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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ukrainian refugees are coming to Spokane, but it’s not clear how many

Ukrainian orphans are seen during a stopover as they are en route to the UK, in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday March 21, 2022.  (Pawel Kuczynski)

Ukrainian refugees are coming to Spokane.

It’s unclear when or how many. But once they land in the Inland Northwest, Spokane’s resettlement organizations will welcome them.

“We’re more than ready to roll up our sleeves and serve these people,” World Relief Spokane spokesman Justin Li said.

On Thursday, the White House announced America will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Ukrainians will immigrate to communities throughout the U.S., but Spokane is likely to become a hotspot. The Spokane area is already home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, and the largest percentage of them are Ukrainian Americans.

Many Ukrainians came to Spokane in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fleeing religious persecution in the Soviet Union. Others left in the mid- to late 1990s during the era of economic instability that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. The migration never truly stopped – more than 6,500 Ukrainians have settled in Washington during the last decade.

President Joe Biden has said Ukrainians with family in the U.S. will arrive first, so it’s possible refugees will start arriving in Spokane relatively soon.

The Russian invasion has already turned 3.6 million Ukrainians into refugees and displaced millions more who are still in Ukraine.

The vast majority of Ukrainian refugees want to stay in Europe, hoping to return home as soon as the war ends.

But not all will be able to stay. Countries such as Poland, Moldova and Slovakia, where many refugees are currently living, can’t absorb them all.

“Our country is not ready to have all these people,” Polish Economic Institute Deputy Director Andrzej Kubisiak told The Spokesman-Review.

Sarah Peterson, refugee coordinator for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, emphasized that refugee experts haven’t gotten any specific guidance from the federal government on how Ukrainian resettlement is going to work. There aren’t any determined numbers or timelines yet besides the 100,000 figure.

Peterson noted that even before agreeing to accept 100,000 Ukrainians, America and Washington have been welcoming more refugees of late.

She explained that in the past decade, Washington has resettled 30,000 refugees through the Refugee Admissions Program. But following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Evergreen State has been bringing in far more people.

Between October and now, 3,000 Afghan refugees arrived in Washington. Having that many people arrive that quickly was unique, Peterson said. For comparison, 1,100 refugees came to Washington between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021.

Spokane’s been taking in more refugees, too. Li said that during the height of the Afghanistan crisis, World Relief was helping 30-40 refugees resettle in Spokane every week. The organization typically resettles 300-400 people in Spokane annually.

Li explained that, from a federal policy standpoint, the U.S. will be approaching Ukrainian and Afghan resettlement differently.

That’s largely because Ukrainian refugees, relatively speaking, aren’t in immediate danger the same way Afghans were.

For safety reasons, tens of thousands of Afghans came to the U.S. in a short period. They mostly arrived through a process known as “humanitarian parole” and haven’t received permanent refugee status. World Relief and other organizations are lobbying the federal government to pass a law that would provide Afghan refugees with a path to permanent residence.

Ukrainian refugees will probably arrive more slowly, Li said. He said he expects many to come to the U.S. under normal refugee status, although others will receive humanitarian parole or arrive through family reunification programs.

Formal resettlement organizations won’t be the only ones welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms.

Spokane’s Slavic churches started preparing weeks ago to help Ukrainian refugees resettle here.

Alex Kaprian, a Ukrainian American pastor at Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church, explained earlier this month that more than 15 Slavic churches in Spokane have put together a resettlement committee.

“All churches should be ready to maybe host some families,” Kaprian said, explaining that churches and their congregations can help with housing, transportation, food and more.

Li reiterated that many in Spokane are eager to help.

“Ideally there’d be no refugees at all,” he said. “But given that there are millions of refugees from Ukraine, we’re ready.”

S-R reporters Orion Donovan-Smith and Eli Francovich contributed to this story.