Welcoming Ukranian refugees to the Upper Valley

  • Iryna Petrus, from Lviv, Ukraine, is living in Grantham with her daughter Polina, age 5, in the home of David and Alice Glass. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 5/30/2022 7:55:04 PM
Modified: 5/30/2022 7:55:06 PM

GRANTHAM — Upper Valley families and institutions are opening their doors to Ukrainian families seeking refuge, though the United States’ complicated and often slow-moving visa process continues to pose hurdles for Ukrainian applicants.

Iryna Petrus, from Lviv, Ukraine, is living in Grantham with her daughter Polina, age 5, in the home of David and Alice Glass.

Petrus, a human resources director in information technology, said she came to the United States to work.

“I’m one who really wants to work and be back to where I can (be productive) and support more of my family who are still in Ukraine,” Petrus said in a video interview on the YouTube channel, Stand with Ukraine.

Petrus’s husband remained in Ukraine to support the country’s military effort, while Petrus’s mother did not feel emotionally able to leave her home, Petrus said. Petrus initially intended to stay in Ukraine but Petrus’s family insisted that they would feel less stressed knowing that Petrus and her daughter were safe.

“It is very difficult to leave your home behind, and your family,” Petrus said. “But you do what you need to do.”

The United States has committed to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians who were displaced or seeking safety from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is now in its fourth month of conflict. To facilitate the process, President Joe Biden’s administration last month launched Uniting for Ukraine, a program that provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to live temporarily in the U.S. for a two-year period. Ukrainian applicants are required to have a “supporter” who resides in the U.S. who will provide them a home and financial support to the applicant during their stay.

Petrus previously lived in the White River Junction for three years, while she earned an associate’s degree in business administration at what was then Lebanon College. She speaks fluent English and holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Though U.S. is weathering a nationwide workforce shortage, Petrus only holds a tourism visa, which does not permit its holder to work. In addition, the wait time on the application to upgrade her visa status to permit employment could take up to nine months.

“As I understand it, it’s now very difficult for me to change my status to be able to work,” Petrus said. “It (feels) like I’m here now but I’m not able to contribute.”

Alice Glass said the inability to work is stressful for Petrus, as well as other Ukrainian refugees, who are forced into idleness without knowing when their country’s immigration department will address their visa status.

“These are proud, skilled workers who have been forced to flee their homes,” Glass told the Valley News. “Most of what people like Iryna want is a way to gain employment again and earn an income that will help support herself and her daughter, and make enough for her to send back to her husband and mother.”

Untangling the bureaucratic red tape

Cardigan Mountain School, a private boarding school in Canaan for boys in grades 6-9, is in process of providing full scholarships, including room and board, to four Ukrainian boys between the ages of 12 and 14, starting this summer.

“We are really excited that we’re able to do this,” Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Chip Audett said. “We had money available through a combination of our own financial aid budget and from outside support. The timing was good.”

Two boys, Max Gerbut, 14, and Nikita Gerbut, 12, fled Ukraine with their mother, Yulia Gerbut, on Feb. 24. They are currently living in Orlando, Fla., at the home of Meegan Youkus, who once hosted Yulia Gerbut when she was an exchange student 20 years ago.

Max Gerbut will attend the ninth grade in the fall at Cardigan Mountain and Nikita Gerbut will attend the seventh grade, Audett said.

The third boy, Nazar Tatus, 14, is currently in Slovakia, awaiting the start of Cardigan Mountain’s summer program, which starts on July 2. He has an older brother currently in the U.S., where he attends Union College in New York on a student visa.

The fourth boy, Tymofii Panasenko, 13, is currently in Poland but plans to relocate to Slovakia, a Ukrainian-border country south of Poland, where the process to acquire U.S. visas is moving faster, Audett said.

“There are still a lot of moving parts to work out but I think we will be okay,” Audett said.

Those “moving parts”, Audett said, are some of the visa requirements, which some of the families are still navigating.

Most of the boys will require a student visa in addition to a tourist visa, if planning to attend Cardigan Mountain through ninth grade, according to Audett. The lone exception would be Max Gerbut, whose tourist visa will remain active until October 2023, after his completion of ninth grade.

However, his brother Nikita Gerbut, whose visa also expires in October 2023, will need either a student visa or an extension on his current visa to complete his final two years at Cardigan Mountain.

The process is actually more complicated for Gerbut now that he is already in the country, Audett said.

The United States does not typically upgrade an existing visa.

The applicant instead applies for a new, separate visa, which does not take effect until the person departs the country and then re-enters.

An attorney is working pro-bono with the Gerbut family on an application for a student visa, though that process could take many months, Audett said.

The family may also seek an extension of Gerbut’s visa or add temporary provisions to his existing visa to protect his school enrollment.

The two boys overseas are expected to arrive with two visas already approved, a tourist visa and a student visa.

The tourist visa will allow the boys to attend Cardigan Mountain’s summer enrichment program, which runs from July 2-30.

The student visa does not become active until 30 days before the start of the 2022-23 school year, which begins in late August.

Upon completion of the summer program, the boys will need to leave the country and then reenter, to transition from the tourist visa to the student visa.

Some doors close as other doors open

Claremont residents Geoffrey and Noelle Kronberg spent two years in Ukraine, from 2018-20, where they served as U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.

Once the invasion began, the Kronbergs reached out to their friends in Ukraine, including the families who hosted them during their stay, offering a place to live should anyone wish to come to the U.S.

Some individuals were initially interested, the Kronbergs said. But by the time the U.S. rolled out its sponsorship program, their friends had changed their minds about leaving.

“It just came a bit too late,” Noelle Kronberg said, adding that some friends are still considering their offer as “a back-up plan” should the conflict reach the area of western Ukraine where their friends live.

Prior to the Uniting for Ukranians program, the process to enter the United States was extremely difficult, Kronberg explained. The only available option was to seek asylum, which required physically requesting asylum at the U.S. border., such as Mexico.

The asylum option was essentially limited to Ukrainians who already held a visa, because they could not board a plane to the United States without one.

To facilitate the entry process for Ukranians, the United States changed its policy last month to allow Ukranians to apply for visas while staying in another host country, such as Poland or Slovakia.

As of May 24, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security states it has approved nearly 6,000 Ukrainians to enter the country through an online application system, which replaced the use of the asylum program.

Kronberg said one member of her former host family, a 17-year-old girl, still wants to come to the U.S., but Kronberg does not believe it would be practical.

The girl, whom Kronberg calls “her host-sister,” is still in high school and would not be able to continue her education in the U.S. without acquiring a student visa.

Patrick Adrian can be reached at pfadrian25@gmail.com.

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