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Tucson volunteers mobilized amid summer uncertainty for Ukrainian refugees

Tucson volunteers mobilized amid summer uncertainty for Ukrainian refugees

  • Community members gathered at Mt. Lemmon's Mary Undoer of Knots Shrine on June 10 to welcome Ukrainian refugees to Tucson.
    Leslie KurakCommunity members gathered at Mt. Lemmon's Mary Undoer of Knots Shrine on June 10 to welcome Ukrainian refugees to Tucson.
  • Friar Nicholas Kostyk (left) with Friar Deacon David Maciborski oversaw a Ukrainian Catholic Mass prior to the June barbecue on Mt. Lemmon.
    Leslie Kurak Friar Nicholas Kostyk (left) with Friar Deacon David Maciborski oversaw a Ukrainian Catholic Mass prior to the June barbecue on Mt. Lemmon.
  • Kathryn Melsted, a sponsor for a Ukrainian family, created a sign to welcome 'Tanya' and her family when they arrived in Phoenix.
    Kathryn MelstedKathryn Melsted, a sponsor for a Ukrainian family, created a sign to welcome 'Tanya' and her family when they arrived in Phoenix.

Parishioners from St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church mingled at Mt. Lemmon’s Byzantine Catholic shrine on a warm June afternoon. A steady hum of Ukrainian and some English emanated from the crowd of about 100 community members, who were there to welcome refugees to Tucson. Six sponsors and some refugees attended the barbecue, just days after some of them had fled their war-torn homeland. 

The United States announced plans this spring to accept thousands of Ukrainians under the status of humanitarian parole, which has contributed to the country taking in more than 100,000 of the refugees. But early on, as people began trickling in, things were messy. With no clear roadmap, Tucson-area sponsors organized and started assisting these newcomers.

When word spread that refugees had begun to arrive, the Ukrainian American Society of Tucson had a laundry list of questions, said member Celia Hildebrand. How were people traveling, and how would they would find places to live?

“Because we were really worried about the vulnerability of people coming out of the war and basically being preyed upon by anybody who was ready, willing and able to take and do bad things with them,” Hildebrand, a second-generation Ukrainian, told the Tucson Sentinel. “So we started doing a lot of outreach.”

Hildebrand, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s Family and Community Medicine Department, helped set up meetings with sponsors and other stakeholders in mid-June to address the refugee situation in Tucson. She and Dave McKeehan, a local retiree, are among the volunteers that make up the Southeastern Arizona Ukrainian Care Network, a group that’s been working for months to support incoming refugees.

McKeehan attended the second June meeting, which included local resettlement agencies. He originally planned to support Ukrainains by being a sponsor, but he soon found that the local efforts needed organization.

“And the thing that struck me was there were a lot of people wanting to help with no clue how to do it,” he told the Sentinel. 

McKeehan, who worked at improving business processes at companies like Texas Instruments, began working on a guidebook helps sponsors do things like enroll their sponsorees into vital federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — more commonly referred to as food stamps.

The resource is meant to help demystify the “alphabet soup” of acronyms involved with the process and provide the preferred options for enrollment in different services, McKeehan said. 

Traditionally, case workers at resettlement agencies are responsible for doing things like signing up refugees for benefits and job training, but when Ukrainians first came over this summer, sponsors had to fill this role, he said.

“So it wasn't a case that sponsors had to pay for all this stuff. People just didn't know how to do it, and there was no funds allocated for case managers to walk them through it,” McKeehan said. “So that was the real gotcha, and that's what started driving, putting this guide together and everything else.”

The Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Southern Arizona is a resettlement agency that has yet to receive federal funding for Ukrainian refugees, said Carlos Hernández, the local organization’s president. Staff at the Tucson-based affiliate has been “carving out” time to assist the Ukrainians, he said. 

Refugees are normally referred to local resettlement agencies through the State Department, but the humanitarian parole status of refugees made it so the Department of Homeland Security was involved instead, Hernández said.

“So instead, it was local private sponsors that had to bring Ukrainians into the United States,” he said.

Despite receiving no additional funds, Southern Arizona’s JFCS has provided hundreds of hours of work toward the effort and has assisted 20 refugees as of last week, Hernández said. 

There are currently 38 Ukrainian humanitarian parolees registered in Pima County of the 120 in the state, according to a Care Network press release. The state could see more than 400 individuals arrive under that status this year as 131 Tucson-area residents have registered to be sponsors under the federal government’s United for Ukraine program, the release said. 

The JFCS of Southern Arizona has applied for temporary federal funding that will come through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Hernández told the Sentinel. But for now, JFCS will continue to foot the bill. 

Arizona received nearly $600,000 in federal funds this week for Ukrainians under the humanitarian parole status, said Tasya Peterson, press secretary for the Department of Economic Security. However, there are limitations to the newly arrived funding. 

“This does not include funding issued directly to the local resettlement agencies,” she said via email.

While the process is not ideal, it’s important to remember what these refugees have been through, Hernández said.

“And I just think it’s important to remember that if we lost our livelihoods the way they did, would we want someone to help us regardless of the politics and bureaucracy?" he asked. “Definitely.” 

Kathryn Melsted is one of the sponsors that did not have the help of a caseworker for months. Hildebrand referred her to officials at the state’s refugee resettlement agency who have assisted Melsted in signing up her sponsorees for different services.

Melsted, a retiree in Show Low, is a sponsor to a young Ukrainian couple. The woman, who goes by “Tanya,” is a doctor and her husband, a mechanic, came over with their daughter and her grandmother, Melsted told the Sentinel. 

Melsted first met Tanya about 14 years ago, while teaching in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and she kept in touch. “I guess it was just the relationship that I had with my students. I couldn't leave her there,” she said. “She wanted out, she wanted help. And if I could do it I’d do it.” 

Melsted picked up the family in late May, but “frustrating” weeks lay ahead of her emailing back and forth with officials to help the family get enrolled in federal benefits. The family received their medical cards earlier this month, and a case worker from the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest has been assigned to the family, she said. 

“And it seems so much nicer to have somebody else there,” she said. “Because I was honestly going nuts because it's not something you can call up and say, ‘Well, what do you mean by this?’”

The human impact of leaving Ukraine behind is evident, even as local volunteers and agencies have continued to make strides. Tanya’s 75 year-old grandmother was hesitant to go to the United States and wants to return home to Ukraine, Melsted said.

The grandmother is often perched on the bench in front of the couple’s midtown Airbnb when Melsted visits the family. There are plans for someone to accompany her back to Ukraine, Melsted told the Sentinel. 

“I would like it to be totally positive, but grandma wants to go home,” she said.

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dhs, refugees, state dept, ukraine

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