Since the war broke out in Ukraine, Kateryna Kelly has discovered the Ukrainian community in New Hampshire is bigger than she thought, as people have come forward to join the aid effort.
Now, they are getting organized, mounting grassroots aid campaigns throughout the state as they await refugee resettlement proceedings with the hope of bringing loved ones to safety. The state’s resettlement agencies say they could receive information on the timing of arrivals as early as this week.
Kelly is an office manager for the International Institute of New England, one of the state’s resettlement agencies, but the process is also personal for her. She’s waiting for her mom to join her in New Hampshire – Kelly’s home for the past four years.
Although Kelly helped her mom start the process of coming to the U.S. before the war, it took a few weeks after the conflict started for Kelly to convince her to evacuate their hometown of Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine. “It doesn’t help because my mom is super stubborn, and I was like, ‘You have to leave the country,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m just going to sit here and wait to see what happens,’” Kelly said.
Kelly’s mom is now in Estonia waiting for her visa to be approved. But others share her reluctance to leave home. Many Ukrainians are waiting in countries neighboring Ukraine with the hope they will be able to return home.
“Ukrainians love their country, and they want to live there,” Kelly said. “I actually know a couple people who initially evacuated to east Ukraine, and now they’re already coming back to my city because that’s their home. That’s where they want to be.”
Staff at the International Institute of New England expect that most refugees who end up coming to New Hampshire will have family here, like Kelly’s mom.
“What you might start to see is that those who have strong family ties here might make their way to New Hampshire, and then they will probably try to maybe just be here on temporary visa and then go home, hoping the war is short,” said Henry Harris, a caseworker for IINE. Based on the organization’s work in the community, Harris estimates that there are around 100 people in the Manchester area with ties to Ukraine. For now, he said, the agency is still in a holding pattern, awaiting information about who will come and when.
Ascentria Care Alliance is in the same position, said Jeffrey Kinney, a spokesperson for the organization. Kinney said the organization is anxiously awaiting word from their national partner, but so far they have yet to receive any direction. They are hoping to receive additional details soon.
In March, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would accept 100,000 refugees from Ukraine. Lawmakers have urged the administration to speed up the process – and the Ukrainian community in New Hampshire is also frustrated by how slowly things are going. A report from Reuters found that only 12 Ukrainians were resettled through the refugee program in March, although thousands have entered the U.S. through Mexico, some with legal visas.
IINE has received one Ukrainian family that walked into the agency looking for services, and Harris thinks they likely followed a similar path, entering the country at the southern border. While the family has green card status and permission to work in the U.S., they weren’t eligible for refugee resettlement money, Harris said, since they didn’t come through the refugee program. “They didn’t qualify for anything,” he said.
“I think our government needs to work a bit faster,” Kelly said.
Others in the Ukrainian community, such as Doug Vogel, a member of the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Manchester, share that sentiment. “The United States is promising a lot, but we’re not seeing delivery on any of it,” he said.
Instead, the congregation has turned to direct aid efforts, raising money and supplies to deliver to loved ones and gathering items to ship to Ukraine.
They’re not alone. A group of women in the Seacoast region have been trying to raise donations and items to ship to Ukraine. Kelly said they’re now thinking of starting a nonprofit. In Manchester, the owner of the ODA Auto Precision car dealership, Andrey Ilyuk, has already gone that route, founding a nonprofit called Loving Lifeline, which is raffling off a donated Mercedes-Benz to raise money to aid Ukrainians. Ilyuk is originally from Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 6, according to the Loving Lifeline website.
Other grassroots efforts have been challenged by the state.
In March, four businesses in the state ran into trouble for gathering donations because they’re not registered with the state’s Charitable Trusts Unit. The Attorney General’s Office sent letters to the four businesses, instructing them to halt fundraising efforts.
At the Ukrainian church in Manchester, cardboard boxes in the back of the church hall were filled with donated items on Palm Sunday – granola bars, Spam, Tylenol – while children painted eggs under the watchful tutelage of Anya Vogel, Doug Vogel’s daughter. She’s 27 and has been coming to the church since the family moved to New Hampshire in 1999. Watching the war unfold has been distressing, Anya Vogel said, for her and her family. “I’ve never seen my mom so distraught, so angry,” she said.
“Heartbreak.” “Fear.” “Anger.” Those are some of the ways congregants described their reactions to the war. With the ongoing turmoil of the war abroad, the congregation keeps old traditions alive in New Hampshire. Anya Vogel said painting the eggs, called pysanka, is her favorite thing about being Ukrainian. She painted her egg blue, yellow, and white, using clear wax to etch wheat and a sunflower on the egg – symbols of life and rebirth.