Ukrainian refugees with private sponsorships in Wisconsin now in limbo

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Anna Borys remembers the conversation clearly.

Over breakfast in early May, she sat down with her husband, Eugene, at their home in Ukraine and tried to decide whether they should leave everything behind.

“Should we go, and start everything from the beginning in a different country, or should we stay?” Borys recalled.

The verdict that day was to stay. Borys was pregnant, and she and her husband wanted to continue operating their business, doing what they could to support their employees and their homeland.

But by July, the war with Russia wasn’t getting any better. Previously safe cities in western Ukraine were being bombed. The family decided to do what had been unthinkable when the war began months earlier: move to the United States with their two young daughters.

By early September, Borys was stepping into a home in Pewaukee furnished by an American friend she met 12 years ago.

That friend, Jennifer Raml, had stocked the fridge with food and the cabinets with pots and pans and dishes. There was shower gel in the bathroom, a coffee maker on the counter and a television in the living room.

Raml had even baked a cake and hung birthday decorations around the home for one of the girls’ birthdays, which was two days earlier.

Borys was overwhelmed with emotion.

“It just made me cry,” she said. “It was very important and very sweet, and very supportive.”

Borys and her family found themselves in their new home because of a federal program called Uniting for Ukraine, which allows Americans to sponsor Ukrainians independently, circumventing traditional refugee resettlement agencies. Private sponsors like Raml must agree to financially support the Ukrainian newcomers and take responsibility for helping them start fresh in the U.S. – from providing housing to helping enroll children in school.

U4U, as it’s known, has become the largest private sponsorship effort in U.S. history, bringing tens of thousands of Ukrainians to the country since April.

While sponsors and beneficiaries like Raml and Borys have lauded how the program allowed them to skip the years-long wait and red tape of the refugee route, there is also concern that Ukrainian newcomers lack a safety net if sponsors can no longer provide for them.

Refugee agencies and other aid groups in Wisconsin say they have seen an increase in Ukrainians seeking their help and expertise as they try to find affordable housing and apply for public benefits.

For some, the financial stress of supporting a second family has been extended indefinitely as the government remains slow to issue many Ukrainians employment authorization cards – which would allow them to work and earn money in the U.S.

More:‘Our strength and power as one’: Milwaukee Ukrainians celebrate the first Orthodox Christmas since Russia’s invasion

With private sponsorship, average citizens take on task of resettlement

More than 85,000 Ukrainians have already arrived in the U.S. through the private sponsorship program, according to the Department of Homeland Security. President Joe Biden’s administration has set a goal for 100,000, which experts believe is achievable.

The Ukrainian arrivals come on the heels of a similarly large influx of 88,000 Afghan evacuees, which strained resettlement agencies already strapped for staff and resources following the lean years of former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Comparatively, just about 25,000 people from other countries arrived through the traditional refugee pipeline in the last fiscal year, which ended in September.

That means that a sizable chunk of those who entered the U.S. last year fleeing danger were helped not by the well-established network of resettlement agencies around the country, but by average citizens.

Ukrainian-American family members and friends make up the bulk of people volunteering to be private sponsors in Wisconsin, experts said. Borys and Raml are outliers because the two met while Borys was interning at a Chicago company where Raml also worked.

The refugee aid nonprofit Welcome.US, which provides training and information on Uniting for Ukraine, recommends that sponsors raise about $3,000 per person, and they should plan to support their Ukrainian beneficiaries for at least 90 days.

Still, the document that sponsors sign pledging financial support is “not legally binding in most cases,” according to the nonprofit.

Local resettlement agency staff report that Ukrainian clients who have resettled here with the help of private sponsors are increasingly asking them for assistance. Lutheran Social Services in Milwaukee is working with about 60 Ukrainians and fielding calls from across the state, said Mary Flynn, refugee resettlement program manager.

In a handful of cases, the relationship between the sponsor and beneficiary has broken down and the agency has had to step in to help, she said.

In other cases, Ukrainian newcomers and their sponsors are seeking the agency’s expertise. Initially, the agencies weren’t receiving government funding to help Ukrainians as they do for other clients, but the government since has made some resettlement dollars available for them.

What’s “hard work” for sponsors is, from Flynn’s perspective, what agencies do every day: spending time troubleshooting issues with Social Security or employment authorization, for example.

“We see a lot of stuff and we’re able to adapt,” Flynn said. “We’re able to kind of cut through that red tape.”

She advocates for a model in which would-be private sponsors instead partner with the agencies. The volunteers would find and furnish apartments, take newcomers grocery shopping and on excursions to the zoo or library, teach them how to ride the bus and more.

And the agencies would handle the technical issues.

Lutheran Social Services has put this “co-sponsorship” model into practice already, but Flynn envisions its expansion. Helping orient newcomers to American culture is crucial, she said. But most case managers at the agency don’t have time to offer the level of attention that co-sponsors could.

Humanitarian parole provides quick entry, but an ‘immigration conundrum’

The relatively speedy arrival of Ukrainians in the U.S. is largely because they’re receiving a temporary status called humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay in the country for two years.

From there, they must apply for asylum – a permanent status in which they have to prove they would have faced persecution if they’d stayed. It is unclear if many of the Ukrainians who arrived via private sponsorship would meet the government’s narrow requirements for asylum.

More:A year after evacuating, Afghans in Wisconsin must ask to stay in the U.S. permanently. Here’s how corporate attorneys are helping

Plus, federal authorities report a backlog of over 600,000 pending asylum cases as of November.

“They’re just in this immigration conundrum,” said Kay Weeden, a Stoughton woman who has helped resettle several Ukrainian families.

Conversely, those who arrive through the traditional refugee resettlement process receive permanent residency automatically. But refugee applicants often must wait years in another country with no guarantees of ever making it to the U.S.

Jennie Murray, president and chief executive at the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization, said she appreciates that humanitarian parole allows the U.S. to quickly expand its capacity to take in large groups of people who need to evacuate.

But she also pointed out Uniting for Ukraine’s limitations. It’s only available to people who can pay for their own flights to the U.S., and until Congress intervened, newly arrived Ukrainians weren’t eligible for federal aid such as Medicaid and food assistance.

“It’s a good tool, but it can’t be the only one,” she said. “We would also love to see a more robust and strengthened refugee resettlement process.”

Earlier this month the government announced it was expanding its humanitarian parole initiative. Up to 30,000 people from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti can enter the country through parole if they have a private sponsor, Biden’s administration said.

More:A Ukrainian city asked Milwaukee for guns. They’re getting body armor, face shields and handcuffs.

Wisconsinites, other refugees step up to fill in the gaps

While private sponsors typically support just one family, Weeden is an example of someone who has taken the sponsorship program to its fullest extent.

From their home base in the Dane County suburb of Stoughton, Weeden and two other women effectively created their own unofficial, mini resettlement agency. They were lacking resettlement experience but full of determination.

Weeden, Renee Lushaj and Sharon Mason-Boersma first began helping a Ukrainian family who came to Wisconsin in April before the Uniting for Ukraine initiative was announced. The family needed a place to stay, and the women stepped in to help.

Then, another family came, and they helped.

The Stoughton Resettlement Assistance Program, as it came to be known, now has helped 11 families and two single people settle in the suburb, directly sponsoring several of them.

“It’s just the right thing to do to get these families out. I wish it could be any family and every family, not just Ukrainians,” Weeden said.

Moved by the plight of Afghan evacuees, the women initially signed up to be co-sponsors with the agency Lutheran Social Services in Milwaukee – pledging to furnish an apartment and drive one Afghan family to appointments while LSS handled the technical details.

When they found themselves instead helping Ukrainians, and doing it on their own, the women got what Weeden called a civics lesson, applying for Social Security and health care and trying to figure out why some of the families had months-long delays on work permits.

“It’s just requiring us to do A through Z instead of just X, Y and Z,” she said.

Recently, Weeden had to take a break from the group. It became overwhelming, she said, as the project had gotten “so big, so fast.”

Still, Weeden is awed by how well everything has worked out. Just when the group would think it couldn’t take any more families, a landlord would reach out to say he had three open units. When they’d be running short on cash to pay another month of rent for a family who didn’t have a work permit yet, a donor would come forward.

“Things just seem to fall out of the sky and the universe has our back on this. As soon as we think we can’t do something … something just happens,” Weeden said.

Although most of the Ukrainians that arrived most recently have received their work permits, the first family who arrived back in April prior to U4U’s creation has not. The group has pulled every lever to help them, to no avail, Weeden said. She doesn’t know what else to do.

Even as she had to step back from the day-to-day operations of the group, Weeden remains a big proponent of private sponsorship and encourages capable Wisconsinites to sponsor a family.

She agrees that parts of U4U have been messy, like the initial lack of government benefits for Ukrainians, the continued uncertainty over their immigration status and the potential for sponsors to leave their beneficiaries without support.

But she sees it as “the best thing since sliced bread for Americans” because they can directly help someone in need.

After volunteering with Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, one of the young men she’d met there sent her a suicide note, despairing that he’d never get off the base.

When Weeden went to see him again, she realized that she’d erroneously assumed that helping people like him was someone else’s responsibility. The experience has fueled her work with the Ukrainian families in Stoughton.

“With all the bad things happening in our world, this was a way that we could make a difference,” she said.

Ukrainians across Wisconsin have seen an outpouring of support from residents who have stepped up to help fill in the gaps. Months after they arrived, Borys’s new Pewaukee neighbors still regularly dropped off donations and gifts on their front step.

Raml, the family’s sponsor, still sees them several times each week. She helps drive the girls to and from school and activities and rents them her second home at a discounted rate. The Borys family has become quite self-reliant, she said, and like a part of her family.

Newly arrived Ukrainians in the state are also helping each other. On an online messaging platform, they exchange tips on taking the driving test, the ins and outs of American health insurance, and the best stores to find buckwheat, a common ingredient in Ukrainian cooking.

“There is a very good proverb in Ukraine,” Borys said. “It’s like, ‘Don’t have 100 dollars. Have 100 friends.’”

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