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Ukrainians who fled Russian invasion struggle to reunite with family in the U.S.

Refugees worry about family left in Ukraine
Ukrainian family who fled Russian invasion wants to reunite with loved ones left behind 01:52

Inna Kozyar feels a sense of guilt and helplessness in the U.S.

A 44-year-old mother of two from a town outside Kyiv, Kozyar was able to come to the U.S. with her daughters two days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Now, thousands of miles away in Pennsylvania, she has watched as a gruesome war devastates her homeland, killing thousands of civilians and displacing millions of refugees.

"I can't sleep at night," Kozyar told CBS News, citing the recent bombing of a theater sheltering women and children in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. "I wake up in the middle of the night."

In some ways, Kozyar and her daughters — Anya, 20, and Sophia, 17 — can count themselves lucky. Their U.S. tourist visas had been approved before the Russian invasion. They were able to flee their home for Poland, where they boarded a flight to the U.S. Kozyar's sister-in-law is now hosting them in her home in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

In other ways, Kozyar finds herself in the same predicament as other Ukrainians or Ukrainian Americans in the U.S. who are struggling to help their family members escape Ukraine or leave other European countries, which have received more than 3.6 million people displaced by Russia's invasion.

Kozyar's parents, both in their 80s, managed to flee to Poland. She wants them to join her in the U.S. but they don't have visas, which are required to come to the U.S. legally. They typically take months to process because of mounting application backlogs at American consulates.

"They also cry, because they are in Poland alone and they are not young," Kozyar said. "They want to be together with their family."

From left, Anya, Inna and Sophia Kozyar. Courtesy of Sarah Kuzmenko

Kozyar's elderly parents are part of an unknown number of Ukrainians displaced by Russia's invasion who currently have no legal pathway to come to the U.S., despite having immediate family members here who are willing and prepared to welcome them.

The Biden administration on Thursday announced plans to receive up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainians through various immigration pathways, focusing on those with family in the U.S. and vulnerable groups such as activists, political dissidents and members of the LGBTQ community.

It's unclear when Ukrainians will be able to come to the U.S. under the new initiative, which involves a set of programs, including the refugee process, operated by different government agencies. U.S. officials have also continued to state that the vast majority of Ukrainians will remain in Europe.

The State Department has said the U.S. will only process refugee cases of Ukrainians "who cannot be protected" in third countries. But even that process, which has been crippled by the pandemic and Trump administration cuts, typically takes years to complete due to interviews, security screenings, medical checks and other steps.

So far in March, the U.S. has admitted a dozen Ukrainians as refugees, who were most likely all in the resettlement pipeline long before the Russian invasion, according to internal government data shared with CBS News.

The U.S. can more quickly allow Ukrainians without visas to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds through a process known as parole. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has set strict requirements for this process and is currently reviewing tens of thousands of parole requests from Afghans seeking to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Unlike refugee status, parole also does not provide immigrants permanent U.S. residency. Since February 23, the U.S. has received 168 humanitarian parole requests from Ukrainians, according to unpublished USCIS data obtained by CBS News. A few requests for children seeking medical treatment in the U.S. have already been adjudicated, a person familiar with the matter said. 

Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, a U.S. refugee resettlement group, said the U.S. should prioritize family reunification in its efforts to help displaced Ukrainians. Expanding the refugee program's infrastructure, reducing application backlogs and tasking a White House official to oversee these efforts would help Ukrainians and others fleeing war across the world, she said.

"Over recent years the U.S. resettlement program has been undercut and marginalized, and for many unfamiliar with how vital this lifeline is, this current crisis will be eye-opening," Owen told CBS News.

Sarah Kuzmenko, 38, Kozyar's sister-in-law, said she's noticed overwhelming support for helping Ukrainians in her local Pennsylvania community, a sentiment that has been echoed across the U.S.

"That's the frustrating thing. I get calls, emails, text messages, daily, weekly, of people wanting to help in all different ways, with either giving rooms or money or clothing or just a variety of different ways," Kuzmenko said. "And we can't bring the Ukrainians whom we know, and some of them are even our extended family, here because they don't have valid visas."

Roughly 1 million people of Ukrainian descent live in the U.S., according to 2019 government estimates, including an estimated 355,000 Ukrainian-born immigrants.

Over 2 Million Refugees Flee To Poland From Ukraine
People, mainly women and children, board a train at Przemysl station as they continue their onward journey from war-torn Ukraine on March 23, 2022, in Przemysl, Poland. JEFF J MITCHELL / Getty Images

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked the administration on Wednesday to accelerate the processing of Ukrainian refugees with family in the U.S. and create a humanitarian parole program specifically for displaced Ukrainians, including journalists and members of the LGBTQ community.

"Offering refuge to Ukrainians fleeing the war will be another powerful demonstration of U.S. commitment to the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom in the face of Putin's illegal and unjustified invasion," Menendez said in a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created an 18-month Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for an estimated 75,100 Ukrainian immigrants who were in the U.S. as of March 1, allowing them to live and work in the country legally without fear of deportation. 

Kozyar and her daughters qualify for the TPS program because they arrived in the U.S. on February 26. But DHS has yet to open the program for applications, meaning the only status the family has are their tourist visas, which do not allow them to work.

While she's relieved her daughters are safe in the U.S., Kozyar still worries about her family in Europe and her uncertain legal status here.

"In Ukraine, we still have bombs every day and it's not far from my home, and actually I don't know if I have a home. But here, of course, I also don't have a home and I can't work," she said.

Anya was studying at a university in Ukraine before Russia's invasion, but she can't continue her studies in the U.S. on her tourist visa. She's also concerned about her grandparents and father, who remained in Ukraine alongside other men who have been ordered to stay and help fight the Russians.

"It's just a horrible feeling when you say goodbye to your dad and grandparents and you don't know if you will see them again," Anya said. "That's the worst."

Sophia, the youngest daughter, said she has hesitated to tell her friends in Ukraine that she came to the U.S., where she has enrolled in a local high school. Despite turning 17 on Thursday, she feels a sense of responsibility to be in Ukraine as her home country struggles to defend its right to exist.

"I think many Ukrainians who left Ukraine feel this way, of being not in the right place, that we need to protect our country, not leave it," Sophia said. 

But Sarah said Sophia and her family are where they should be, noting she often reminds them they are in the U.S. for a reason.

"They're building the future because there are soldiers in Ukraine who are brave enough to defend the country," she said. "Putin's goal is to eliminate all Ukrainians, but that will not happen. We have future Ukrainians and when it is safe and when Ukraine wins the war, they can go back and they will have that future there because of the sacrifices of the soldiers."

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