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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After fleeing Ukraine last year, the future is uncertain for sisters seeking safety in Spokane with immigration protections running out

For weeks, Olena Nikora washed baby clothes, bought diapers and organized her hotel suite, preparing to give birth alone after her husband told her he couldn’t escape war -torn Ukraine and join her in Spokane.

On a summer-like fall day, Nikora went to Manito Park to snap some last -minute maternity photos with her sister.

As she posed, smiling in the garden, her husband came around the corner.

“I almost gave birth there,” Nikora said with a laugh.

Her sister, Tetiana Sashchina, and friends at the Thrive Center helped organize the surprise, a feat with Nikora’s husband, Vladyslav Kharkivska, notoriously bad at keeping secrets.

“I believed him because he can never hold in a surprise,” Nikora said through a translator. “He always just spoils it so I was assured he could not come.”

It was the end of months of painful separation. Nikora and Sashchina, both pregnant at the time, fled Ukraine with their older children about six weeks after Russia’s invasion. Their husbands stayed behind.

The reunion was joyous for the couple, especially when they welcomed baby Nicole two weeks later.

Now, nearly a year after Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, the sisters face a new kind of painful uncertainty with their immigration status running out in April, a year after they first arrived in Spokane.

“We live a day at a time because we don’t have clarity, we don’t have assurance of what’s happening,” Nikora said.

Leaving life in Ukraine

Sashchina, 30, got to know Yurri Sashchin after their friendship grew into romance. They married nine years ago.

Not long after, Sashchina gave birth to their son, Mark, who is now 8. She worked as a manicurist while her husband piloted excursion yachts from their home in Odesa.

Nikora, 28, met her husband, Kharkivska, when they were in school together. They married three years ago and soon welcomed their daughter, Amina, now 2, into the family. Nikora stayed home with the baby while Kharkivska sailed off for months at a time working on commercial boats.

Each sister was pregnant with her second child when rumors of a Russian attack grew more fervent. Odesa was a clear target with its large shipping port, a key transportation hub in the region.

Just days before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Nikora’s husband shipped out.

“My husband left the country 10 days before the war broke out,” Nikora said, through a translator. “When the war started I was calm because my husband was at sea.”

The women almost immediately began discussing if they should flee the country. Sashchina’s husband encouraged them to go with the children, which they did on Feb. 27, heading to Moldova but that exit didn’t work out, they had nowhere to go in Europe and felt overwhelmed without a plan.

“We didn’t know where to go,” Nikora said. “We didn’t know that America was an option and we had no one in Europe either.”

They returned to Odesa only to decide to try again, this time with the goal of flying to the U.S. to stay with their brother.

“It was very spontaneous,” Sashchina said, through a translator.

The entire experience of packing up and leaving felt like a dream, Nikora said.

“We were very scared of the risks because we were pregnant and we had kids,” Nikora said.

The ir brother moved to Spokane five years earlier, and encouraged them to try to make it to America. Their younger sister, Yelyzaveta Nikora, was able to cross the Mexico border. So with their children in tow, Nikora and Sashchina began the nine -day journey to Spokane, where they reunited with their brother and sister.

After crossing into Moldova, they flew to Mexico and entered the United States on April 15.

Settling in Spokane

The first few weeks in Spokane were “cold and gray,” Sashchina said as the women slowly adjusted to their new surroundings.

Then the weather turned and things began to bloom.

“Everything was so pretty,” Sashchina said.

The women and their children stayed with their brother for nearly two months before the Thrive Center opened. They were some of the first to move into the hotel converted by local nonprofit Thrive International, with smiles on their faces as they picked out their rooms.

While it was exciting to have some privacy at the hotel, it was scary to move out of their brother’s home. Their fears were quickly assuaged when they met the other women staying at the center.

“It was wonderful,” Nikora said.

Kids ran up and down the halls and gathered in the basement to fill the makeshift play room with shouts and laughter.

“My child definitely is not bored here,” Sashchina said.

The women made friends and attended English as a second language classes, all the while worrying about their husbands back in Ukraine.

As her due date grew closer, Sashchina prepared to give birth alone in a hospital where most staff didn’t speak her language.

She gave birth to Dominic Sashchin on Aug. 8, surrounded by hospital staff who were smiling and supportive, despite the language barrier.

Uncertain future

Both Nikora’s and Sashchina’s husbands were able to come to Spokane through President Joe Biden’ Uniting for Ukraine program. The program requires a sponsor before granting Ukrainians two years of humanitarian parole status.

Both men arrived in the fall and have more than a year and a half left in the program.

However, Nikora and Sashina crossed the border during an odd week that wasn’t covered by a Ukraine -specific program.

Ukrainians who were in the United States on or before April 11 qualified for Temporary Protected Status for 18 months, which allows them to work and live in the U.S.

The Biden administration didn’t announce Uniting for Ukraine until April 21. That meant that people who arrived between the two programs, only have the right to stay a year.

The sisters and their children crossed the border on April 15 and were granted a one-year humanitarian parole, which expires in just a few weeks. Humanitarian parolees are allowed into the country temporarily but must find another legal route to extend their residency.

Now that they’ve given birth in Spokane, their infants are U.S. citizens and their husbands have more than a year left in the Uniting for Ukraine program.

The sisters’ status is uncertain. The government hasn’t announced any plans to create a pathway to permanent residence for Ukrainians now in the United States.

The sisters can apply for an extension, after paying a $600 application fee, an expense that could be made moot if the government announces a plan last minute.

“In my opinion, if there’s going to be a process, it’s time,” said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

The looming deadline is the first of many for Ukrainians living in the United States. Over the next year, Ukrainians in any recently created program will have their protected status run out.

Uniting for Ukraine was always supposed to be “temporary status for a temporary situation,” but the war isn’t looking so temporary at the moment, Gelatt said.

Parts of Ukraine, such as the devastated Mariupol, are under Russian control, and other areas remain without electricity or water.

While it’s hard to imagine Uniting for Ukraine will just end without giving people some way to stay until the war ends, Gelatt said, it’s unclear what that solution will be or when it will come. Especially since the government still hasn’t created a pathway to permanent residency for Afghan refugees in the United States on temporary status following the U.S. withdrawal from the country in 2020.

Many of those Afghan refugees have applied for asylum but few of those applications have been granted. Ukrainians as a whole are less likely to qualify for asylum because they need to show they’d likely face persecution if they returned home.

Being from a war zone alone doesn’t qualify, Gelatt said.

There is a precedent for Congress taking action to allow groups of people here temporarily to apply for green cards, which gives the holder permanent legal status.

In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act that allows Cubans in the U.S. who meet certain requirements to apply for a green card. In 2000, Congress passed the Indochinese Parole Adjustment Act, which allows people in the U.S. following the Vietnam War to get their green cards.

Congress debated an Afghan Adjustment Act last year but it did not pass. A similar act for Ukrainians has yet to be proposed.

The Afghan situation is a useful counterpoint, said Dara Lind, senior fellow at the American Immigration Council.

There’s a greater time pressure for Afghans in the U.S. who were mainly evacuated after working with the military, making staying in their home country extremely unsafe, Lind said. Their relationships to the military also pose a national security risk, which isn’t a factor for Ukraine.

“That wasn’t sufficient to build enough urgency and enough support to keep it in must-pass bills last Congress,” Lind said.

With people set to fall out of legal status slowly over the next two years, Lind noted there’s not one big deadline for attorneys and advocacy groups to focus on, often making drumming up support for a solution difficult.

Immigration law in the U.S. is notoriously complicated, even for attorneys, Lind said. “It’s often a really, really daunting process.”

One day at a time

The sisters continue to live at the Thrive Center, while their husbands take English classes in hopes of getting jobs in new industries.

Their experience in Spokane, especially at Thrive, has been a good one with the Spokane community donating Christmas presents or K-9 police officers stopping by with their dogs for the kids to pet.

The best part of the last year has been “the help, the empathy, the sympathy, the support, actions of trying to bring up our emotions and our attitudes,” Nikora said. “In every way, people are trying to take our emotions and focus away from what’s happening.”

“We’re very impacted and touched by all support, care and actions of people around us,” Sashina said.

Still the women struggle when they think of their homeland.

“We miss Ukraine,” Nikora said.