency or citizenship.

— Ukrainians will be eligible to work. But those entering on parole get none of the federal benefits and services that go to legal refugees, including assistance with housing, health care, and employment.

— The program relies heavily on goodwill. And while they’re sure to find plenty of it, Ukrainians will need to be sponsored by American citizens or organizations. A similar effort last year that invited Americans to act as mini-resettlement agencies for 76,000 Afghan evacuees has struggled to gain traction.

“Finally, a program has developed!” said Iryna Mazur, the honorary consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia. “It’s been really hard to respond to Ukrainians, ‘What is happening? President Biden promised to take us.’ … It’s a good and important first step, and a lot of people are just extremely grateful.”

Many questions remain, said Mazur, who has been in discussions with Department of Homeland Security officials during the past two days. For instance, can one citizen sponsor multiple people from Ukraine?

She had no immediate estimate on how many people could be coming to this region.

What’s clear is much of the welcome will fall on the local Ukrainian community. And in Philadelphia, that community has big shoulders, in numbers and institutions.

About 15,245 Ukrainian immigrants live in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban and South Jersey counties, along with 54,324 people of Ukrainian ancestry.

They’ve built and continue to lead institutions including the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia in Fairmount, and the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union in Feasterville. Manor College, founded by a Ukrainian religious order in 1947, will confer its first-ever honorary degree on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky next month.

“There’s a lot of people ready to step up in any way they can, a lot of interest in that sponsorship model,” said Gretchen Shanfeld, senior director of program operations at Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia resettlement agency. “We’re really working in partnership with the Ukrainian consul and Ukrainian American organizations to see what they need.”

Private sponsorship of newcomers — the Biden administration has stressed family reunification as a goal — largely happens outside of the formal resettlement process.

“This program will be fast, it will be streamlined, and it will ensure the United States honors its commitment to the people of Ukraine, and that they need not go through our southern border,” Biden said Thursday at the White House.

People and organizations can apply to sponsor Ukrainians via a portal on the Department of Homeland Security website that’s set to go live on Monday.

To be eligible to come here, Ukrainians must have a sponsor, meet or complete public-health requirements, and pass rigorous biometric screening and security checks. Those who are approved will be considered for stays of up to two years.

Sponsors too will need to pass government vetting – and declare their financial backing for arriving Ukrainians.

By putting costs on sponsors, the administration chose to “outsource its moral obligation to support newly arrived Ukrainians,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, said in a statement. “We urge policy makers to consider implementing some semblance of a safety net for those rebuilding their lives from scratch.”

The ongoing Afghan resettlement offers a comparison, as most evacuees entered under humanitarian parole. The U.S. government eventually did provide financial support, but the effort to attract the involvement of everyday Americans through a public-private partnership called Sponsor Circles has drawn about 700 participants.

The Biden administration “missed an opportunity to make more robust use of the U.S. refugee-admissions program,” said Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International. “A parole program that relies on a U.S. relative or tie for all support cannot be a pathway to the United States for some who most need it.”

In announcing “Uniting for Ukraine,” Biden said Ukrainians should not travel to Mexico to try to enter the United States. After Monday, people appearing at the border or other U.S. ports of entry without a visa or travel authorization will be denied admission and referred to the new program.

Schacher said that wrongly limits the rights of Ukrainians, and all other nationalities, to seek asylum at the border.

The State Department intends to bolster “Uniting for Ukraine” by expanding official refugee admissions from Europe under the Lautenberg program, which assists persecuted religious minorities. The federal government also is working to identify particularly vulnerable Ukrainians, including women and girls, children, ethnic minorities, and gay and trans people. Embassies and consulates in Europe will increase the number of appointments available for those seeking visas.

The program offers no assistance to other nationalities impacted by the war.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians who have escaped the war continue to move into the Philadelphia region.

The newest Ukrainian refugees stepped onto dry land on Wednesday, maritime legal battles having trapped them on a docked ship since February. People offered the seven sailors money, chipped in for food, and brought them cheesesteaks.

“I’m very grateful that we received all the help that we got,” said Andriy Tiupa, 19, a steward on the Ocean Force.

“They are part of our community now,” said Mazur, an immigration lawyer.

The men pray that their loved ones in Ukraine are uninjured. Friends have been killed in the war.

Roman Zhukov, a volunteer with the Honorary Consul of Ukraine, said the local community is assisting the sailors – and will help all those who arrive in Philadelphia.

“We are getting ready for everyone that is coming,” Zhukov said. “We’re working on it day and night.”