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365 Days: Ukrainian refugees find solace, support in Northeast Ohio

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Posted at 5:43 PM, Feb 24, 2023

CLEVELAND — One year into Russian invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis that followed, Northeast Ohio has answered the call time and time again, welcoming in hundreds of Ukrainian refugees.

The local field office for the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has provided direct services to roughly 500 Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war. In many cases, those refugees are being assisted by those that came before them.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian people have proven to be exceedingly resilient — both on the front lines of the conflict as well as adapting to the new cities and countries that they fled to. Given its long established, thriving Ukrainian community — especially in Parma — Northeast Ohio has proven to be a common destination for those fleeing the conflict.

“We, right now, have a very accommodating job market. We have an accommodating community,” said Darren Hamm, the director of the USCRI’s Cleveland field office. “We don’t have to start every day by making the argument of why this is important.”

In February 2022, the Cleveland field office was beginning to wind down after a flurry of activity brought on by the United States’ withdrawal of Afghanistan, which many considered to be a bungled effort that led hundreds of Afghan refugees to seek asylum. However, as the build-up of Russian troops and other military assets continued at the country’s border with Ukraine, Hamm and his staff began making preparations for yet another wave of refugees to Northeast Ohio.

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“It was one of the few times that we could connect the global event and the end goal in such a short amount of time,” Hamm said. “Most people in the refugee program spend 10 to 15 years waiting and processing. This is one where somebody could have, theoretically, fled one month and been here the next month.”

Viktor Ordin, 37, along with his wife and two young children were among those that resettled in Northeast Ohio. A native of Chernihiv, a mid-sized city in the northern part of the country near Ukraine’s borders with Belarus and Russia, Ordin has been able to maintain some level of communication with friends and family back home. The conversations, however, aren’t as frequent as they once were, due in large part to the Russian military targeting Ukraine’s utilities systems.

“Everybody doesn’t know what to expect from tomorrow. Russians continue to launch rockets every day into Ukraine. It doesn’t depend on where you live in Ukraine, you can expect rockets today and tomorrow,” Ordin said. “It’s not safe. It’s scary. People are scared. It’s not an easy life there right now.”

Upon his arrival in Northeast Ohio, Ordin began volunteering at the USCRI over the summer and quickly began to forge connections with other Ukrainian refugees. Overwhelmed at the thought of starting over in a new country and not knowing the language, many Ukrainian refugees gravitated to Ordin because he too had been in their position.

“When you live in one country and you move to a totally different country, sometimes you get lost — even with the small stuff,” Ordin said. “[Ukrainians] have kilometers, [Americans] have miles. We have kilograms, you have pounds. It’s confusing. It’s cool if somebody helps you in the beginning. A lot of people helped me. I started to understand how it works here and I started to help people that came after me. I understand them. I am in the same boat. I was the same as them a half year ago.”

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Hamm said the dynamic of refugees helping fellow refugees is a common one and never does it grow old.

“There is an overwhelming sensibility — like there has been throughout the history of immigration in this country where people are there to help the person that’s following the same path,” Hamm said. “To me, that’s the most beautiful thing to witness every day.”

Although the numbers are quite fluid, Hamm said the Cleveland field office has provided direct assistance to 500 Ukrainian refugees with sister organizations in the area reporting similar figures. Hamm estimates an additional 2000 or more have resettled in Northeast Ohio that aren’t receiving direct assistance. The fact that there is already a vibrant Ukrainian community in Northeast Ohio helps tremendously, Hamm said.

“We could expect around 3,000 to 4,000 for the region but that number is changing every week,” Hamm said. “If you have a community that is receptive and you have some of those key factors in place, plus accessible and affordable housing, you have the recipe for a successful resettlement experience.”

That is precisely what Ordin has experienced. His oldest son is enrolled in school and has been flourishing, despite not knowing more than a few words in English just a few months ago. Ordin is immensely grateful the support and assistance he and others have received along the way, which have helped him through the darkest of nights.

“Some people lost family members there. Some people lost their wife or their husband or their kids,” Ordin said. “It’s hard because sometimes our relatives call us to say goodbye. It’s been hard.”

The USCRI is funded largely through donations. For more information on how to donate, click here.