Denver, Colorado – As speculation mounted this past February about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, Olena Galushko felt a pull to leave her country.
On February 23, just one day before the war erupted, Galushko packed three suitcases, gathered her family, and left their home in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. Galushko travelled with her three children – aged five, 10 and 14 – and her mother and her husband to Poland.
That unexpected road trip was the start of a physically and emotionally draining voyage for Galushko and her family, as they began new lives as refugees. Today, they are starting fresh in the US state of California.
“We understood it was going to be a difficult journey, but we still took a risk,” she told Al Jazeera.
In April, two months into the war, US President Joe Biden launched an initiative called Uniting for Ukraine, a streamlined process to allow 100,000 Ukrainian citizens displaced by Russia’s invasion to apply for entry into the US.
Approximately 85,000 have reportedly arrived so far through the programme, which requires them to have a sponsor and enables them to stay for up to two years.
But other Ukrainians, like the Galushko family, started their journeys before that assistance became available. Galushko recalled travelling a long and gruelling route that took them from Poland, to Spain, to Mexico City, and then on to Tijuana, a city just south of the US border. From there, they were aiming to reach the Californian capital of Sacramento, where they have friends.
“With many stops, eventually, we made it to Tijuana,” she said. “The flight was very difficult, and very emotionally difficult.”
‘Leaving everything behind’
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, state officials and humanitarian associations across the US geared up to receive refugees. The state of New York has received millions in federal funding to assist an estimated 14,000 displaced Ukrainians, while Virginia has reportedly received more than 2,700 Ukrainians just in the past month.
In Colorado, state officials established a Ukrainian Migrants Task Force, and by the end of October, nearly 600 refugees had signed up for services, said Meg Sagaria-Barritt, a coordinator with the Colorado Refugee Services Program. They expect hundreds more in the days and months ahead, she told Al Jazeera.
In California, the flow of Ukrainian refugees has been dramatic. Galina Prozorova, a former Sacramento-based programme manager with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said more than 20,000 Ukrainians had crossed into the state from Mexico since the war broke out.
“There was a significant increase in March and April. People were literally running and leaving everything behind,” Prozorova told Al Jazeera. “Families were pulled apart.”
Many of the Ukrainians arriving in Mexico at that time were effectively in “survival mode”, she added.
“There was also a lot of emotional trauma from everything they have been seeing [in the war],” Prozorova said.
That trauma was compounded for some by the experiences they faced in Mexico, including identity theft, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“Traffickers showed up on the Mexico side of the US border, offering various services and introducing themselves as resettlement agencies,” she said. “In some instances, some [Ukrainian] youth disappeared.”
Once refugees have arrived in the US, Prozorova said the IRC does what it can to help with education, job placement and housing, but the process still poses significant challenges: “We are extremely limited, not just on workspaces, but also on housing.”
Galushko and her family had a better experience than some families who attempted the US-Mexico border crossing. She said their case was expedited after Mexican authorities learned her son was recovering from leukaemia and her mother had diabetes.
“Volunteers took us directly from the airport to the [US] border, and once we crossed the border, we were also greeted by church volunteers on the US side,” Galushko said.
After a night in a local church, the family boarded a van provided by volunteers, and began the long drive from San Diego to Sacramento. Since early April, they have been living in Sacramento under the federal humanitarian parole system, which facilitates temporary admission into the country and provides certain benefits, such as food aid and health insurance.
Legally unable to work, Galushko says her family has been living on assistance from the state government and aid groups, while their children attend local schools. The family has also been trying to learn English. Meanwhile, Galushko watches the news closely and acknowledges a “whole spectrum of emotions” when it comes to the war back home.
“On one hand, anger with what’s going on, with what is happening and why is it happening to my people,” she said. “Also, of course, pain, when I see all the families that are seeking help and all the destruction that’s going on. Compassion, because especially now in the winter season, people are without electricity, without warm water, so they’re struggling a lot.
“But I’m also happy for them. They’re recovering very well; they’re trying to rebuild the buildings that were destroyed,” Galushko added. “I’m happy people are not losing their hope, that they’re staying there and trying to repair everything that was destroyed.”
There was also a surprise during the journey from Ukraine, when Galushko discovered she was pregnant. Her baby girl was born just days ago.
“We hope that there will be a programme … that will allow us to stay here permanently,” she said.
“[Bucha] is destroyed, so we have nowhere to return. The war is still happening. We have four children here and a life that’s pretty stable.”