HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — This week marks one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, igniting a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced about 8 million people.
Since then, the United States has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom have resettled in Houston. Some shared how emotional the past year has been, being so far from family and worrying about their safety every single day.
Daryna Solovei recalls how frantic the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, was for people in her Khmelnytskyi neighborhood. She looked outside her apartment window and saw people rushing to leave with their luggage.
However, nowhere else in Ukraine felt any safer for Solovei and her husband. They stayed to care for her father-in-law, who had cancer and evacuated to the basement every time the sirens went off.
“For me, the siren is the worst sound ever. I really hate it. Even if you don’t want to go down to the basement because you’re tired from going down all the time, the sirens will force you,” said Solovei.
Solovei’s husband could not leave the country due to a law that requires men ages 18 to 60 to stay in Ukraine in case they get drafted for the war. She was adamant about staying and not leaving him behind. But as the attacks worsened over the next four months, he asked her to flee the country and seek refuge with a friend in the United States.
“It was the hardest moment in my life, because I still remember our last meeting (at the) bus station. I was the last person who entered (the) bus. I (could not) just leave (my husband),” Solovei said. “To be honest, during the beginning of the war, we were hoping that it would only last a few weeks. But it just kept going.”
Kateryna Krezhenstovska remembers sleeping in her apartment in Kyiv when the bombings began. Their day-to-day routines – work and school – had to be abandoned as they had to frequently take cover during the risk of missile strikes.
As the bombs hit closer and closer to home, she and her daughter made the difficult decision to separate from the men in their family. They headed to the U.S. about three weeks later to stay with a friend in Houston on a tourist visa obtained before the war for a different trip. Her husband and son are unable to leave the country due to the same reason as Solovei’s husband.
It was thanks to a childhood friend who lives in Houston who helped her get some grounding here by getting her own apartment and sending her daughter back to school. She said what’s been extremely difficult is seeing the destruction happening in her home country.
“Buildings (were bombed), and people (were) dying. That’s really hard to see,” Krezhenstovska said emotionally. “Putin doesn’t want to give up, and nobody knows what his next step will be.”
Krezhenstovska said she tries to speak to her husband and son daily, who are still in Ukraine. But it can be hard to get ahold of them sometimes because they don’t always have electricity.
“The past year has not been easy for my family and me. We miss our family so much, and we can’t be together,” Krezhenstovska said.
Solovei eventually resettled in Houston eight months ago. She and other Ukrainian refugees have been granted a two-year parole under the Uniting for Ukraine program with a financial supporter in the United States. They are authorized to work during that time.
But how long can they stay here, and what are their options moving forward?
“This (Uniting for Ukraine) is also a passageway to a future of some type of citizenship. So this is an indefinite temporary protective status. This says, ‘Although it is given initially a two-year protected status, a Ukrainian citizen is able to then renew this protective status every year,'” Kimberly Bruno, a Houston-based immigration attorney, said.
Bruno said the good news is the U.S. will likely not close its doors on these refugees, no matter how long they need to stay. She said people have been able to continuously renew their applications under the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) program, which was created back in 1990. It temporarily protected people who could not return to their home countries due to a political or environmental catastrophe.
Under the tourist visa, Krezhenstovska was unable to obtain a job. But after recently being granted TPS, she shared that she can finally start working at the beginning of March. It will allow her to bring in some income and build some independence for herself and her daughter.
Solovei now works as the Ukrainian support specialist with the refugee services department at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. With her own experience fueling her passion for helping others, she supports others displaced from Ukraine resettle in the Houston area. She hopes that one day, she can reunite with her husband and family.
“I’m so glad to meet Ukrainians here. We’re so happy to see each other. In Ukraine, we probably would never pay attention to each other. But here, we’re like a family,” said Solovei. “As for whether I want to go back to Ukraine one day, I just want to be with my family. When I think of home, it’s wherever my family is. Ukrainians can leave Ukraine. But Ukraine will never leave Ukrainians.”