Volodymyr Osypets didn’t plan to travel to Hawaii when he, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter left Ukraine about a week before Russia invaded the country in February. But he knew that he probably wouldn’t be returning to his homeland anytime soon.

The 40-year-old IT project manager got a tip from a friend in the U.S. Embassy that military action was likely imminent and he and his family should leave the country. They had long planned a pilgrimage to India, so that was their first stop.

Visa issues prevented them from staying in the South Asian nation so with no end to the war in sight, Osypets jumped at the chance to move to Hawaii when he met a couple from Maui who offered to host them.

Osypets is one of some 100 Ukrainians who have landed in Hawaii as part of the federal Uniting for Ukraine program, which gives those fleeing the war a legal pathway to enter the United States and stay with Americans who have agreed to sponsor them for up to two years.

Nataliia and Volodymyr Osypets help daughter Lila read books at the kitchen table at the home in Hilo where they are staying. The family has had to move several times since fleeing the war in Ukraine. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

It’s a tiny number compared to the mainland. Americans have filed some 124,000 applications seeking to sponsor Ukrainians since the program began in late April, with more than half coming from households in New York, Illinois, California, Washington and Florida, CBS News reported, citing Department of Homeland Security data.

Sponsorship Breakdowns

But the problems facing refugees in the island state can be outsized due to one of the highest costs of living in the nation and a dearth of affordable housing that leaves many residents struggling to get by.

The Ukrainians are entitled to food stamps, Medicaid and other assistance. They also may apply for employment authorization.

Housing is supposed to be provided by the sponsors, who have to prove they can financially support the Ukrainians. However, there’s no legal requirement to maintain the arrangement and many Ukrainians have been left on their own or dependent on the kindness of strangers after arrival.

“The program was stood up quickly,” said En Young, executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants. “A lot of folks wanted to help, but I don’t think they were really oriented about what sponsorship means.”

“Although it is a housing program, per se, there is quite a bit of sponsorship breakdown we’re dealing with,” he said, adding that the situation was different when Afghans were seeking resettlement after the Taliban takeover of their country in August 2021.

“I think the feds are having a hard time tracking where the Ukrainians are ending up. I think the Afghan situation seems to me a little bit more controlled,” he said.

The Pacific Gateway Center, which is the main group dealing with the issue as a partner affiliate of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said 88 Ukrainians, the majority on Oahu, had sought services as of Oct. 31. Young said new arrivals keep coming, often just showing up at the center on North King Street.

The state's Office of Community Services has served 31 Ukrainians seeking assistance, but there may be overlap with the Pacific Gateway Center's numbers, executive director Jovanie Dela Cruz said. His office has received $108,060 from the Office of Refugee Resettlement based on projections that 70 Ukrainians would come to Hawaii.

"So far the number is manageable. The funding is there. What we are told is that they will reassess if more funding is needed to provide services," he said.

The Kindness Of Strangers

Osypets said he was worried about the cost after researching Hawaii, but his sponsor assured him that all would be taken care of. That changed about one and a half months after the family arrived in Maui, when the sponsor informed them that a friend was coming to visit so they had to move out.

He sent a flood of emails to everybody he could think of and reached out for help on social media, including setting up a GoFundMe page. Finally, a local woman responded to his plea and gave the family a place to stay for a week. She also helped him find longer term accommodation on the Big Island, but even that is temporary.

Their new host, a local artist, said he has been supporting Ukraine with specially designed stickers and felt compelled to help the Osypets family, although his house serves as an art incubator and isn't a permanent solution.

Osypets said the search for a new home is daunting and the frequent need to move is taking a toll on his wife, Nataliia, and their daughter, Lila.

“The Big Island is cheaper compared to Maui and it’s supposed to be easier to find something, but it’s still difficult for us because most landlords require references, credit history and money, and we don’t have that,” he said. Osypets recently received a work permit, but finding a job is another challenge.

“We are expecting our son at the end of January. It’s good news, but it’s a very stressful situation especially for me because I should arrange something for my family, but I’m really struggling here,” he said.

He has ruled out moving somewhere else.

“I have to find a way to stay here at least through the child’s birth because it’s a very dangerous situation for my wife,” he said. “Somebody recommended that we go to the mainland, but I don’t know anything about the mainland. At least here I’ve met some people and they’re trying to help me.”

Scrambling To Help

Terrina Wong, director of social and immigration services for the Pacific Gateway Center, is trying to help the Osypets family as well as other Ukrainians who have found themselves in similar predicaments.

“There are a number of them and this has become quite a challenge,” she said. "The whole purpose of the Uniting for Ukraine program is to avert any kind of houselessness. We don’t have anyone now in any shelter. Somehow they’ve miraculously been able to find housing if their sponsorship is not working."

Concerns extend beyond housing. For example, the Ukrainians being resettled have a hard time getting subsidized public transportation because of the paperwork required even though they should qualify for it.

“A lot of folks wanted to help, but I don’t think they were really oriented about what sponsorship means.” — Pacific Gateway Center Executive Director En Young

To help ease the situation, the federal government has provided the Honolulu-based center with a budget of $92,500 for the fiscal year 2022 and $80,000 for 2023, 20% of which is allocated for housing needs.

“The Office of Refugee Resettlement has made available supplemental funding for housing allowances in cases of emergencies due to sponsorship breakdowns,” Wong said.

Lara Palafox of Hawaii Stands With Ukraine, a grassroots group formed shortly after the war began, also spends much of her time scrambling to help Ukrainians find places to stay as well as raising funds to support those who remain in the country.

Palafox, who is in the process of forming a nonprofit group to help with more long-term needs of Ukraine, often discourages people from seeking resettlement in Hawaii unless they have family or another tie to the islands.

“It’s difficult here. Even once you get work authorization it’s still not that easy,” she said. “It’s hard for people who live here. It’s hard enough to support yourself. Rent is expensive. Food is not cheap. It’s not the easiest place to be.”

Palafox described the different experiences of two Ukrainian friends — one who traveled to the mainland under another official designation known as temporary protected status and the other who could only get a visitor’s visa. The visitor ended up returning home to Ukraine, but Palafox grew worried when the Russians bombed Kiev last month so she ended up sponsoring the woman herself to come to Honolulu. To do so, she had to submit tax and bank documents, plus a letter from an employer.

“For some of them, it’s very very hard. Those who come typically have some means,” she said. “Those who really don’t have means or have never traveled are stuck there, and I’m doing my best to help those people too.”

Oksana Kroshka, 44, has had a largely positive experience since arriving in Honolulu in July under the sponsorship of her daughter who lives with her husband in Waikiki. Kroshka’s 13-year-old son is enjoying the eighth grade, making friends and improving his English.

Ukrainian refugee Oksana Kroshka attends language classes at McKinley Community School For Adults David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

She also attends English classes at the McKinley Community School for Adults, walking about 40 minutes each way to get there.

But they, too, are struggling to find housing since the one-bedroom apartment is cramped with four people.

“It’s hard to find a place to rent for my mom because she doesn’t have a rental history and documents,” Vlada Birch said. “We have to be really careful about that because any activities that aren’t clear could affect her immigration status in the future.”

'Practically Homeless'

She worries about her father and older brother in Ukraine but acknowledged it would be even more difficult to have to take care of them as well.

“It’s not easy to live here. It’s not like the mainland,” she said. “In order to live in paradise you have to pay the cost and that’s fair, but I was always thinking I’m not sure I could provide everything for four more people in the first few months.”

Kroshka had to make a devastating choice when she and her family arrived at the border after fleeing their home in Kremenchuk, Ukraine. Her husband and their 21-year-old son were not allowed to leave the country because martial law prevents most men of fighting age, between 18 and 60, from doing so.

“We made that decision just in the moment – should we all go back or should I and my younger son go on? We decided to move forward, and my other son and husband returned back to Ukraine,” she said.

She initially went to Prague with hopes the war would end soon but then seized the opportunity to come to the U.S. after the sponsorship program began.

“It’s not easy to live here. It’s not like the mainland. In order to live in paradise you have to pay the cost." — Vlada Birch, who sponsored her mother to come to Honolulu

Birch said she applied to sponsor her mother and brother as soon as the Uniting for Ukraine program was announced, and was thrilled that it only took about two weeks to get approval. She said the Pacific Gateway Center also helped the family apply quickly for benefits and to get her little brother into school.

“It was just incredibly fast. We were not expecting that fast process,” she said.

Kroshka said she is now settling in for the long haul and hopes her husband and other son can eventually join them. She also has applied for employment authorization.

“I didn’t think it would take that long, but what I see now is that the war will probably take years,” she said in English. “I hope the situation in Ukraine will change and my husband and son will come to us. I hope my family could be together and we could live a peaceful life.”

Advocates note that while many Ukrainians are grateful for the assistance and opportunities provided by the program, well-intentioned sponsors were not always prepared for the reality of welcoming strangers into their home especially as the war drags on.

Mariia Babinska, 35, said everything was fine for the first month after she moved in with the Honolulu couple who sponsored her and her two children, a 2-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. Her husband also remains in Ukraine because of martial law.

“I had no intention to leave even after the war started because I love Kyiv and I love my country, but as the war progressed I heard from friends that there was a family in Hawaii that wanted to sponsor a Ukrainian family so I decided it was worth a shot to come here,” she said.

“It was remarkable how fast everything happened. We didn’t even have any money to travel, but we were connected quickly with our sponsors. Basically it only took about a week to do all the necessary paperwork,” she added.

They arrived in June but eventually began to have disagreements over what Babinska considered efforts to interfere with her parenting style and to control the children so she had to move out.

“We initially found some friends to stay with in Kailua, but I felt practically homeless,” she said. “But then we found a kind family in Kaneohe to help us and they offered to let us move in.”

“At first I had a positive outlook, thinking OK I’m going to go home soon, but now the situation is getting worse and worse so now I have to be more realistic and I need to start thinking about settling down now and getting a job,” she said, adding that she has been overwhelmed by the overall community support with people donating toys, food and clothes.

But she stressed that Ukrainians fleeing the war also need less tangible support.

“The problem is that people from Ukraine right now, or any refugees, they have psychological problems. They’re traumatized from the war and very vulnerable,” she said. “It’s not just about money; it’s also about dealing with psychological trauma and giving moral support. That’s as important as giving somebody a place to stay.”

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