The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has outposts all over the country including on Cleveland’s west side. The third-floor space is broad and open with high ceilings and windows. Flags from around the world line the walls.
The nonprofit’s roots stretch back more than a century, committed to ensuring “immigrants, refugees, and uprooted people will live dignified lives.” Many staffers are new entries to the country themselves. The organization helps people from all over the globe navigate complicated and often baffling systems that govern American life.
In the past year, though, a significant share of their work has been focused on serving Ukrainians. Under the Uniting for Ukraine, or U4U program, people fleeing the war can shelter in the U.S. for two years as ‘humanitarian parolees.’
Anna Messerly walked through the process a Ukrainian seeking services would follow. At one table in a corner, case managers tapped away at laptops surrounded by manila folders. This is the first stop, Messerly explained.
“We already have kind of like established communication with (the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services) Office,” Messerly said. “And so when they come, we either apply and submit a new application or, like follow up on what was done before. And it’s usually food stamps, Medicaid, and possibly cash assistance.”
Next, she explained, the case manager shuttles clients to employment services. That’s where Messerly works.
“We have an interview, you answer lots of questions about your work experience, about your education experience, your background, what kind of experience you’re looking for,” she described.
But she acknowledged placements tend toward lower-skilled jobs.
“It’s not very easy, I just tell you this,” she said. “English is an issue in most situations. Also transportation can be an issue. But jobs that we usually offer is like some factory jobs, some organizations like care of elderly or cleaning, just like some entry-level, simple jobs.”
In addition to connecting people with jobs, she explained they help with enrollment in English courses, with getting a driver’s license, or with enrolling in free or reduced lunch at school. They’re basically an all-purpose navigator for any complicated issue their clients might face.
Coming to America
Anna Messerly grew up in Ukraine, but she’s been living in the U.S. for nearly a decade. “I left a a peaceful country,” she said. “Everything about Ukraine changed a lot, and it’s really sad and tragic.”
Since she left, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, separatist forces in the Donbas attempted to break away from Ukraine, and Russia launched a full-scale invasion. Messerly has watched it all unfold with growing anguish. Her parents came to the U.S. just before COVID-19, but she worries about her grandmother in Lviv. She worries about friends from high school and from college.
She encouraged them to come to the U.S., but no one has taken her up on the offer. “It’s usually breaking a family apart,” she explained.
Messerly met her husband while he was in serving in Peace Corps. After they got married, they settled in Parma.
Messerly used to teach English in Ukraine. But in the U.S., she faced a problem familiar to many people looking for a career change — overqualified for the jobs available but under-qualified for the ones she wanted. Eventually she found USCRI, and it turned out her experience made her an ideal bridge for helping new arrivals.
“With the flow of Ukrainians coming, I feel like I have so many opportunities helping them,” she described. “And this experience that I had, through 10 years, I can share all my knowledge with them. So I think like being here specifically, is great help for both sides.”
Messerly isn’t the only one who has come to USCRI from Ukraine. Ivan Prodanyk left Ukraine for Germany with his wife and two daughters the day the war began. His parents live in Ohio and encouraged them to come as part of the U4U program. They arrived last July.
Prodanyk was a lawyer in Ukraine and his wife ran a clothing store. Now he works on the employment team alongside Messerly. He speaks English haltingly with the deliberation of a person who knows exactly what they want to say but the words are just beyond their grasp. He joked it’s especially annoying for a lawyer whose entire job is based on communicating.
“I often have the situation where I know I have a lot of things in Ukrainian language in my mind, but I can’t describe exactly in the English language,” he said apologetically.
Just like the people he helps find jobs, Prodanyk is still trying to figure out what the path forward looks like for his family. He’s working on a master’s in law, and his girls are thriving at their elementary school. As he describes it, they’ve reached a kind of equilibrium, but a tenuous one. He yearns for home but wonders what it would be like to stay. After uprooting his family once, he doesn’t sound eager to do so again.
“We would like to do what we can do for our people, for our country. Now we can have a job, we can study, and we can get the money, some donations to our country, and when the war is finished we very hope Ukraine to reach the victory,” he explained.
“Yes, we would like to return in our country,” he added, “but it depends on how can we acclimate here.”
Viktor Ordin fled his home in Chernihiv shortly before the war began. Like Prodanyk, came to the U.S. in July. He hit a snag working on his mom’s paperwork and came to USCRI for help. Two weeks later he was working there as a case manager.
Ordin is doggedly optimistic, mining the challenges of his new life for humor rather than bitterness.
“We have kilograms and kilometers in Ukraine, and you have miles and pounds,” he offered with wide grin. “You try and buy something, and lady ask you how many pounds do you need?”
“I have no idea!” he said laughing. “I know how many kilograms I need.”
He misses summer visits to the Carpathian Mountains, and laments that his mom has trouble getting around because she’s not comfortable driving. But he focuses on what he can control — in life and at work. “They came here with bad mood, but they must go from here with good moods,” he said of his clients.
He described coming to a new country as almost like being a teenager again. You’re right on the cusp of the rest of your life with big decisions that will shape what direction it will take. You’re also starting from zero and don’t quite understand how everything works.
“Everything not easy, but everything possible,” Ordin insisted. “If you will try do it, sometimes it not from first time you can do something, you need try like five, ten times, but everything’s possible, and a lot of people around us who are ready to help you.”
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This article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal.