Worcester’s support for Ukraine was evident Tuesday as its anthem played at a city council meeting while its yellow and blue flag waved outside, but the city is limited in the support it can offer Ukrainians fleeing war.
Standing in front of City Hall at a scheduled prayer vigil to support Ukraine on Tuesday, Mayor Joseph Petty said, “We stand ready to welcome Ukrainians fleeing the conflict.”
He went on to highlight the city’s history of welcoming refugees, starting over 100 years ago with Armenians fleeing the genocide in their country and more recently with Afghan refugees who fled their country after the Taliban took control.
Petty specifically took a stance on the violent nature of the conflict in Eastern Europe.
“Today we get together as a city and as a community to stand together against Russian aggression in the Ukraine,” Petty said, “We stand in support of the Ukrainian people in this unprovoked insidious action.”
During a meeting of the UN Security Council Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filipo Grandi estimated as many as 4 million of Ukraine’s 44 million person population could seek refuge in other countries in the coming weeks.
Grandi reported that 677,000 Ukrainians have fled as of Tuesday.
Currently, Ukrainians are being welcomed in neighboring countries like Poland, but the U.S.’s final stance on welcoming them is not yet clear. There are also reports that while white Ukrainians are being welcomed with open arms, black and brown people fleeing the conflict are facing difficulties at European borders.
Before Ukrainians can enter the U.S. as refugees the president, along with Congress, has to designate Ukraine for refugee admissions.
As of now the State Department is not considering the United States as an initial resettlement country for Ukrainians, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette.
“The Department will work with (the U.N. Refugee agency) and our overseas post to determine whether Ukrainians who have fled to another country require resettlement to a third country because they are not safe in their current location,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email to the paper.
Worcester has welcomed hundreds of Afghan refugees in the last several months through both the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center (RIAC) and Ascentria Care Alliance.
Afghans, however, are not considered legal refugees in the U.S.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Afghans were brought to the U.S. on temporary humanitarian grounds and identified as paroles rather than as refugees, since the refugee process can take several years and a more rigorous set of background checks.
The quick entry Afghans were allowed comes with some drawbacks, their legal permission to stay in the U.S. is temporary, so if they want to stay they’ll have to apply for visas through a family member or employer or apply for asylum, according to the paper.
Organizations in Worcester are working to help Afghan refugees here with another issue they’re facing, finding affordable housing.
Worcester Together, the United Way of Central Massachusetts, and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce (WRCC) joined together to form “Operation Welcome” a group working to create an inventory of house and apartments available for refugees.
Though hundreds of Afghan refugees have been processed by organizations in Worcester, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay in the city permanently. Some may move to be with family or to places with greater immigrant populations.
In total the U.S. evacuated and resettled more than 76,000 Afghans after the fall of Kabul but, unlike in Ukraine, the U.S. participated in a nearly 20-year war in the country and was in charge of the evacuation.
Some U.S. politicians and aid organizations are calling for the U.S. to get just as involved this time too.
“As always, the countries immediately bordering Ukraine will face the greatest burden,” Rep. Ilhan Omar said in a statement posted to Twitter, “The United States should lead by example, and begin to resettle refugees here as soon as it becomes necessary.”
Mayor Petty told the crowd gathered in Worcester Tuesday night that during the uncertainty of COVID, the war in Ukraine is, “another reminder that our strength is found in one another, is found in our families, our neighbors, our congregations of faith and the belief that together we can weather any storm.”