Uncertain future for Ukrainian refugees as war enters 3rd year

"I had to leave because I had to survive," Mariya Grigoryeva says.

Uncertain future for Ukrainian refugees as war enters 3rd year
ABC News
February 22, 2024, 6:13 AM

When Mariya Grigoryeva found out she was pregnant with her second child days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she prepared to flee.

She and her young daughter left for Moldova in March 2022 while her husband stayed behind in Odesa to continue work as a seaman, she said. Two months later, they landed in Philadelphia, where her grandmother and other family members live and they have been ever since.

As the Ukraine-Russia war enters its third year with no end in sight, Grigoryeva doesn't know when they might be able to return to Ukraine, where she said their life had been "perfect" before the war -- and what they might return to.

"I had to leave because I had to survive and to give a new life," Grigoryeva told ABC News. "It was a very hard decision to [leave] your home, your country, your relatives."

Grigoryeva is one of nearly 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees recorded worldwide as of December 2023, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nearly half a million Ukrainian refugees have come to the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security. More than 178,000 individuals have arrived at U.S. ports of entry and been processed as part of Uniting for Ukraine since the program launched in April 2022, according to DHS. Additionally, more than 319,000 Ukrainians have been processed into the U.S. outside of Uniting for Ukraine since March 24, 2022, DHS said.

PHOTO: Mariya Grigoryeva speaks with ABC News.
Mariya Grigoryeva speaks with ABC News.
ABC News

Since coming to the U.S., Grigoryeva said she has found a "second home" at KleinLife, a Jewish community center founded in 1975 that is run by Ukrainian and Russian refugees. There, her 7-year-old daughter, Yeva, participates in programs including theater and art therapy.

"When we came here, she said it is like a small part of Ukraine, it is my like second home," Grigoryeva said of her daughter.

"It is great because it is a safe place where your child is happy," Grigoryeva said.

After seeing an influx of Ukrainian refugees in the wake of the invasion, KleinLife began offering a free summer camp for Ukrainian refugee children in 2022. As more refugees arrived, the program grew to help families year-round with employment paperwork, after-school care, ESL classes and more.

"I wanted to see kids behaving like kids. Because when they came in, they were really in the rough shape," Andre Krug, the CEO of KleinLife who came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1989, told ABC News.

Krug said that while playing outside, some children would cover their ears and hit the ground when planes would depart a nearby airport.

"We wanted to make them kids again," he said.

PHOTO: Mariya Grigoryeva's 7-year-old daughter, Yeva, performs at KleinLife in Philadelphia.
Mariya Grigoryeva's 7-year-old daughter, Yeva, performs at KleinLife in Philadelphia.
ABC News

When Grigoryeva first started coming to the center, pregnant with her second child, they helped collect baby clothes and a crib for her, Victoria Faykin, a Russian refugee who is KleinLife's vice president, told ABC News.

"For mothers, it's most important for children to be safe while they come to America. And they left husbands, have left everything in Ukraine," Faykin said. "For them, it's most important to bring children and make them happy and safe."

Grigoryeva came to the U.S. on an active tourist visa, which provided a quick pathway to enter the country. But it also has meant she could not work or get a driver's license, she said. She is currently a full-time student and has applied for Temporary Protected Status under Ukraine's designation, which has been extended through April 19, 2025, and allows refugees to apply for employment authorization documents.

Refugees who came to the U.S. through the Uniting for Ukraine program are able to temporarily stay in a two-year parole period and are likely able to seek employment authorization, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

PHOTO: Illustration
Ukrainian refugees globally and in the U.S.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Department of Homeland Security

No matter which scenario refugees fall under, there is a lot of uncertainty, Ricky Palladino, an immigration attorney in Philadelphia, told ABC News.

"As of now, there really aren't any clear permanent pathways to legalization for Ukrainians," Palladino said. "That causes a lot of stress, especially for the people that really want to find a permanent home in the United States, because they're not sure or certain that they will be able to have a safe life if they returned to Ukraine."

If Grigoryeva is unable to get Temporary Protected Status, she thinks they will have to leave.

"Life is too hard and a lot of money for rent, for student payments," she said.

The family has found a second home in Philadelphia during the war, though they would also like to return to Ukraine one day, she said.

"Here life is perfect I think for child," she said. "But she still want to go home. Every year she makes a wish to Santa to go home. Every birthday."

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