More than 300 Ukrainians have come to Alaska since the war began

two women post for a photo
Anchorage-based New Chance church members Zori Opanasevych, left, and her sister, Oksana Vakulich, and other volunteers statewide are among many in the state’s faith communities who are working to bring Ukrainians displaced by war to Alaska. (Zori Opanasevych)

More than 300 refugees from the war in Ukraine have come to Alaska to settle, mainly near family in places with Slavic communities. Much of the influx of Ukrainians follows a wave of immigrants from former Soviet bloc countries who moved to Alaska in the 1990s. But this year’s wave of Ukrainians appears to have crested.

“So we saw this immediate rush of people who applied right at the beginning of the program were approved, and then got their families here as quickly as possible,” said Issa Spatrisano, who oversees Refugee Resettlement and Food Resources for Anchorage-based Catholic Community Services. She also serves as Alaska’s state refugee coordinator.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine back in February, President Biden enacted the Uniting for Ukraine program to help those fleeing the conflict find a temporary home more quickly than through conventional refugee efforts. Since then, more than 54,000 have come to America under the program, including the more than 300 who came to Alaska.

Ukrainians also have come to the United States through other programs and as private citizens traveling on a visa.

Refugee-relief workers have been busy

Spatrisano said she and her staff have been busy over the past few months.

“Statewide, we’re seeing some serious growth in the refugee-resettlement program,” she said. “It’s the largest year in the state’s history —by far.”

Spatrisano said most of those who’ve arrived in Alaska under the Uniting for Ukraine program have family who applied to sponsor them to live in places where previous waves of Slavic-speaking immigrants have settled.

“The largest Ukrainian communities statewide, per Census data, are Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and Delta Junction,” she said in an interview last week.

The earlier immigrants began coming to Alaska in the 1990s from nations that previously were part of the old Soviet bloc.

“Many former Soviet Union arrivals independently decided to move to Alaska and decided to make their home (in communities) across the state,” Spatrisano said, “but especially in the area of Delta Junction.”

Ukrainian relief status report for local officials

Spatrisano told members of the Delta City Council last month that the refugee program she heads-up got started in response to the formation and growth of Delta’s Slavic community. “And ultimately ended with refugee assistance and immigration services, the program we now know, being established to serve refugee populations that call Alaska home.”

She emphasized in her response to a question from Delta Councilmember Pete Hallgren that the program that allowed the new arrivals from Ukraine is not a ticket to citizenship.

“Somebody that comes over and is temporary or on parole,” Hallgren asked. “Can they apply for permanent status?” That hasn’t been totally figured out by Congress yet,” she said. “At this point — no. You are welcome to stay for a few years.”

Spatrisano said in an interview last week that the influx of new arrivals had begun to slow.

“Alaska definitely should expect more cases,” she said, “but I don’t think we’re going to expect as many people as quickly as we saw them in the first opening of the program.”

Spatrisano said she’ll continue updating Alaskans about the Uniting for Ukraine program, especially those who live in communities where many of those fleeing the war come to live.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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