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One certainty amid U.S. welcoming 100,000 Ukrainian refugees: People are coming to Philly

“We need to think creatively about how to ensure that every Ukrainian refugee has a roof over their head"

Mary Kalyna, a Ukrainian American activist in Mount Airy who has organized rallies, vigils, and fund-raisers, poses for a portrait inside the Wilma Theater where poster art in support of Ukraine is displayed.
Mary Kalyna, a Ukrainian American activist in Mount Airy who has organized rallies, vigils, and fund-raisers, poses for a portrait inside the Wilma Theater where poster art in support of Ukraine is displayed.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

A Biden administration that has promised to accept 100,000 Ukrainian war refugees into the United States has shared few details of its plans, even as people fleeing the Russian terror trickle into Philadelphia on their own.

Two women from Kyiv are living in the rectory of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Northern Liberties. A mother and three children found safety with friends in Mount Airy. A Ukrainian priest, his wife, and their four young sons could be here soon.

While specifics are scant, interviews with members of Congress, resettlement-agency heads, immigration experts, and Ukrainian community leaders offer insight on how this massive immigration operation could take shape:

⋅ There’s no sign the Biden administration will undertake a large-scale evacuation from the region, accompanied by the provision of temporary housing at U.S. military installations. That was how the government quickly brought 76,000 Afghan nationals into the country last year.

⋅ The Ukrainians won’t arrive all at once. They will likely come to this country over the course of more than a year.

⋅ Philadelphia is expected to be a main arrival and resettlement city, because of the size and strength of its Ukrainian community.

“I think people are ready to do anything [to help],” said Mary Kalyna, a Ukrainian American activist in Mount Airy who has organized rallies, vigils, and fund-raisers. “People are constantly asking me, even non-Ukrainians, even my neighbors are saying, ‘I have this extra room, do you need it?’”

The Biden administration says it will concentrate on admitting Ukrainians who have family ties in this country. And that it will use multiple immigration processes and authorities to do so, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

That’s significant, because people who are admitted as official, legal refugees get immediate access to government benefits and a clear path to U.S. citizenship. The futures of people who enter on visas, or through programs such as humanitarian parole, which was used for most Afghan war allies, are much less certain.

The administration also said it’s working to develop “new programs” that focus on “immediate and temporary stay,” believing most Ukrainians eventually will want to return home.

“We have an amazing, vibrant Ukrainian community, with very deep roots, with very established businesses and landlords,” said Gretchen Shanfeld, senior director of program operations at Nationalities Service Center, a major city resettlement agency. “We’ve already had conversations about what pieces can they help with — housing being primary.”

The number of refugees that might come to the Philadelphia region is unknown. Much will be dictated by the capacity of local resettlement agencies and by the amount of available housing stock.

Newcomers would find embrace in a muscular Ukrainian community.

About 15,245 Ukrainian immigrants live in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban and South Jersey counties, along with 54,324 people of Ukrainian ancestry. Across decades they’ve built 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, not to mention Manor College, founded by a Ukrainian religious order in 1947.

Ukrainian communities in New York, Ohio, and California also are expected to see a number of arrivals.

“This is exactly the kind of thing the U.S. must do and must stand for,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, whose 4th Congressional District includes Ukrainian enclaves in Jenkintown, Abington, and Bridgeport.

Every day, people are phoning her office seeking help for family members who have escaped into Poland and Moldova. Beyond that official assistance, she’s prepared to offer a spare bedroom in her Bala Cynwyd home to a new arrival.

That 100,000 is both a small and large number.

It’s more than the 67,594 who crowd Lincoln Financial Field for Eagles games. It’s fewer than fill Beaver Stadium at Pennsylvania State University. It’s practically nothing compared with the 4.4 million Ukrainians who have fled from their homeland into neighboring countries.

But for the U.S. refugee program, 100,000 represents a giant figure, one that would approach or surpass the two greatest resettlements of the last half century.

The 1975 fall of Saigon ended the American war in Vietnam and sent thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives. In the first year the Ford administration resettled 130,000 people, many coming through Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.

Last year, the withdrawal of American forces prompted a chaotic air evacuation from Kabul that brought 76,000 Afghan nationals to the United States, where they continue to be resettled.

That 100,000 also represents nine times the number of refugees who were resettled in 2021, when the United States admitted a record-low 11,411.

A shrunken system that was forced to race to top speed during the Afghan evacuation — a third of the nation’s 300 resettlement agencies closed or suspended operations amid falling arrival numbers — will be pressed to do so again.

What will it take to accept 100,000 people?

“It’s very simple,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which would assist Ukrainian arrivals. “What’s needed are either staff, for the processing, or a streamlining of the processing.”

And right now, she noted, the U.S. government has neither.

Part of the Trump administration’s decimation of the refugee-admissions system was the winnowing of overseas staff who vet refugees. That introduced fresh delay to a system that was already slow. It can take five years or more for a refugee to be approved to come to the United States.

Another option, Miller-Wilson said, is to implement a new, faster system that would streamline the process for admission and resettlement.

Almost all the refugees coming to the United States will be women and children, as Ukraine has barred men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

“What is happening in Ukraine is one of the greatest tragedies the modern world has ever seen,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., who represents a large Ukrainian American community in northern New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District.

The 100,000 is a good start, but “I think we can do even better after years of refugee neglect,” Pascrell said. “America has a bedrock responsibility to take in citizens fleeing war and organized murder.”

It’s unclear if the Biden administration intends to devote new funding to Ukrainian refugees or to shift resources from existing programs, said Danilo Zak, policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum in Washington. The latter could mean that refugees who already have waited years to come to this country could be pushed farther back in line.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a big, Baltimore-based resettlement agency, already has begun signing up volunteers to handle airport pickups and arrange apartments. But like other agencies it needs specific information from the White House.

“More than a month after Putin’s invasion, there’s got to be a plan beyond the press release,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, LIRS president and CEO. “We hear on a daily basis from Ukrainian Americans eager to help get family here, and to take care of them.”

Consider, Vignarajah said, how Ukrainian lives have been shattered by death and destruction. For refugees the need for mental health and trauma care will be big and immediate. Children will need to be in school, to regain not only missed education but a sense of normalcy. Not least, new arrivals will need housing in a country where the prices are high and the stock is low.

“We need to think creatively,” Vignarajah said, “about how to ensure that every Ukrainian refugee has a roof over their head.”