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The U.S. will welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden joined a NATO summit in Brussels today. He promised the U.S. would support Ukraine with weapons, money, as well as help to those fleeing the country.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Many Ukrainian refugees will wish to stay in Europe closer to their homes. But we also will welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States, with a focus on reuniting families.

SUMMERS: In the war's first month, more than 3 million Ukrainians have escaped so far, with the vast majority heading into neighboring Poland and a mere handful to the U.S. We spoke earlier today with Krish O'Mara Vignarajah. She's president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. And my first question to her was whether the president's announcement about aiding Ukrainian refugees was, indeed, welcome news.

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Absolutely. For the last few weeks, we've been advocating for the U.S. to play not just a supporting but a leading role at a time when we have millions of refugees that have been accepted into Poland, Moldova, Lithuania and even Canada announcing new programs. It is a welcome announcement from the Biden administration, especially knowing that 90% of the refugees fleeing Ukraine are women and children.

SUMMERS: It's been our understanding that many displaced Ukrainians, they want to remain in Europe. So a question that I have had is whether bringing people here is actually helpful or if it is more helpful perhaps to funnel and to send money and supplies there.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. Candidly, knowing that we are facing the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II in Europe, we really need to do both. The U.S. has played an important role in terms of providing humanitarian assistance, early on providing some operational expertise in deploying 5,000 troops to Poland to help build some of these welcome centers. But when the region has millions of refugees, we believe that no country, no region can do this alone. And that's where seeing the U.S. do something direct and bold, especially at this moment, is critical. But it is going to involve us still continuing to help in the region. When you look at a country like Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe that has resettled more than 350,000 already and the outflow hasn't stopped, I think it is going to be critical to do both.

SUMMERS: I want to talk very directly about need and concretely about that issue. For people who are arriving here, what do they most need? What kind of resources are you able to help them connect with?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: If they're lucky, they come with a suitcase. If they're not, they're coming just with the clothes on their backs. And so they're trying to rebuild a new life in a new country, oftentimes in a new language. So they need everything from organizations like ours picking them up at the airport, you know, helping them find affordable housing - obviously not an easy thing to do at this moment given the housing crisis. It's about helping them find new jobs, integrate into their communities, navigate public transportation.

And so it is really an effort that involves people. We've seen more than 100,000 volunteers sign up in the last year. This is partly the work that Americans are going to be involved in, in terms of being those friends, taking them to doctors appointments, helping them enroll kids in public school because we know that so many of the children - you know, even if they do return, it will be some amount of time where they'll be still here in the U.S.

SUMMERS: There are a number of different pathways that displaced people can take to getting resettled in the United States. And I'm hoping you can flesh those out for me a little bit and talk some about the obstacles that are inherent in each of those different paths.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. So there's three main pathways that we believe will be involved in how we resettle Ukrainian refugees. The refugee resettlement system is a program by which we resettle those fleeing war, persecution, violence. The problem is on the Trump administration, the president chose to reduce the number of refugees we would accept from 110,000 to 15,000. And as a result, the infrastructure was decimated.

And then the second major program will be humanitarian parole. So the president has an authority to admit refugees or asylees who are fleeing dire circumstances when we see an urgent humanitarian crisis. We saw that authority used for Afghan resettlement last year. It is a beneficial program in that you can act swiftly to protect people. The downside of this program is that it doesn't provide a permanent pathway of legal status. Another critical pathway will be family reunification, knowing that there are thousands of Ukrainians who have family here in the U.S. who have been desperately seeking to reconnect with them.

SUMMERS: All right. That is Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Thank you so much for joining us today.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Really appreciate you having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.