Ukrainians With Austin Family Defy Death to Get Here

Seeking refuge in Austin


Chris Bardash, whose mother-in-law is in a bomb shelter in Ukraine, holds a sign at the Texas State Capitol on March 5 (Photo by Maggie Quinlan)

Natasha Bardash worries that Feb. 23 was the last sane day of her life. Since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded her homeland of Ukraine, she's been strapped into a nightmare ride – bizarre days strung together by sleepless nights. She wakes up over and over, reaching for her phone and hoping she hasn't gotten a message from her mother or brother, because "what if I miss it, and what if it's the end?"

Her mother is in a bomb shelter in Mykolaiv as we talk on March 7. Her brother is in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, with his wife and 5-year-old son. He's insisted that his wife and son leave for Poland, but he can't cross the border as a military-aged man, and his wife has chosen to stay. Natasha's best friend is hiding out in a house in the Ukrainian countryside where, her friend tells her, Russians are shooting up homes for seemingly no reason. Her friend told Natasha she saw one house "absolutely full of bullet holes."

“I feel like I’m going absolutely out of my mind. I’m able to switch on and off and for a couple hours, be normal and not think about how my mom is sitting in a bomb shelter right now. [But when it’s silent] everything just drops.” – Natasha Bardash

Natasha's husband, Chris Bardash, said they're the only relatives outside of Ukraine who could house Natasha's family. As soon as the conflict started, the couple started scrambling to get their family and Natasha's best friend to Austin for refuge. They learned that that feat might be impossible without an overreaching legislative change.

As Austin immigration attorney Julie Sparks explained, the common understanding of what it means to be a refugee has little bearing on the legal definition. Many of the more than 2 million Ukrainians who have fled the country since war broke out would not qualify for asylum in the U.S. without changes to law, Sparks said. "The wheels of justice move slowly. Sometimes it moves so slowly that people die."

So Natasha says her biggest struggle is feeling useless, while she and Chris look around their home and see the empty space her family could fill. The couple spent the last three weekends at rallies outside of the Texas Capitol, where their smiley 2-year-old son Nikita sits in a wagon and Chris holds a sign over his head that says "ACCEPT UKRAINIAN REFUGEES." It's therapeutic, Natasha said, "just being able to out loud say what you think."

Weekdays must go on as usual, though. Natasha said as a pre-K teacher, her job requires her to be happy. (To demonstrate, she burst into singing a manic cancan melody.) The first week of March was Dr. Seuss Week at her school, with "Crazy Sock Day" and "Wacky Wednesday" and so on. "It's, like, an absolutely surrealistic movie."

She drives into work in silence. This is her quiet time. And when it's quiet, she cries. So she arrives at work with eyes full of tears. And then she flips a switch.

"I feel like I'm going absolutely out of my mind," Natasha said. "I'm able to switch on and off and for a couple hours, be normal and not think about how my mom is sitting in a bomb shelter right now. [But when it's silent] everything just drops. It goes from 100 to zero. And you just feel absolutely empty inside. I'm scared it's going to affect us for longer. I feel like we're those zombies, those people who came after war with post-traumatic stress disorder."


Rally Against Russian Military in Ukraine at the Texas State Capitol on March 5 (Photo by John Anderson)

Policy of Asylum

Austin immigration attorney Kate Lin­coln-Goldfinch, who co-founded Vecina to offer pro bono legal services to immigrants, said she's worked with a few Ukrainian Americans hoping to get family members to the United States. She said, for now, the majority of people coming to the U.S. from Ukraine will be those who already have citizenship here. For Ukrainians seeking asylum, winning cases will be "challenging."

First of all, a "refugee," in the legal sense, is someone who is granted refugee status outside of the United States, typically while in a refugee camp in a third country. "Asylum-seekers" are granted asylee status in the U.S. while at a port of entry or after entering the country, but they have to meet the same refugee criteria as those being defined as refugees by the United Nations.

Refugees and asylees have to show that they have been persecuted for a specific association in a group, such as race or religion, and if the persecution is too broad – in Ukraine, you could argue the entire population is being persecuted – "that's not a winning asylum case. ... They're not gonna broaden that definition and if they did, it would apply globally – it would apply to Cen­tral Americans. And it would be quite unfair to broaden it for only one race of people."

For Ukrainians who were already in the U.S. prior to March 1, the Biden administration granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which means they can't be deported. The other 13 countries currently designated for TPS include Sudan and Myanmar.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, urged President Joe Biden to afford the discretionary TPS designation but hopes to see more, including additional presence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more resources for U.S. embassies in neighboring countries, and a declaration of humanitarian parole for Ukraine, which would grant entry to some people who are otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States.

“The wheels of justice move slowly. Sometimes it moves so slowly that people die.” – Immigration attorney Julie Sparks

Edna Yang, a director of Austin immigration nonprofit American Gateways, said even with measures like TPS designation, the U.S. falls behind peer nations in its openness to people fleeing war. "What we've been talking about for a really long time is that our immigration laws are the way they are because they're outdated. We haven't had comprehensive immigration reform since the late 1980s, and changes in the Nineties were more restrictive," Yang said. "We have been calling for Congress to take a really good look at our laws, because it's not serving families we have here. We're a much more international country and world [than 30 years ago]. Our laws should reflect that and catch up with that."

In contrast to the U.S., the Canadian government announced special admission policies for Ukrainian nationals March 3. The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emer­gen­cy Travel allows an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the war to apply to stay in Canada for two years, pending a background check. Chris and Natasha Bar­dash point to that decision and ask why the U.S. couldn't do something similar.

A spokesperson for Doggett said that though no such legislation has yet been advanced in Congress, Doggett's team raised the idea with the U.S. House Judic­i­ary Committee's Subcommittee on Immi­gra­tion and Citizen­ship in response to questions from the Chronicle. (Doggett is not a member of that panel, but three of his Texas colleagues are: Veronica Escobar of El Paso, and Sylvia Garcia and Sheila Jackson Lee, both of Houston.)

Until such an order passes, Yang said to expect Ukrainians to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border and meet resistance. On March 9, a Ukrainian mother and her three kids arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana, seeking refuge with her only family outside of Ukraine, who live in California. She was turned away, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. While the TPS status temporarily secures Ukrainians who arrived before March 1, it offered no such protection for her eight days later.

Citizens and Visa Holders

The people in Ukraine with the best chance of getting to the U.S. are those who already have U.S. citizenship, Lincoln-Goldfinch said. In fact, she's been spending the last week biting her nails waiting for two premature twin babies with U.S. citizenship to reach Poland.

Lincoln-Goldfinch learned about Sasha Spektor and his wife's babies shortly after their birth, while the twins were still in a hospital in Kyiv. Spektor, a Chicago resident of many years, came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. His two babies were born via surrogate about eight weeks premature on Feb. 25, the day after the invasion began, when Spektor and his wife were still in Chicago. Hospital staff placed tiny Lenny and Moishe in incubators as bombs fell near the Kyiv hospital. So, in an already dangerous move, the surrogate mother and babies were transferred to a second Kyiv hospital.

When Lincoln-Goldfinch and Vecina got involved, the Spektor family was able to connect with Project Dynamo, a nonprofit that had previously helped people evacuate from conflicts in Afghanistan and other war-torn nations. In a delicate operation, Project Dynamo staff brought together two neonatal doctors, two travel incubators, two ambulances, food for the babies, and additional fuel so they wouldn't run out of power, and brought the surrogate mother and the Spektor twins from Kyiv to Poland in a 14-hour drive.

The babies arrived safely at a Polish hospital on March 8, one day before Russian forces bombed a maternity and children's hospital in Mariupol, about 500 miles southeast of Kyiv. The babies are doing well, and as soon as they get passports and are well enough to fly, they can come straight home to Chicago with their parents.

Ukrainians who were already in the process of getting a U.S. visa have another path forward to Austin. Olya Sukhopar, who lived in New York for seven years before moving to Austin about a year ago, said her mother Olga crossed the border into Poland March 2, with her chihuahua Chapa in tow. Her mother held out in her Kyiv apartment even as she heard bombs fall because of the surgery she had scheduled to address her metastasized ovarian cancer. When her doctor called to let her know the surgery could not happen in Kyiv, she and her little dog got on a train headed for the Polish border with Ukraine, which was packed so tightly that she went 24 hours without food, drink, or using the restroom. Once in Poland, she was greeted with friendly strangers who gave Chapa dog treats and who drove her from the Polish border town to Kraków.

Olga has been in line to receive a visa for months so she could celebrate her daughter's recent wedding in the United States. On March 9, Olya learned that her mother's visa interview – scheduled for June – could be expedited due to the emergency.


Olga Sukhopar in Kyiv, which she fled for Poland in the first week of March (Provided by Olya Sukhopar)

What Happens Next

In some ways, the United States had a more efficient response to Afghan refugees than Ukrainians fleeing their country, Sparks pointed out. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the U.S. had military bases, there's no way to send in a plane for Ukrainian refugees without escalating the war.

That said, the quick TPS designation was striking, Sparks said. Natalie Hansen, another immigration attorney in Austin, said one factor in the speedy designation was likely racism. Hansen points out that while many TPS designated countries are not majority-white, some countries in crisis are notably missing from the list.

"Like Ethiopia [which] is going through a terrible war and human rights crisis," Hansen said. "The whole idea of TPS is not to return people to countries in a humanitarian crisis, whether that's a natural disaster or war, but Ethiopia is in a total crisis, you really can't go back there right now, and I don't know why Ethiopia wasn't on the list. ... Judges will basically say, 'I believe you and I know that you're going to be murdered if you return, but you're going to be deported.' It's disgusting."

Yang said that of course much of Ameri­can immigration law is based in racism, but people of all races and across the world are hurt by exclusive and restrictive immigration policy. Because of apparent broad support for Ukraine, Yang said she thinks the conflict could present an opportunity for reform around the country's refugee policy.

"Communities can really rally around communities who are suffering. There are people who really care about people who are suffering and displaced," she said. "I'm hopeful that something good comes of this crisis, this humanitarian disaster. Maybe something good changes in our laws."

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