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Fashion model helps relatives from war-torn Ukraine find safety in L.A.


Editor’s note: This story first appeared on palabra, the digital news site by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

By Manuel Ocaño

Just hours after the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Maryna Sokolovska decided to leave Los Angeles on the first available flight to Poland; she took it upon herself to help her cousin Hanna Bilonzhko in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

On Feb. 24, Hanna had planned to go shopping in the city with her 6-year-old son, Mark but she ended up locked in her apartment, not knowing what to do except call Maryna, 6,300 miles away.

“Where are you? Do you have food and water? I think it’s better that you don’t move from there,” Maryna recalled telling her cousin.

Maryna is an immigrant and one of more than 1 million people of Ukrainian ancestry living in the U.S. She is also among those helping family members however they can: sending money or physically going to Ukraine to provide direct humanitarian relief.

Maryna became a U.S. citizen 14 years ago, and she works as a model in Los Angeles and owns a fashion design business.

And while that’s not the typical resume of a humanitarian aid worker – let alone a wartime rescuer –Maryna had something of a plan: She would fly to Warsaw, the capital of Poland, drive to the border with Ukraine and then figure out the rest. She became a guide for Hanna and Mark to help them avoid the delays of resettlement on a long refugee road to the U.S.-Mexico border.

But while Maryna was in transit to Warsaw, where she managed to rent a car and drive to the Ukraine border, Hanna and Mark were forced to take refuge with other families in a basement. The Russian bombing of the Ukrainian capital had begun.

Maryna traveled as fast as she could, but it took her more than a day to get close to Ukraine. “I am at the border. Come, carefully, only with the essentials. Do not forget your passport or the child’s passport. Don’t forget to have your mobile battery charged,” Maryna recalls telling her cousin.

Hanna and her son waited for days to get on a train, as thousands of people arrived in Kyiv from different cities, trying to flee the war by going to Poland. Shelling and a mile-long convoy of Russian armored vehicles were advancing on the capital. Maryna awaited for her family in anguish and shock.

Finally, Hanna and her son grabbed the opportunity to board a bus.

A prolonged hug and tears marked the eventual safe meeting between the cousins. Maryna said Hanna told her she felt lucky to get to Poland a couple of days later, but the sights her cousin encountered on her way were overwhelming.

“From the distant blasts that she heard in the basement shelter, she went on to see the effect of the bombardment, with many buildings and houses destroyed. She told me that she saw corpses lying on the ground, in the streets,” Maryna said.

Once safely in Poland, at least eight adult Ukrainians and one child asked to join Maryna, who by that point had a plan to reach the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum.The group flew to Mexico City, where they did not need a visa, and then boarded the first flight to Tijuana on the border with California.

Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

Tijuana police officer Aarón Partida assists Maryna Sokolovska, her cousin Hanna Bilonzhko, Hanna’s son Mark and the rest of the group of Ukranians traveling together to prepare for crossing into the U.S. on March 14. Photo by Manuel Ocaño for palabra.

While Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not provided official numbers of how many Ukranians are requesting asylum through the border with Mexico, many are using this route to avoid a lengthy resettlement process that can take years. Organizations like Jewish Family Service, a nonprofit based in San Diego, started noticing that since summer of 2021 there were more Eastern Europeans released into their care.

“We anticipate the increased number of Eastern Europeans coming through our shelter will continue, as seeking asylum at the southern border is the only option available to many in the short-term,” said Kate Clark, senior director for migration services and attorney with the organization.

Bilal Askaryar, a speaker for the Welcome with Dignity Campaign said that Ukrainian families desperate to get away from the war zone choose in some instances to come to the U.S. through the Mexican border to find relatives. He said that’s better than going to a place where they don’t know the language and have no connections.

Maryna and her family arrived at the border at dawn in the middle of March. She spoke at the port of entry with CBP officers on behalf of the group, who were asked to wait a few hours to be attended. The Ukrainians were exhausted, after sleepless nights and without eating regularly.

After three hours, a CBP supervisor walked up to Maryna who had been waiting with the families by the port of entry on the Mexican side. Maryna remembers the officer saying, “You are a U.S. citizen, right?”, adding that they would let the group enter to process their refugee claims, but she couldn’t be with them during that time.

Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

Hanna Bilonzhko passes through the U.S. port of entry in San Ysidro, San Diego on March 14. Photo by Manuel Ocaño for palabra.

As Maryna drove back to Hollywood with her cousin and her son, without the rest of the group that took off in different directions to meet with family and friends, she understood why it was so easy for them to cross the border even though Hanna didn’t have a U.S. visa.

Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Ukranians against potential deportation, for 18 months on March 3.

On Friday, March 11, CBP Director of Field Operations Matthew Davis circulated a memorandum exempting Ukrainian citizens from Title 42, a provision within U.S. health law, for humanitarian reasons.

The administration of former president Donald Trump implemented this rule at the start of the pandemic to immediately expel people apprehended at the border – including asylum seekers – claiming it was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The order exempting Ukrainians was effective already on March 14, the day that Maryna, Hanna, and Mark arrived at the border.

Over the past two years, 1.7 million encounters at the border have resulted in expulsions due to Title 42. When President Joe Biden first took office, immigrant rights advocates had unsuccessfully called on him to reverse the measure.

But after the Biden administration exempted Ukrainians from Title 42, civil society organizations across the country renewed calls for the federal government to cancel the rule, arguing that a border open to tourism and commerce must also be opened to asylum. On April 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the termination of Title 42 will be effective on May 23, 2022 in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security.

A stark contrast

In the hours that Maryna and Hanna waited at the Mexican border, palabra spoke with asylum seekers from Russia and Mexico who had camped in the same place as the Ukrainians for four days, near the pedestrian entrance to San Ysidro. They said CBP denied them entry.

Anton from Russia said he was a university professor, but didn’t give his last name for fear of being recognized by his government. He said his fellow asylum-seekers in Tijuana all opposed the war and were persecuted by Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

The group of Ukrainian asylum seekers who crossed with Maryna and her family into the U.S. waits in Tijuana, Mexico on March 14. Photo by Manuel Ocaño for palabra.

In the same camp, a Mexican family, from the southwestern state of Guerrero, said they had fled their homes after the killing and dismemberment of a relative who’d become a human rights activist. Even on the northern border, far from home, they feared for their lives.

This apparent disparity in treatment has given way to protests. On March 22, a coalition of organizations protestested simultaneously at the San Ysidro and Tijuana port of entry demanding the Biden administration put an end to the use of Title 42.

“Today, when they closed the doors to our Central American clients, I asked the CBP officer why they’ve made changes to let in people from Eastern Europe, exempting them from Title 42, and he had no answer. We know there’s been a systematic ban on Black and Brown people at the border,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, attorney and director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, during the protest.

The CBP office in San Diego did not respond to inquiries about the number of Ukrainian migrants seeking refuge and about the treatment of other asylum seekers. The only data available in CBP’s website shows that they encountered just over 1,300 Ukrainians at the southern border that they either expelled or apprehended from October 2021 to February 2022.

In San Diego, Jewish Family Service attorney Kate Clark said that so far this year and until CBP exempted Ukrainians seeking refuge from Title 42, her organization had helped 453 Ukrainian migrants enter the U.S., with a sponsor.

Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

It took Victoria Markuleva, a Ukrainian mother of three, a month to make it from Poland to the San Ysidro border between San Diego and Tijuana on March 31. Photo by Manuel Ocaño for palabra.

Aarón Partida, a Tijuana police officer and a liaison with CBP officers at the San Ysidro entry point, said Ukrainians are arriving every day. When he spoke with palabra at the end of March he was surrounded by hundreds of asylum seekers from Ukraine near the pedestrian port of entry.

Partida said there were more than 650 people from Ukraine. He was helping guide 20 to 30 people at a time from the Mexican side to be processed by CBP. He said that volunteers among the Ukrainian asylum seekers at a makeshift camp were collecting names in a notebook of those wanting to enter the U.S. It took on average about 48 hours for Ukranians to enter San Diego with a humanitarian visa from the time they arrived at the San Ysidro camp, the officer said.

Ukrainians without U.S. visas followed the same route as Maryna’s cousin and her son, traveling from Europe to Mexico City, or one of the country’s tourist destinations, and then on to Tijuana, Partida said.

Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

A group of Ukrainian volunteers use yellow notepads to keep a list of the asylum seekers from Ukraine waiting to enter the U.S. on March 31. Photo by Manuel Ocaño for palabra.

“Mexico doesn’t ask us for a visa,” said Victoria Markuleva, who was waiting to cross with her three children ages 3, 5 and 7. “We’re families that want to flee from the war as fast as possible.” People live in turmoil, you hear the shelling day and night, said Markuleva.

Markuleva’s family managed to flee to Poland but there were “millions of people at the shelters.” It took a month for them to arrive at the San Ysidro border. Once in the U.S. they were hoping to reunite with relatives in Massachusetts that helped them financially during the journey.

But the number of Ukrainians arriving at the Mexican border is a small fraction of the nearly 4 million Ukrainians who have fled the country amid the Russian invasion.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes since the Russian invasion began.

Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hasn’t released any new information on the numbers of Ukrainian asylum seekers entering through the southern border, but in the last week of March there were hundreds arriving daily at the Tijuana border with San Diego. Photo by Manuel Ocaño for palabra.

It’s easy to think Hanna is lucky to be safe, inside a comfortable Los Angeles apartment. But Maryna, who did most of the talking for Hanna, said her cousin doesn’t feel lucky at all.

“Seeing the corpses, hearing the shelling, the whirlwind of people trying to flee, all of that hit her and Mark hard,” Maryna said. Mark, she added, has tried to cope. But the series of rapid changes, being in one unfamiliar place after another, and now in a city where everyone speaks a different language can’t be easy for a 6-year-old.

Maryna said Hanna will soon start working, which will help her transition. But “like all Ukrainians, our anguish will not stop until this war is over.”

“My brother, (Roman, 24), is (fighting) on the front lines in northern Ukraine. Every day we communicate, but I am petrified to think that one day we will not be able to do it anymore,” Maryna said.

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Helping family escape war-torn Ukraine

Manuel Ocaño is a multimedia journalist and his work is often published in EFE, La Opinión, Excelsior, and Chula Vista Today.

Manuel Ocaño started his career in journalism four decades ago in Mexico City. He covered Central America during the 80s. He currently reports on the U.S.-Mexico border on immigration and human rights issues. He is a multimedia journalist and his work is often published in EFE, La Opinión, Excelsior, and Chula Vista Today.



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