These Ukrainian refugees are welcome in the United States … but they must go through Mexico

Nadiya Ruyhynska has hardly ever traveled outside Ukraine, although her daughter lives in Seattle. But with war ravaging her country, the 55-year-old former nurse has embarked on a journey to arrive in Tijuana, Mexico, where a massive operation has been set up to help thousands of Ukrainians cross the border. to the United States.

“I’m happy, but I also feel tension”she said once on American soil, torn between the pain of having left her mother in Ukraine and the joy of finding her pregnant daughter.

Hundreds more Ukrainians are landing in Tijuana on their way to the United States, prompted by Washington’s recent pledge to take in up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Their journey takes them to Mexico, as they cannot land in the United States without a visa. But at the border, they are granted a humanitarian permit by the American authorities.

“Every hour, flights bring people”says Pavel Savastyanov, a Russian volunteer who came to help at the center set up at an entry point in the border town of San Ysidro.

Upon arrival at Tijuana International Airport, the first thing passengers see is a Ukrainian flag, flanked by two signs in Cyrillic: “Welcome” and “Help”, directing them to a small desk where their names are written down. , so that they can go to the border, with an average wait of two to three days.

“For Ukrainian refugees only”

Part of the airport is marked off with yellow tape and signs in English and Spanish: “For Ukrainian refugees only”. Food, drinks and a children’s section, with crayons and coloring books, are available.

From there, they are taken to one of the four centers quickly created by volunteers, with the support of the authorities but also of churches, in the city where for years thousands of Latin Americans have arrived in pursuit of their American dream.

Like many men banned from leaving Ukraine to help fight the Russian invasion, “my father had to stay”said Anastasiia Chorna, 15, holding back tears, holding a huge stuffed shark in her arms. “It’s literally the only thing I could bring”explains the teenager, who traveled with her mother.

His 41-year-old father remained in kyiv. Some men were still able to flee. “I know I committed a crime, but I didn’t want to fight”says a 25-year-old young man who left Ukraine with his girlfriend, whom he married the day the war broke out. He is now waiting to be called to take the bus that will take them to the border with the United States.

“I’ve never used a weapon, it’s so different from my job. I couldn’t kill someone or see someone die, I couldn’t”said the engineer in hesitant English, lowering his head.

Those who don’t speak English are cared for by the huge network of volunteers, most of whom live on the west coast of the United States.

“We want to help”

“We speak the language and we want to help as much as possible. We are close and it is important for us”explains Liza Melnichuk, who came with her twin Maria. The 26-year-old sisters arrived in California 20 years ago with their family, who had fled for religious reasons.

When they heard about the arrival of refugees, they took their car and drove the 900 km to Tijuana to join the rotations of volunteers working around the clock.

Liza recounts welcoming her cousins ​​fleeing Boutcha, the city that has become synonymous with the horror of war. And Maria finds that the numbers are only increasing: “Wednesday we welcomed some 300 people, today (Friday) there must have been 700”.

A joint effort between Mexico and the United States has provided the operation with exclusive use of what is called the western gate of the border. Buses carry hundreds of people every day to the line where they are received by the Mexican authorities, then cross the bridge which takes them to the American side.

On Californian soil, the tears are both sad and joyful. Christina Ruyhynska hugs her mother for the first time in three years. In tears, the two women first converse in Ukrainian. Then Christina asks her mother in English: “Ready to go home?”

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