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Even with ties, Ukrainian families struggle to reach the United States

Olena Kopchak, her husband, Albert Kodua, and their eight-year-old daughter, Yana, are staying in a small 250-square-foot apartment in Warsaw, Poland. They hope to make it to the United States. [Franco Ordoñez  / NPR]
Olena Kopchak, her husband, Albert Kodua, and their eight-year-old daughter, Yana, are staying in a small 250-square-foot apartment in Warsaw, Poland. They hope to make it to the United States.

WARSAW, Poland — Olena Kopchak says she will never forget those first explosions near her home in southern Ukraine.

The "boom" shook her awake. She raced to her 8-year-old daughter.

"My hands were shaking. My legs were shaking," Kopchak says in Russian, the language she grew up with. "And we were afraid for Yana. Because after two hours there were more explosions."

As she talks, she watches her daughter. The shy girl with braided brown hair is sitting on the couch focused on the TV tuned to Ukrainian news on the war.

Kopchak, 40, her husband and Yana spent nine days in her parents' basement. They survived largely on bread and crackers, as the Russians carried out a relentless barrage on their hometown, Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian port city that's critical to Moscow's efforts to gain more control of the Black Sea.

The three are now staying in a small 250-square foot apartment in Warsaw, Poland. They hope to eventually get to the United States, where Kopchak's sister lives.

A growing number of people who have fled Ukraine are trying to go the U.S.

The small family is among the millions of people who have fled their homes in Ukraine since the war began.

While most will want to stay close in Europe, a growing number of desperate Ukrainians are trying to make it to the United States — and going to great lengths to do so.

But even those with ties to America, like Kopchak, are learning there are many obstacles.

Olena Kopchak, her husband, Albert Kodua, and their daughter, Yana, spent nine days in her parents' basement as Russian forces attacked her Ukrainian city. [Franco Ordoñez / NPR]

"We all want to be in the United States together," said Kopchak's husband, Albert Kodua, 31. "We will manage to take care of each other."

They had an upcoming appointment for a visa at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, but it was cancelled because of the war.

Kopchak's sister, Svitlana Rogers, has been trying to help from New Jersey.

She's called her senators. She's called House members. She checks the State Department and United Nations websites everyday for updates.

"I kind of have been running in circles," Rogers said.

She felt a pang of hope when President Biden announced last month he'd be accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainians refugees in the United States.

But it's been weeks since then and Rogers hasn't been able to get many details.

"I'm feeling like we're stuck in limbo and we don't know where to go," she said, "in which direction to move."

The U.S. has said it will accept Ukrainian refugees, but is it doing enough to make that happen?

One of the people Rogers reached was Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, who heads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The reality is there are few legal pathways to get to the United States, Vignarajah says. Their case speaks to the difficulty for families in the United States to bring refugees to safety, "even when there is political will and the connections to do so."

Vignarajah also questioned whether the administration is taking the steps to boost staff and resources needed to address the existing backlog of cases that could limit how many Ukrainian families arrive.

"The broader point is there is a large divide between an announcement and action that will impact the people on the ground," says Vignarajah, who formerly served at the State Department.

The Biden administration is urging patience and promised that the administration would share more details on different legal pathways in the coming weeks.

One State Department official told NPR that officials are considering a range options for vulnerable Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression, "especially those with family ties or particular protection needs."

But that's not fast enough for some desperate Ukrainians who have traveled to Mexico and are trying to cross the border by foot.

Kodua says the his family doesn't want to do that. They just want a little time. He says they want to return to Mykolaiv as soon as it's safe. But at least in the United States the family can take care of each other.

"For one month, two months, three months. And go back," he says. "To rebuild. To live as we used to live. With great life. Right now, many people say that they can go through Mexico illegally — but I don't want illegally. I want legally — have a visa and go normally."

Eight-year-old Yana smiles when asked if she wants to go home. She nods yes.

"In Ukraine my friends have stayed — Eva, Vitali and Andrii," she says.

Her dad, playfully asks about her boyfriend.

"Alec," she giggles.

But first, she says, she wants to go to New Jersey.

"I want to go to America because that is where my younger cousin, aunt and uncle are," she says. "They're with my grandma and grandpa."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.