Ohio Officials Hold Summit to Prepare for Ukrainian Refugees

click to enlarge Ohio Officials Hold Summit to Prepare for Ukrainian Refugees
Photo by Nathan Rizzuti

As the Russian war on Ukraine stretched into its fourth week, more than 3,000,000 Ukrainians have fled their home country, over half of these refugees being children.

Last Thursday, at St. Vladimir's Grand Hall in Parma's Ukrainian Village, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services hosted a summit to discuss a potential influx of Ukrainian Refugees to Northeast Ohio.

The event assembled clusters of representatives from Ohio's nine federally funded resettlement agencies, other charity organizations, churches, and community groups. Governor Mike DeWine and many other federal, state, and local representatives were also in attendance.

DeWine convened the summit with remarks regarding the unfolding affliction unleashed upon the Ukrainian people by Vladimir Putin.

"Today, we meet to discuss the possibility of welcoming—to Ohio—refugees from Ukraine, as Putin continues his barbaric, brutal, savage, and unjustified war."

He explained his awareness of the refugee crisis, making it clear that, in this current moment, the federal government has not yet confirmed that any Ukrainian refugees will be sent to Ohio.

"Our meeting today is early," DeWine remarked. "We don't know how many refugees will be coming here or even if we will have any refugees. But it seems that we need to get ready…We have a long history in this country, and we have a long history in Ohio of reaching out to refugees."

Ohio has often been among one of the top U.S. states to embrace the dispossessed who seek refuge. In a 2018 report by the National Immigration Forum, Ohio ranked third in total refugee resettlement, just behind Texas and Washington. And since the fall of the Afghan government, Cleveland has become the new home to more than 700 Afghan refugees.

Governor DeWine underscored the Ukrainian Village's unique significance and how the federal government won't overlook the communities’ ethnic roots as it advances its strategy for Ukrainian refugees.

"When the federal government resettles refugees, one of the things they look at is where there is a population that is welcoming, but also a population of people who come from that country. So, we would expect that when the federal government gets to the point where you have refugees here, that Ohio will be one of the states, certainly, that the federal government will be looking to. So let me make it very, very clear to everyone—Ohio welcomes, and will welcome, any refugees who come from Ukraine."

In a separate press meeting, Governor DeWine explained that the summit was not by the federal government's request but was scheduled as a preemptive measure by the state so that local organizations may be as united and prepared as possible when the time likely comes.

Next on the agenda were two panel discussions. The first panel featured representatives from three of Ohio's nine federally funded resettlement agencies. They explained the reasoning behind refugee placement and the challenges they face once placement is finalized.

Heath Rosenberger, Program Director for Cleveland Catholic Charities Office of Migration and Refugee Services, detailed the urgent timeline typical with refugee resettlement. He noted that his office receives only one-two weeks' notice before arrival. Within this time frame, they form a plan to meet the distinct needs of each individual/family. Such requirements include housing, education, medical care, transportation, and vocational possibilities.

Rosenberger explained that once a refugee arrives, the initial resettlement process is a mere 30-90 days, making it pivotal to have as much in place beforehand as possible—including available housing, school placement, employment opportunities, language programs, and volunteers willing to help with basic tasks like grocery shopping, moving, and transportation.

Additionally, he described the unfortunate but common impacts of cultural upheaval and trauma from being a war refugee in a new country, which can create barriers to accomplishing the goals of early stage resettlement aimed at guiding refugees towards self-sufficiency, especially when cash assistance is often inadequate.

But such challenges haven't gone unconquered. Darren Hamm, Director for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), spoke about his organization's response to the Afghanistan refugee crisis back in August.

"With these mass arrivals, we were doing more in one week than we had done in an entire year. I think we really started to calculate who are our partners, who are our allies and friends, who are those volunteers that were willing to show up… We had many people when that news hit, that were knocking on our doors and saying, how do we help?"

Because of this tried network of volunteers, community partners, and channels for monetary involvement, the panel concluded optimistically that Northeast Ohio's response to a rush of Ukrainian refugees would be immediate and effective.

The final panel explored the reality of the refugee experience.

The first speaker was Bakht Zaman Moqbel, who shared the story of his displacement from Afghanistan and eventual resettlement to Northeast Ohio. On August 8th, he and his family flew out of Kabul amid the rising violence and instability. They were given temporary living arrangements upon arrival in Cleveland before eventually moving into permanent housing. He explained how Ohio's resettlement services cared for his family's situation through such a difficult time.

"They have helped me from each and every angle. They enrolled my children in school, they connected us with health services, they told us how to enroll in English classes. After some time, I applied for a position with USCRI."

Within two weeks at USCRI, Moqbel had been promoted to the position of Case Manager. Now, he supports people through the same chaos he experienced only months ago. He offered his gratitude to the agents of the various resettlement services, the volunteers who aided his family with the transition process, and the staff at the school his children attend.

President of United Ukrainian Organizations of Ohio, Marta Kelleher, spoke of her recent trip to the Ukrainian/Polish border, where she witnessed the emerging exigency for humanitarian aid.

Kelleher explained that the United Ukrainian Organizations of Ohio was established in 1928. Since then, it has helped generations of global immigrants assimilate into Ohio through a vast network of civic, cultural, religious, and financial institutions—which all fall under her organization's umbrella.

She said that the prevailing sentiment among Ukrainian refugees is currently one of desperate hope for the war to end soon. She says this may influence the number of evacuees deciding to file for refugee status in the United States.

"One thing that we did hear is that they expressed the hope of returning to their native homeland at some point. So, as we talk about the refugee status, it's an important decision, because the individual needs to relinquish their Ukrainian passport and citizenship (to come to the United States). So most are hoping to eventually return to Ukraine and are currently choosing countries that are geographically close to their husbands and to their homeland."

However, she asserted that planning remains necessary, and that they've begun to accumulate donations and volunteer services at fundforukraine.org.

"But we need to be prepared. As we know from World War II, America integrated and absorbed over 200,000 Ukrainian immigrants. Ohio and Northeast Ohio are equipped to be able to bring in the refuges and settle them in an area that is safe for them, where they do understand the culture, and also stand to assist with any other questions or issues they may have."

Last to speak was Joe Cimperman, President of Global Cleveland, an organization that coordinates fundraising, housing needs, volunteers, and employment opportunities for refugees. Tersely, he stated the reason that summoned the group to Saint Vladimir’s that day.

"The question is, what can we do now?"

He explained that at globalcleveland.org, they are aggregating lists of volunteers, services, job openings, and living space from anyone willing to pitch in. Additionally, Global Cleveland has advocated forming a fast-track refugee status for those who desire it.

"The one thing that we've been communicating to our federal officials is, regardless of how many people come here from Ukraine, especially for the ones who want to go back, let us have an unrestricted work visa for everyone that comes… Let people work here instead of the hoops that our federal government makes people jump through."

Although words like "potential," "unknown," "if," and "possibility" sprouted in almost every speech throughout the summit, Cimperman made no attempt to shroud his assurance of the dawning reality.

"We know that people are going to start coming—if not in the next few weeks, in the next few months. And we have to stay laser-focused on them before another crisis or something distracts people."

It was a prophecy that took only minutes to fulfill. As the summit ended with closing comments, Cimperman announced he had just received a text.

"It came in today, Governor, at 3:02 (pm): Ukrainian family just landed here in Brook Park. They need to be connected. They have a language barrier, and there's a mom and a ten-year-old child."
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