International News

Ukrainians Hit With Red-Tape Nightmare in U.S. After Fleeing War

After coming to the United States from Kyiv, Ukraine, late last year, Stanislav Holotiuk and his girlfriend had to spend their first few weeks staying in a tent under the Coney Island boardwalk. (Photo: Currents News)

BRIGHTON BEACH — The Russia-Ukraine war has driven many Ukrainians to seek refuge here in the U.S., but another, unforeseen enemy — government bureaucracy — is forcing some to consider returning home, even as the conflict is still raging. 

A Brooklyn priest who is Ukrainian said he has encountered families who fled their homeland seeking relief from the war and a better life in America, only to find themselves tangled up in red tape as they try to find housing and jobs. 

Father Sergiy Emanuel, pastor of Guardian Angel Church in Brighton Beach, who has many parishioners who share his nationality, described the crisis as “a very difficult situation” for those seeking refuge.

Two months after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Biden administration started a program called Uniting for Ukraine, aimed at helping people fleeing the war. It allows Ukrainian refugees to come to the U.S. and stay here for up to two years, provided they have a sponsor who agrees to support them financially.

Since the program’s inception, approximately 117,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in the U.S.

However, immigrant advocates said once they arrive, many Ukrainian refugees are often abandoned by their so-called sponsors and left on their own to find jobs and/or housing.

While refugees are eligible to work under the Uniting for Ukraine program, they must apply for a work permit, a process that can sometimes take months. Meanwhile, finding housing is sometimes even more difficult because landlords often run credit checks on applicants, leaving refugees who don’t have a credit score in limbo.

“If you don’t have a work permit, employers don’t want to hire you. But people need to work,” Father Emanuel said, adding that people often wind up working off the books to make ends meet.

Many immigrants find themselves in worse straits — exploited by sponsors who demand payment — sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

Father Emanuel said he knew of one Ukrainian family that grew so frustrated by the bureaucracy they encountered as they tried to make a new life for themselves in Brighton Beach that they decided to return home and take their chances in a community removed from the war zone.

Another refugee couple hasn’t made the same decision, but has endured similar difficulties nonetheless.

Stanislav Holotiuk and his girlfriend Maria Muzun came to New York from Kyiv in September under Uniting for Ukraine but couldn’t find housing immediately and spent the first two weeks in their new country sleeping in a tent under the Coney Island boardwalk. 

A local Jewish center helped out and rented them a hotel room until Holotiuk found a couple on Facebook willing to share an apartment. After living there for a few months, Holotiuk and Muzun rented an apartment with friends they knew from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Holotiuk, a computer programmer back in Ukraine, said he is currently earnestly looking for work.

But despite the hardships in New York, Holotiuk, 27, felt it was necessary to leave Ukraine, where he would have faced the possibility of having to fight in the war. “A lot of people see a young man and say, ‘You must be in the war.’ I’m not a hero. I’m not a soldier. Heroes are Ukrainian soldiers,” he explained.

“After the war in Ukraine, anything is better. But I thought that America could help really more,” Holotiuk told Currents News. Still, Holotiuk is not giving up hope, saying, “It would be really cool if I could stay here.” 

Iryna Dovbnya, project director for the Ukrainian Refugee Program at Catholic Charities New York, said there are thousands of similar cases.

“The sponsors drop them in the middle of this new world and then leave them with no help. They are completely lost here,” she said.

An estimated 300,000 Ukrainians are currently in the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine and other programs, like Temporary Protected Status, which allows citizens from war-torn or disaster-plagued nations to stay here on a temporary basis, usually 18 months. 

The Ukrainian Refugee Program at Catholic Charities New York has assisted thousands of Ukrainians and is expecting more to arrive by the end of this year. “We have seen a huge wave because of the war,” Dovbnya explained.

She added refugees tend to migrate to New York because it’s the biggest there’s big job market with many different opportunities.

Each client is assigned a case manager who helps them navigate the application process for additional aid. “The majority of our clients ask for housing. It’s the first thing they ask for,”  Dovbnya explained.

Catholic Charities New York also offers assistance to refugees through a program sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that provides help paying two months’ rent and other basic necessities, like clothing. Since the summer, approximately 1,200 people have received help through the USCCB program administered by Catholic Charities. 

Additional help could be coming from New York state, which is starting a program called Ukraine Supplemental Appropriation to Resettlement Agencies, under which the state will partner with organizations like Catholic Charities to provide housing and employment support to refugees.

“With our job, the main thing is to receive people with love,” Dovbnya said. “We want them to feel loved and supported. We bring them hope and faith.”

Father Emanuel said he does his best to help parishioners with relatives from Ukraine. But he wishes the U.S. government could streamline the process.

“The Canadian government is a little better than here,” he explained. “They do everything at the airport when you arrive. You get a visa and a work permit right there. You don’t need a sponsor.”