Speaking with her mother from 6,000 miles away, Oksana Omel heard what she thought was an airplane in the background of the call.
It may have been a plane, it may have been a rocket; she never found out. But the significance was quickly apparent: Donetsk was under attack.
After the call, the mother saw an object flash past her window. Her building started to shake. During the shelling, she laid on the ground, too scared to leave her ninth-floor apartment and go downstairs.
“The next day, she was crying,” Omel remembered, “and she was saying, ‘Oh, I’m alive. I’m alive. My daughter, I’m alive.’”
Like millions of others, Nina Borkovska’s life was upended when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The mother has lived in the eastern city of Donetsk nearly her entire life. In her words, translated by her daughter, she says Ukraine is her “motherland.”
Omel grew up in Donetsk but moved to Utah more than 20 years ago, and shortly after the bombing, Borkovska told her daughter she was ready to come to the U.S. It was a move she’d resisted for months, but the intensifying conflict had become too frightening for her to remain, especially while living alone.
Omel bought her mother’s plane tickets — no easy task due to the ongoing war — and eventually Borkovska was on a flight to Qatar and then to Los Angeles and safety.
It was nearly three months after Russia had first invaded Ukraine, and it was supposed to be the end of a nightmare. But rather than a finishing line, her arrival marked the beginning of another long road.
The reason Borkovska was able to flee so swiftly was a B-2 travel visa that she had procured years earlier to visit Omel. It was a stopgap that possibly saved her life, but it’s also the cause of her current predicament.
Because she entered the U.S. on a tourist visa, Borkovska is not eligible for benefits through mainstream federal programs or the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and she only has legal permission to remain in the country for a period of 180 days.
Her time is already more than a third of the way gone.
“I didn’t have time to apply, to wait, you know, it’s just — I didn’t even think about it, because it was too dangerous for me to wait,” Omel said. “I mean, it’s unfortunate, but that was the only way I could do it.”
‘I don’t want my mother to die’
If Borkovska had stayed in Ukraine any longer, she might have been killed. Omel still talks with relatives and friends in Donetsk, who provide her with updates about the deteriorating situation in the city.
There is no running water. The shelling is relentless, and people are stuck hiding in basements and bathrooms because being outside is too dangerous, she said.
Recently, the school where Omel used to teach was bombed; two people died in the attack. It’s a pattern playing out across the city with other civilian buildings, Omel said. Donetsk is being destroyed.
“It’s so much worse,” she said. “Now it’s every day. If it’s quiet, people get scared because they know it will be much worse when they start shelling ... It’s like a quiet before the huge storm.”
Everyone she talks with agrees that Borkovska left at the right time. But at what cost?
As other Ukrainian nationals receive benefits and assistance while adjusting to American life, her mother receives nothing. Like them, she fled home in fear for her life. She doesn’t speak English. She cannot return to Ukraine.
She may not be able to stay here, either.
Omel avoids telling Borkovska too much about her tenuous status, saying she doesn’t want to scare her mother. She has promised they will find a way for her to remain in the country legally.
In English, she says she hasn’t decided how to accomplish that yet. Last month, she met with an immigration lawyer who laid out her options, and she’s still making up her mind. No solution is perfect. On top of being costly and time consuming, each possibility comes with its own risks, and there is no guarantee any of them will pan out.
Omel said she is stressed; she has no idea what may happen down the line.
Despite that, “I’m happy that she’s [Borkovska] here,” the daughter said. “Because she could have died, because my brother-in-law died on June 18. And I don’t want my mother to die. So whatever it is, she’s alive, and I’m happy about that.”
Safe, but without benefits — and falling through the cracks
On April 21, President Joe Biden unveiled Uniting for Ukraine, a streamlined program designed to help thousands of war-displaced Ukrainians resettle in the U.S.
The program enables private U.S. supporters to financially sponsor Ukrainian beneficiaries during their stay in the country.
Beneficiaries are also granted humanitarian parole, a temporary designation permitting individuals to enter the U.S. for “urgent humanitarian reasons” and stay for a period of up to two years.
As humanitarian parolees, Ukrainians are eligible for many of the same benefits as refugees. They can apply to both ORR and federal programs — such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid — said Patrick Poulin, regional director of the International Rescue Committee.
Health care benefits are especially important for the 81-year-old Borkovska, who suffers from various medical conditions.
However, Ukrainian nationals living in the U.S. are ineligible for Uniting for Ukraine; the program is intended for displaced Ukrainians living abroad, not those who have already gained entry into the country.
So, Borkovska does not have humanitarian parole status or access to benefits. If the need arose, she could potentially apply for emergency Medicaid, but the program is limited to “a specific range of emergency medical services for a life-threatening condition.”
For full-service Medicaid, she would need parole or something similar, and receiving a parolee designation while living in the U.S., while not impossible, is unlikely in her situation, said Alyssa Williams.
Williams, the immigration program manager at Catholic Community Services of Utah, added that Borkovska’s situation is not unique. Since February, more than five million Ukrainians have fled their homeland.
“There were quite a few that were entering in February and March any way they could,” she said. “A lot did enter on visiting visas.”
According to reporting by CBS News, around 47,000 Ukrainians have used temporary or immigrant visas to gain entry into the U.S., though it is unclear how many of them used visitor visas, specifically.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website directs individuals in Borkovska’s situation to a page about “temporary protected status,” yet another designation for which she is ineligible. In order to qualify for TPS, Ukrainians must have had a continuous physical presence in the U.S. since April 19.
She arrived too late.
“It does not make any sense to me or any other, you know, normal people, right?” Omel said. “Why? Why the date?”
Williams said this sort of thing “happens all the time” with temporary protected status, and the government is not deliberately trying to omit people.
“I think that the theory is that there would be another type of humanitarian protection that could protect them, if required, which would be that you can always enter on your visa and then still apply for asylum,” she said.
‘A few options’
Omel has been trying to schedule an appointment with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for months.
The Salt Lake City office doesn’t take walk-in appointments — she tried — and when she called the office in early summer, she reached an automated message. Around two months later, she was finally able to connect with a live person and was told an officer would call her back within 72 hours.
When that call came, a problem with her phone prevented her from answering, and she had to start the process over again.
Another lengthy call. Another 72 hours. More waiting. In some ways, it typifies what her life has been like since Feb. 24.
Despite the long odds, she is hoping to upgrade her mother’s status to humanitarian parole, which would give her more time to decide how to secure permanent residency for Borkovska and facilitate getting health care benefits in the interim.
She says it would make sense considering her mother’s circumstance but she is not optimistic about their chances, and Williams cautioned that Borkovska may not meet the requirements for humanitarian parole.
“Immigration’s always had a possibility for you to apply for parole in place inside the United States,” she said. “But it doesn’t fit this situation.”
If that doesn’t work, Borkovska’s other options include extending her visa, applying for a green card or seeking asylum.
None of the options represents a panacea.
Extending Borkovska’s visa is only a temporary solution that would not alter her status, leaving her with many of the same problems and without benefits.
The second option is bolstered by Omel’s citizenship. As Borkovska’s daughter, she could submit an immediate relative petition that would expedite the green card application significantly. But applying for permanent residency is complicated by Borkovska’s current legal status as a tourist, and the family petition process severely limits the federal assistance one can receive.
Even after an individual acquires a green card, there is typically a yearslong moratorium on receiving full-service Medicaid.
If Borkovska were to seek asylum, it may be just as financially draining in the years to come. In Utah, individuals who have been granted asylum are generally eligible for benefits, including Medicaid, and they aren’t subject to the same waiting period as some lawful permanent residents.
However, it often takes years to even get an asylum interview — a problem further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a resulting backlog of applications, and those still in the application process are not eligible for benefits, said Asha Parekh, director of the Utah Refugee Services Office.
At the very least, all three options would allow Borkovska to remain in the U.S. while her case is being adjudicated.
But Omel needs something more. She has sent messages to both Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, in hopes that one of them can help her mother.
Lee’s office went silent after some initial back-and-forth, and Romney’s replied with a thank-you email but never followed up, she said. Neither senator’s office immediately responded to a request for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune. It seems that, once again, Borkovska has gotten lost in the shuffle, Omel said.
“It’s going to be hard, but I have no other way,” the daughter said. “... I will be waiting. It will not be easy, but I hope it will be successful. And to know that I do have a few options — you know, asylum, green card — it kind of gives me hope that she can stay here with me.”
Even if the war were to end tomorrow, Borkovska could not return home. She says she would not survive the trip, and so the rest of her life will be spent in a foreign country — whether in the U.S. with her daughter or somewhere else, despite the fact that she has nowhere else to go.
For now, she is still waiting. And she could be for years to come.
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