Monday, July 22, 2024
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A massive US-Mexican effort to welcome Ukrainian refugees

TIJUANA, MEXICO (AFP) – Nadiya Ruyhynska had almost never left Ukraine, though her daughter lives in the United States (US) city of Seattle.

But with the war looming in her hometown of Lviv, the 55-year-old former nurse set off on the long journey to the Mexican city of Tijuana, where a massive operation is helping thousands of Ukrainian refugees cross the border to resettle in the US.

Most arrive with mixed emotions. “I am 50-50,” said the former nurse as she stepped onto American soil.

“I have happiness” at the prospect of being reunited with her pregnant daughter Christina, who has a young son, but also sadness at having left her own mother behind, she said.

Like Ruyhynska, hundreds of Ukrainians have reached the border town of Tijuana in hopes of crossing onto US soil – encouraged by a promise from Washington that it is prepared to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians who have fled the war.

Pavel Savastyanov, a Russian-born volunteer helping at a support centre for Ukrainians in San Ysidro, California, just across the border from Tijuana, said every flight to the area is bringing more.

Refugees from Ukraine are welcomed by volunteers after crossing through the San Ysidro PedWest Port of Entry along the US-Mexico border. PHOTO: AFP

The operation begins at Tijuana International Airport. The first thing passengers see when they pass through the arrival gate is a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag next to signs in Cyrillic reading “Welcome” and “Help”.

In a small office there, volunteers record the new arrivals’ names on a list – already bearing more than 2,300 names – for eventual transportation to the border.

“This is the first step,” said a 36-year-old Ukrainian volunteer Sergio who declined to give his last name. He and his cousin had travelled 800 kilometres from Sacramento, the California capital, to help the arriving refugees.

One area in the airport is marked off with yellow tape. A sign in English and Spanish reads: “Ukrainian refugees only.”

There is food and drinks, and a play corner set aside for children with crayons and colouring books.

From there, the refugees are taken to one of four housing centres that volunteers, with governmental and church support, quickly set up in this city that has long drawn thousands of Latin Americans hoping to reach the US.

“My dad had to stay behind,” said 15-year-old Ukrainian Anastasia Chorna, choking back tears.

Sitting in a chair in the Benito Juarez sports complex, Tijuana’s largest refugee centre for Ukrainians, she hugged the enormous stuffed grey shark she had brought when she and her mother left home.

“It’s literally the only thing I could bring,” she said.

Her father, who is 41, remains in Kyiv. “I feel bad because I wanted him to be here, with these volunteers, where everything is so peaceful,” Anastasia said, struggling to express herself in a language not her own.

She and her mother had passed through four countries on the long way to Mexico, where getting a visa for entry is comparatively easier for Ukrainians than to the US.

Some men did flee Ukraine, in violation of a martial-law decree requiring all those aged 18 to 60 to stay and fight or face conscription.

“I know I committed a crime, but I didn’t want to fight,” said a 25-year-old engineer, who refused to give his name. He had left Ukraine with his partner, whom he married the day war broke out, and was now waiting for his number to be called for a bus to the US border.

“I’ve never picked up a gun… I couldn’t kill someone or watch them die. I couldn’t,” he said, crestfallen, in broken English.

For those who speak no English, an enormous network of volunteers is there to help.

Twins Maria and Liza Melnichuk had emigrated with their family from Ukraine 20 years ago.

When the sisters, now 26, heard about the influx of refugees, they jumped into their car to drive the 540 miles to Tijuana to join an active rotation of volunteers working round-the-clock. As Ukrainian-speakers, they knew they could help.

“We’re glad to see the people arrive,” said Liza, who was able to welcome her cousins who had fled Bucha, the Ukrainian town now synonymous with charges of extreme brutality under Russian occupation.

Her sister Maria said the numbers of arrivals have been steadily growing. “On Wednesday we received some 300 people, and already today (Friday) there must have been 700.”