Updated at 10:53 a.m. Feb. 24
When Larysa Atamas first arrived in Everett last year, the sounds of the flights taking off and landing at nearby Logan Airport were a terrifying reminder of the war she had just escaped in Ukraine.
“It was bad the first couple of months because I’d wake up and think, ‘My God, they’re bombing us," she said.
It didn’t fully sink in that she was safe until June, when she saw children in a park playing baseball, a sport she associates with the United States.
‘“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I'm in America!’”
Atamas is now living in Cambridge with her husband, Vlad, and their 9-year old, Max. They are among at least 2,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Massachusetts since Russia invaded their country last February.
Atamas and Max left their home in a heavily targeted manufacturing district in Eastern Ukraine a week into the war, riding a train westbound that stopped and started throughout the night with its lights out, hoping to escape detection. Cellphones were turned off to avoid being a target of Russian airstrikes, and passengers watched the countryside as bombs lit up the sky.
They spent two months in refugee camps, and escaped the home of volunteers she believed to be human traffickers, all while separated from Vlad, who was mandated to remain in Ukraine under military policy. Vlad was ultimately allowed to leave to help care for his son, because Max has a seizure disorder and behavioral health problems. They flew to Mexico and crossed the U.S. border on April 18.
How long Atamas’ family and other Ukrainians can stay in the U.S. is an open question. They have arrived amid changing government programs, all with different rules and expiration dates.
Under the federal rule that existed the day they entered the country, Atamas, her husband and son were granted humanitarian parole when they turned themselves in at the border. That means they can legally remain in the U.S. for a year, minus two days. That clock runs out on April 16.
“We don’t know what happens after,” she said.
Anastasiia Bondarenko has two years. The 29-year-old woke up the morning that was supposed to be her beauty shop grand opening and instead found bombs raining down on Kharkiv, the glass of nearby windows vibrating.
She and her husband Dmytro Bondarenko — an auto mechanic — and 7-year-old son, Tymur, escaped the city by car. “I took my wedding dress. I don’t know why I needed it. But it was pretty important for me,” she said.
Locals were hiding in bunkers, so the streets were empty “like an apocalypse movie,” she said. They encountered a line of young Ukrainian soldiers.
‘“They looked ridiculous. I’m a mom of a boy. They were milky-skinned boys, without beards, teenagers, with huge guns. I thought, ‘You’re too young to go there. Go home to your mom.’ For me it was a shock," she said.
They spent months scurrying from town to town ahead of missile strikes. Their longest stay was six weeks at a two-room cottage without power, shared with four others.
Listen to Sarah Betancourt discuss how Ukrainians living in Massachusetts are finding help.
An evolving humanitarian policy
Once out of Ukraine, Anastasiia and Dymitro heard about a program the Biden Administration launched, Uniting for Ukraine, which allows U.S. citizens or green card holders to sponsor Ukrainians, and offers legal status for two years under “humanitarian parole.”
They were sponsored by a stranger they found on Facebook, but some of the immigrants have been able to rely on family members already in the states. For Hanna Hurina, it was her niece, Svetala Atakhanova, who lives with her husband in Watertown. For Nadia Docenko, it was her children’s godfather in Newton.
With a pained expression, Hurina described her orchard back home in detail. Four cherry trees; three apple; two peach. “I would eat from the harvest all summer long,” she said as Atakhanova interpreted.
The 68-year-old from Kyiv lost her husband just before the war, then took in many Ukrainians fleeing from the eastern part of the country. She decided to leave when Russians destroyed the electrical station powering her home.
Svetlana convinced her to try Uniting for Ukraine, and filled out the application, which was approved in five days. It was Hurina’s first time out of Ukraine, and she got to Logan Airport on Christmas Eve.
“Workers came with a wheelchair and said they will take care of me,” Hernia explained. “I started crying. I said, ‘No, no, Probably it's not for me.’ They said, ‘We know you from Ukraine, what you go through and please, we will take care of you. No worries.”’
Sending family members out of Ukraine ... by foot
Nadia Docenko, 53, was at work in the office of a day care center when her manager ran in telling employees the Russians had invaded. Her 31-year-old daughter and teenager were home, so she rushed into a supermarket to find food, but abandoned that because of long lines. She and her children eventually left for a family home in a small town.
Refuge was brief — a nearby oil refinery was bombed. “I remember seeing the flames and thinking, ‘oh my God. There is no safe place in Ukraine,’” said Docenko, who suffered from panic attacks.
That’s when she sent her children out of the country by foot. Their godfather from Massachusetts met them in Germany, and Docenko followed so they would qualify for the Uniting for Ukraine program. They moved to Newton in August.
The newly arrived Ukrainians said they’ve been moved by the kindness of the people who helped them on the journey, and by Americans here. Resettlement agencies are helping the parolees, who aren’t eligible for the same federal cash assistance as refugees but qualify for similar social services, like SNAP, state housing funds, and MassHealth.
Refugee agencies told GBH News they estimate about two thousand Ukrainians have arrived, but it’s hard to tell precisely. The state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants reported 1,170 parolees arrived as of Jan. 31, reported to them by resettlement agency affiliates. The office said this is “not a comprehensive count” and only a “subset” of the total number. Others could be sponsored through family and not need the help of agencies, so they aren’t included in that count.
A sponsorship program is born
Through Uniting for Ukraine, U.S. citizens or green card holders can apply to sponsor people escaping the war. The program is free, but the sponsor must show proof of financial wherewithal to support their guests.
Catholic Charities of Boston is helping sponsors apply for the program, and is also part of a pilot called Welcome U.S., which lets groups sponsor an individual or a family in a so-called “welcome circle.” The organization served 94 Ukrainians last year, mostly through Uniting for Ukraine.
“There is a financial commitment that the [sponsor] needs to agree to because, you know, we need to make sure we're not bringing folks here and they just get left on the street,” said Marjean Perhot, Catholic Charities of Boston Vice President for Refugees and Immigrants Services.
She said welcome circles allow multiple sponsors to share responsibility. Participants assemble a “Welcome Plan” to outline how they’ll help people with housing, transportation, enrolling children in school, and connect the migrants to jobs. It takes longer for a circle to be approved than individuals under Uniting for Ukraine.
Many parolees are settling in Western Massachusetts, where there is a strong Ukrainian community. Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts has helped more than 360 individuals with over $346,000 in assistance, primarily for housing.
The group connects refugees to immediate needs. “I’m talking English as a second language, employment services, youth-focused services, individual cash assistance benefits from the Department of Transitional Assistance,” said Sara Bedford, New American program director there.
The organization recently got a grant from the state to connect Ukrainians to certification training to get them licensed for their professions in Massachusetts.
For many migrants, housing is the biggest hurdle, given high rent costs across the state. “Sometimes there are situations when a family of eight comes and they have a small two-room house or apartment and they have no other choice but to stay … until they find their own housing,” said Alina Dyachenko, a Ukrainian caseworker at Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts.
In Quincy, Anastasiia Bondarenko said her family’s relationship with their sponsor grew tenuous, so they moved out and stayed with an American family before hearing about the International Institute of New England, a resettlement agency.
The agency helped them with enrollment to MassHealth and school, and importantly, by writing a letter of support to a landlord, and paid for three month’s rent. “It’s kind of different here,” said Bondarenko “You need to show your income level. You need to show your work. And if you're not have this, how can you rent an apartment?”
A helping hand
Larysa Atamas and her family left Everett and are now house-sitting in Cambridge. They got connected to that opportunity through Sam Wachman through the Ukrainian Boston Facebook group after Larysa posted asking for help finding Max's anti-convulsant medication.
Wachman, 22, who studied Russian and worked in health care, helped the family get the medicine. He has also helped 15 Ukrainians apply for the Uniting for Ukraine program by showing them how to fill out documents, and connecting people abroad with potential sponsors.
“I generally look at families with children, the elderly, disabled, the ones most vulnerable,” he said. He tries to work with people who know someone in the U.S. who can guide them through rebuilding a life here.
Wachman said in most situations he’s seen, it’s Ukrainians who are living here and want to sponsor someone but aren’t citizens or green card holders that just need someone to fill in the paperwork for their families abroad.
For instance, he connected Vlad to a neighbor who could sponsor his parents. A few weeks ago, they arrived to help care for Max.
Wachman also launched a nonprofit called Boston Ukrainian Action Committee to help parolees, and to send humanitarian aid abroad.
He said many arriving Ukrainians are struggling with education for their children. Every family he’s met has a child struggling in school.
Atamas’ child Max, for instance, exhibited few emotions during the months of travel, but then suddenly began acting out in “ways they’d never seen before,” his mother said.
Enrolled in Everett Public Schools, his toys from Ukraine were taken away due to behavioral outbursts, said Wachman, who had to go to the school on behalf of the family. When the family tried to move Max to Cambridge Public Schools, they were told they couldn't because of Everett’s behavioral reports, and also that there wasn't space in the school's program. School administrators pointed to private school as the only option — which the family can’t afford. For now, Max travels to Everett for school. The family believes he just needs a district that knows how to work with children traumatized by war.
With Wachman’s help, they found a psychologist who works with war victims, and is seeing Max, but funds are running out.
Waiting to work
Finding employment is a continued challenge for Ukrainians who have fled to the United States due to the war. They can apply for work authorization once they’re here, but the wait times are unpredictable. Federal rules for Ukrainians changed in November and they’re allowed to work for three months as long as they’ve applied for work authorization. Employers have to agree to that arrangement though, and most don’t.
Dmytro Bondarenko received authorization months before Anastasiia, but struggled to find work because mechanic shops require contractors to have their own tools, he said. He finally found one where other colleagues allowed him to borrow their tools, but that hampered the shop’s workflow.
Bondarenko created a GoFundMe to fundraise for tools, which cost about $8,000. He’s a quarter of the way to the goal, but what he’s been able to buy so far has made the work situation easier. He talks about how much he misses his shop in Ukraine, but wants to “run his own in the U.S.”
This isn’t Bondarenko’s first experience rebuilding his life. He and his mother fled the Donbas region of Ukraine when war came in 2014.
“I understand now I need to find some safe country to start with zero a second time,” he said. “I think United States is nice because it's powerful country — it's a safe place.”
His wife Anastasiia received her work authorization a couple weeks ago. She’s over seven months pregnant, but is considering work as an interpreter helping others like herself. In the months since moving to Massachusetts, she’s helped other Ukrainians navigate the complex system of health insurance, and volunteered to get children toys.
Svetlana Atakhanova and her husband in Watertown help other Ukrainian parolees by offering to connect them to employers for free through their employment agency, Job Exchange. They have a few parolees living in their home, and rented out a building in their name, which they sublease to refugees.
In Newton, Nadia Docenko is afraid of leaving her relatives’ home because she doesn’t speak English. She’s been trying to teach herself from library books, and said classes are too expensive. Not speaking English has posed a barrier to finding work. She’s hoping to find a job in childcare, the industry she used to work in.
In Cambridge, Atamas’ husband commutes to work with his friend in construction. She found a job at a local Whole Foods whose manager goes out of her way to hire Ukrainian and Afghan parolees.
But what happens when her parole expires in April?
Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts has 28 clients who fall in the same category as Atamas, and could have benefits expire. Until Congress or the Biden administration make a move, how to help these individuals is up in the air.
“They would either have to leave the U.S.; reapply for Uniting for Ukraine, which is a huge waste of resources; apply for asylum, which is a huge waste of resources; or remain relatively undocumented,” said Bedford. Some families might not want to apply for asylum because they do eventually want to return to Ukraine, and wouldn’t have strong asylum claims.
If an individual applies for asylum, then decides to drop out of the process, their case is sent to immigration court for deportation proceedings, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association of New England.
Congressman Seth Moulton was among a bipartisan group of House lawmakers who traveled to Ukraine in December. “We stand ready to do whatever is needed to continue helping these refugees if any of these cliffs do come up,” he said. Moulton said there’s a bipartisan “appetite to make sure we continue supporting Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees.”
The war has no end in sight. Through a multitude of pathways, the United States welcomed more than 253,500 Ukrainians between last March and the end of January 2023, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Most parolees expressed ambivalence over whether or not they want to return. In Watertown, Hanna Hurina said she wants to stay just until spring, but her family is urging her to stay longer to address her heart condition, and avoid doctor shortages in Ukraine.
“I pray every day, every night the war will be ending,” said Hurina. “Ukraine will win, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all our homes are destroyed.”
Docenko in Newton wants to return, but said she came here “for a future life for my kids.”
Atamas feels guilty for leaving Ukraine, but says she can’t go back. “The war may go on for many years. No one can know, and no one can predict. For many decades, Ukraine will be in squalor,” she said.
This story was updated to clarify the details of Bondarenko's fundraising effort.