WARSAW, Poland – Olena Kopchak says she will never forget those first explosions near her home in southern Ukraine.
The “boom” woke her up shaking. She ran 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 other explosions.”
As she speaks, she looks at her daughter. The shy girl with braided brown hair is sitting on the sofa, concentrating on the TV tuned to Ukrainian war news.
Kopchak, 40, her husband and Yana spent nine days in her parents’ basement. They survived largely on bread and crackers as the Russians mounted a relentless barrage on their hometown of Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian port city key to Moscow’s efforts to better control the Black Sea.
The three now live in a small 250 square foot apartment in Warsaw, Poland. They hope to eventually make it to the United States, where Kopchak’s sister lives.
Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
A growing number of people who fled Ukraine are trying to get to the United States
The small family are among millions of people who have fled their homes in Ukraine since the war began.
While most will want to stay near Europe, a growing number of desperate Ukrainians are trying to get to the United States – and going to great lengths to do so.
But even those with ties to America, like Kopchak, learn that there are many obstacles.
“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 visa appointment at the US Embassy in Kyiv, but it was canceled due to the war.
Kopchak’s sister, Svitlana Rogers, tried to help from New Jersey.
She calls herself her senators. It is called the members of the Chamber. She checks the State Department and United Nations websites daily for updates.
“I sort of went in circles,” Rogers said.
She felt a stab of hope when President Biden announced last month that he would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the United States.
But it’s been weeks since and Rogers couldn’t get many details.
“I feel like we’re stuck in limbo and we don’t know where to go,” she said, “which way to go.”
The United States has said it will accept Ukrainian refugees, but are they doing enough to make that happen?
One of the people Rogers contacted was Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, who heads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The reality is that there are few legal routes to travel to the United States, Vignarajah says. Their case demonstrates the difficulty for families in the United States to get refugees to safety, “even when there is the political will and the connections to do so.”
Vignarajah also asked if the administration is taking the necessary steps to bolster the staff and resources needed to deal with the existing backlog of cases that could limit the number of Ukrainian families arriving.
“The bigger point is that there’s a big gap between an announcement and an action that will impact people on the ground,” says Vignarajah, who previously served at the State Department.
The Biden administration is urging patience and has promised the administration will share more details on the various legal avenues in the coming weeks.
A State Department official told NPR that officials are considering a range of options for vulnerable Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression, “particularly those with family ties or special protection needs.”
But that’s not fast enough for some desperate Ukrainians who have traveled to Mexico and are trying to cross the border on foot.
Kodua says her family don’t want to do this. They just want a little time. He says they want to go back to Mykolaiv as soon as it’s safe. But at least in the United States, the family can take care of each other.
“For a month, two months, three months. And leave again,” he says. “To rebuild. To live like before. With a good life. Right now a lot of people are saying they can cross Mexico illegally – but I don’t want to illegally. I want to legally – have a visa and leave normally.”
Eight-year-old Yana smiles when asked if she wants to go home. She nods yes.
“In Ukraine, my friends remained – Eva, Vitali and Andrii,” she says.
Her father asks playful questions about her boyfriend.
“Alec,” she laughed.
But first, she says, she wants to go to New Jersey.
“I want to go to America because that’s where my young cousin, my aunt and my uncle are,” she says. “They are with my grandmother and my grandfather.”