With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now in its fourth week, the human cost of war continues to mount. President Vladimir Putin’s widening bombardment of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities has so far rendered nearly 3.5 million people refugees and has internally displaced an additional 6.5 million people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Last week, President Joe Biden said the U.S. will welcome Ukrainian refugees “with open arms.” But until Congress decides to grant Ukrainians humanitarian parole status to enter the country without a visa on humanitarian grounds — used last year to resettle more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees after the Taliban reconquered Afghanistan — it may be a while before those fleeing Ukraine arrive to the country.
When they do, they are most likely to flock to Washington state, which is a growing hub for Ukrainians and Ukrainian refugees.
Over the last 10 years, more Ukrainian refugees arrived in Washington than any other state in the U.S., according to a Seattle Times analysis of data from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Their arrivals particularly increased after 2014 when Congress authorized refugee admission as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine with Russian separatists escalated.
Since then, Ukrainian refugees are the single largest refugee group in Washington state, though the total number of refugee arrivals declined in the U.S. during the Trump presidency and since the start of the pandemic.
An established immigrant community of Ukrainians in Washington state is one of the main reasons Ukrainian refugees choose to arrive here, said Oleg Pynda, executive director of the Ukrainian Community Center of Washington.
Washington has the largest Ukrainian population in the U.S. after California and New York. Ukrainians are also the fastest growing European immigrant community in the state, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. A significant portion of Ukrainians live in the Seattle area, particularly Southeast Seattle and Kent, as well as in Pasco.
Refugee organizations also attribute the state’s responsiveness to providing refugees with assistance as a major reason for the community’s growth. Overall, Washington state is one of the top initial resettlement destinations for refugees coming to the U.S., according to an analysis of refugee arrival data from the U.S. Department of State.
“The state of Washington has been a very welcoming state for refugees so we have a strong resettlement network and a strong Ukrainian community,” said David Duea, executive director of the Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
In the early 2000s, the state was home to one of the largest second migrations in the country, Pynda said. “They call it the second migration from Ukraine,” he said, referring to refugees initially assigned to volunteer agencies in different states eventually moving to Washington.
“So many, for instance, would arrive in California, but then relocate to Washington because they found greater support here as churches and the community grew.”
Another reason is the mild, temperate Pacific Northwest weather. “Climate-wise, Washington’s much better than California. It’s pretty much the same climate like in Ukraine and the summers are much easier here,” Pynda said.
New arrivals also look to relocate to a region where they can find people who speak their language and know their culture so they can build relationships, said Mahnaz Eshetu, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance.
“They feel closer to the people who came here before them from their homeland,” Eshetu said. “It offers a comfort to merge into the community and establish yourself, because your people understand you better.”
Between October 2021 and February 2022, Washington state welcomed six more Ukrainian refugees than it did during the entire previous year when the pandemic disrupted international travel.
But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this stream of refugees into Washington has all but stopped, and the U.S. embassy there has closed.
“We are hoping that Congress will soon authorize refugees from Ukraine to enter into the U.S. through parole,” Pynda said.
For now, most Ukrainian refugees are fleeing to neighboring Eastern European countries Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Belarus, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Homeland Security experts expect many will try to stay close to Ukraine in the hopes that the war will end and they may be able to return to their homeland.
Still, agencies are preparing for an influx when Ukrainians do manage to secure refugee status or parole. Pynda said he expect new arrivals within the next six months.
While some Washingtonians have already come forward to support the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees, providing culturally sensitive mental health resources in multiple languages is a key concern for refugee organizations working on rehabilitation and resettlement.
“We’re going to see a lot with PTSD and other issues and, unfortunately, there are not so many mental health professionals who are bilingual and bicultural in a way that meets those needs,” Pynda said.
Washington’s existing Ukrainian community is already in need of these services, he said.
“We actually need it now because already there are many Ukrainians, especially elderly, who are here in the U.S. and anxious and depressed as their children are impacted by the war,” he said. “We have to enhance our mental health system to be ready to address that growth, especially when the new arrivals will be here.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the organization Lutheran Community Services Northwest.