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Ukrainians who fled the war in the United States are left homeless and do not understand how the apartment rental system works in America

Ukrainian refugees fled the war-torn country last year and took refuge in American homes. But now some are struggling to navigate the tough housing market without sponsorship. Wall Street Journal.

Photo: IStock

The first of its kind US government program Uniting For Ukraine allowed Ukrainians to legally live and work in the US for two years under a provision of immigration law called the humanitarian parole. US citizens, strangers in some cases, agreed to sponsor Ukrainians and actually invite them into their homes upon arrival.

As of the end of February, about 115 Ukrainians had moved to the US under the program, according to government figures.

Ukraine's humanitarian parole program is different from how the US resettled refugees for decades. This program limits the length of their stay and does not offer government-funded housing or guaranteed assistance from a resettlement agency. This is also different from how asylum seekers who cross the US border are treated. As a rule, they are not immediately allowed to work, and they do not have access to assistance.

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Many Ukrainians say that so far this program has been excellent.

“I see families who take people in for a month, two or three. There are other cases where people are willing to take people longer,” said Irina Petrus, a Ukrainian who works at the Ukrainian American Community Center in Minneapolis. “People here in the United States are very, very generous. It's human kindness to be there for each other."

But there have been setbacks, including initial delays in obtaining work permits and some social benefits approved by Congress last year, immigration lawyers, attorneys and Ukrainians say.

The vague structure of sponsorship requirements has also been a problem for many. According to the rules of the program, sponsors must help provide Ukrainians with parole with adequate and safe housing, although their lawyers and defenders have said that this requirement is not met. As a result, due to unclear expectations or damaged relationships with their sponsors, some Ukrainians have to cope with the high cost of living in many parts of the US.

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The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that sponsors are screened for fraud and security issues before an application is approved.

"We carefully investigate each reported case of fraud or misconduct and may refer these cases to federal law enforcement agencies for further investigation," the department said in a statement.

“In the beginning, everything was great,” Svetlana Lazareva said, through an interpreter, about the tension with her family's sponsor. Lazareva said she and her family fled their home near Bakhmut, Ukraine last June, about four months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine began. The family planned to move to suburban Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles.

Lazareva said the sponsorship program was a vital lifeline for her, her daughter, grandson and dog to leave the war zone. According to her, the family began to settle down, her grandson went to school, and she and her daughter became friends with a sponsor and were looking for work. Relations began to deteriorate at the end of last year. Lazareva said her family's sponsor was an acquaintance of her daughter's. She declined to detail their quarrel.

In January, Lazareva said that she urgently needed new housing. Her daughter, grandson and dog were able to move in with friends they met in the area. Lazareva, who has worked as a lawyer in Ukraine, finds occasional work as a cleaner in the US while learning English. Now she is faced with the fact that she has become homeless.

An Orange County social worker connected her to Nova Ukraine, a non-profit relief group that created an emergency housing group to help Ukrainians in a similar situation. For more than two months she has been living in a converted church administration building in a business complex. The former office with a double bed is her room until she can afford an apartment on her own.

“I remember that phone call; she was crying, she was very emotional,” said Tetyana Hauser, a Nova Ukraine volunteer and coordinator of a small shelter run by volunteers and funded by donations from the community.

Those living in the Orange County shelter are among the large number of Ukrainians with parole who have struggled to find housing on their own. Hauser said about 50 families have passed through the shelter since it opened in August.

Some, including several families at the shelter, have been offered help by sponsors only with paperwork, but not with housing or other needs.

“There was a lot of misinformation and expectations that didn’t match sponsorship responsibilities,” said Ann Smith, an immigration attorney and executive director of the Ukraine Immigration Working Group. – This is not necessarily a program error. But we hear a lot of surprise about what is expected from sponsors."

Smith said immigration lawyers across the country have repeatedly shared stories of Ukrainians in need of help.

In recent months, calls from Lazareva have become commonplace for volunteers, Houser said. The group handles about 100 cases per month of people in need of urgent housing.

According to lawyers and Ukrainians, finding affordable housing has been a challenge for many.

“Housing is by far one of the most painful hurdles that continues to be a problem,” said Alex Budnitsky, executive director of Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY, Ukrainian Relief Group.

Budnitsky said his group worked with about 5000 Ukrainians last year, receiving requests for help finding housing in and around New York City, where vacant apartments can be scarce and prices out of reach for many newcomers from abroad.

He said some landlords are suspicious of newcomers who do not have sufficient credit history or stable jobs in the US, and even those who can afford rent and deposits. Newly arrived Ukrainians with parole are entitled to work as soon as they are issued with a social security number. But some employers prefer they have a work permit before hiring them, lawyers say.

Igor Yaskevich, his wife and newborn son fled Ukraine for New York last July. For several months they lived with a friend of his mother. He said the living situation had become "annoying" for both parties and he began looking for his own place to live.

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“When you arrive, you will only have an I-94 form, which means nothing when you are trying to find housing,” said Yaskevich, 27, who worked in information technology. – You need a credit card, credit score, social security number. If you don’t have them, it’s hard for landlords to check something.”

According to him, an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in New York was out of his price range. So he began scouring the Internet for Ukrainian aid groups who could help.

Soon, according to Yaskevich, the family found a furnished two-bedroom duplex in Amherst, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

“I came here, got my driver's license, bought a car, and now I'm trying to find a job,” Yaskevich said. I checked the condition of the housing before I moved here. It is good. It's just a lot calmer here. And the prices are half as much as in New York.”

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