Editor’s note: This article was published in the March 2023 issue of the North Star Catholic.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Ihor and Iryna Melnyk and their two sons are refugees from Ukraine navigating a new life in Wasilla. They joined more than 500 other refugees who made their way to Alaska, in this case from the city of Vinnytsia in Ukraine.
Vinnytsia is a city of just under 400,000 population where the Ukrainian Air Force was lodged since 1992. It was targeted for Russian missile bombings in March 2022 that devastated the city. The Melnyk family realized there “was no way to stay safe” in Vinnytsia and they initially escaped to Poland. From Poland, they arrived in Alaska on June 11, 2022.
Here they find themselves part of a supportive and large group of Ukrainian refugees and sponsors in the Mat-Su Valley where nearly 200 Ukrainians are temporarily settled. Speaking through a translator, Ihor reports his 14-year-old son, in 8th grade, has excelled to the top 1 percent of his math class group and the top 17 percent for English. Their other son is 20 and completing a homeschool program.
“It’s been good,” Ihor said. “We especially like the snow, walking in the snow and building snowmen and the northern lights.”
But it’s not all easy because Ihor would like to work, and his wife wanted to be employed at a school.
He owned his own business in Vinnytsia packaging and distributing motor oil. He’d like to do the same kind of work in Alaska, but obtaining Employment Authorization Documentation (EAD) can take up to three months, and work visas are not part of the Humanitarian Parolee status created to quickly help Ukrainians in the war crisis to escape their country.
After a two-year Alaska stay, the Melnyk family will be expected to return to Ukraine – unless a new path to citizenship is created for them. That’s a task Catholic Social Services is working on, said Molly Cornish, Chief Communications Officer for CSS.
“We’re working closely with our senators in DC. Staffers and public officials are listening intently to the challenges that our refuge’s new arrivals are experiencing,” Cornish said.
The current Humanitarian Parolee status inhibits their ability to make plans for the future. “It’s a barrier. We’re working with federal partners on figuring out a way, a new path to citizenship,” she added.
Issa Spatrisano, the Alaska State Refuge Coordinator for Catholic Social Services, said this is the largest group of refugees to enter the state from a single country. A total of 531 Ukrainians have entered the state over the last two years.
“This was the largest resettlement in the history of the state,” Spatrisano said. Alaska averages 130 arrivals a year and last year saw 497 arrivals.
The conditions were dire for Ukrainians escaping the Russian invasion of their country. Many arrived with only a suitcase or perhaps not even that much in their possessions. Many of these new arrivals are from Ukraine and Afghanistan.
The record number being temporarily resettled is thanks in large part to the equally large number of sponsors who reached out to help. Each individual requires a sponsor who agrees to board and feed them or otherwise offer support. Due to the dire need, a special immigration status was created for Ukrainian refugees called Humanitarian Parolee.
“It’s a new status and a new program,” explains Cornish.
“It allowed them to come to Alaska and the US more quickly with than the usual refugee resettlement pathways. It’s its own program and policy. We have yet to see a path to see citizenship, though, and this creates a lot of stress for our new neighbors.”
Alaskans from throughout the state – most centered in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley – reached out to help. Some 41 percent of the Ukrainians are settled in Anchorage, 33 percent in the Valley, and 17 percent in the Fairbanks/Delta Junction area. But sponsors and migrants also paired up in Kodiak, Petersburg, and Juneau.
A parish in Haines is the latest, which formed the Haines Alaska Refugee Support group led by Shawn and Sarah Bell of Haines, members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The group includes other members of the parish and community who recently received its certification and is now awaiting contact from a Ukrainian refugee family interested in relocating to Haines for up to two years. The group commits to supporting the family as needed during relocation and helps them make the transition into their community, said Father Michael Ko, pastor of the church.
The sponsors may be associated with the Catholic Church or they might not be, but all refugees qualify for help through Catholic Social Services, Spatrisano said. CSS works with other nonprofits that have worked hard to bring Ukrainian people to Alaska, such as the New Change Church.
“They arrive with varied English fluency or beginning English and we help the families enroll in the local school districts as well as offer English as a Second Language (ESL) throughout state comprehensive programs that teach how to get a job or how to pay rent – it’s a broad range of help on multiple levels,” Spatrisano said.
To handle the large caseload, CSS has expanded the Refugee Services staff from its previous 10 people to 40 individuals at the current time, she said.
At Christmas time, many Catholic families “adopted” the new Ukrainian Alaskans to help them. Their donations consisted of cash cards so that they could purchase their own gifts for family members. This was a popular program that drew many Catholic participants, she said.
Ihor and his family say they are grateful to be here.
“We like it very much,” he said. They applied to work but have yet to hear about their status. “We like everything. There is no discrimination by religion or language. Our kids are happy in their schools. My 8th-grade son wants to go into IT when he is grown.”
Everything is good except the Melynks don’t know their status for one year. They entered a green card lottery. “We’ll just wait and see what happens,” Ihor said. He hopes people won’t forget the Ukrainians struggling.
Cornish noted that CSS has seen an incredibly generous outpouring of support for the new Ukrainian neighbors among us.
“It’s incredible to see – it really speaks of how welcoming our state is. There’s something to be said for that welcoming: How caring and compassionate our state is,” Cornish said. “They are excited and willing to be a place where people can find refuge, solace, and welcome.”