Ukrainians have arrived at the US-Mexico border by the thousands

A makeshift shelter for Ukrainians in Tijuana, Mexico. Thousands who fled the war have been arriving here and waiting to be admitted by border agents into the United States. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)

Ukrainians fleeing the war have been arriving at Mexico’s northern border cities by the thousands. There, they are presenting themselves to U.S. border agents and asking for temporary admission to the United States on humanitarian grounds. Thousands of Ukrainians have been let in — availing themselves of the avenues that the Biden administration has opened to ease their admission into the U.S. faster than people who have come from other countries.

But so many Ukrainians have arrived that a backlog has formed.

In Tijuana, Mexico, across from San Diego, the swelling numbers spurred into action a massive volunteer effort organized by Ukrainian-Americans and others with ties to the region. They established a sprawling makeshift shelter, brought trays of Ukrainian food from Los Angeles and San Diego, and coordinated with immigration agents to shuttle large groups to the border for processing.

Despite their quick mobilization to ensure a measure of comfort for thousands of refugees nearing the end of their journey to safety, their efforts have been overwhelmed by the unending flow of new arrivals.

Here are some of the people whose lives have converged at the U.S.-Mexico border thanks to a war a half a globe away.

“The war is still affecting her”

It took weeks for Aleksey Ivkov to convince his mother Tatiana to leave Ukraine. She’d been determined to wait the war out by sheltering in a subway tunnel in their home city of Kharkiv. But as the war intensified, she finally agreed to evacuate — and to meet her son in Tijuana.

The trip took her nine days. Ivkov drove from north of San Francisco to pick her up. He noticed immediately that loud noises startled her. As they stepped out of the Tijuana airport, the rumble of a large truck made her jump.

“The war is still affecting her,” he said. On a recent day, Ivkov and his mother were sitting in folding chairs at the shelter housing Ukrainians as they await their turn to be processed into the United States.

Tatiana, who shared only her first name, is 74, and after more than a month of anxiety said she was feeling more cheerful now, eager to see her relatives and grandchildren in California. But she’s looking forward to her return to Ukraine, and to reuniting with her partner, who because he is in his late 50s is considered of fighting age and prohibited from leaving the country.

“Once things calm down a little,” she said, “I’ll go back.”

On the shuttle to the border. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)
Volunteers worked with Tijuana officials to turn a municipal sports complex into a shelter to house thousands as they wait for their turn to be processed at the border. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)
A backlog meant Ukrainians were waiting two to three days for their chance to request humanitarian admission at the border. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)

“We need more help”

Olya Krasnykh is a Russian-American real estate executive in Silicon Valley. But when she learned of the Ukrainians arriving at the border, she set her job aside and came down to help. A tent city had formed within steps of the border crossing. Krasnykh and other volunteers worked with Tijuana city officials to move everyone into a municipal sports complex a short drive away.

It became a sprawling operation. Ukrainian-American volunteers began greeting entire planes full of Ukrainians at the airport and shuttling them to the shelter, registering them and placing them into a queue. When it’s their turn, they and their luggage are loaded onto another shuttle to the border. In recent days, people were waiting from two to three days at the shelter for their turn to come up. But the wait was getting longer, because Ukrainians are arriving in Tijuana faster than border agents can process them.

As of a few days ago, Krasnykh estimated that the shelter had registered about 10,000 people.

“It’s an operation that has been managed well by a band of grassroots volunteers,” Krasnykh said. But she added that it had grown so quickly that it now needed support from a professional nonprofit. “We’re at a breaking point where we need more help.”

“We bought like six air mattresses”

Phil Metzger had not planned for his church in San Diego to become a major stopover for Ukrainian refugees. Metzger is the lead pastor of Calvary San Diego, about a 15-minute drive north of the Mexican border. When the Ukrainians started arriving there, he thought he could lend a helping hand.

“Two weeks ago we bought like six air mattresses, thinking, let’s help a few people out,” he said. “We just had no idea. The next night, it was a hundred people.”

On a recent day, shuttles were arriving at his church loaded with people freshly admitted into the United States. Many needed some time to contact family and friends who they’d be joining in other parts of the country. They booked airplane tickets and church volunteers drove them to San Diego’s airport for the final leg of their trip. Other new arrivals needed somewhere to stay for a few nights, because not everyone was sure of their next steps.

It’s all been a little stressful, Metzger admitted.

“But I’m thankful these people are not back in Ukraine right now, because it’s dangerous,” he said. “I’m glad that they’re here.”

The shelter housing Ukrainians is entirely run by volunteers. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)
Ukrainian refugees arrive at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex shelter. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)

“These are my people”

At the shelter in Tijuana, Helen Davidov was doling out Ukrainian food: bitochki, plov, and grechka. She and other Ukrainian-Americans drove it down from Los Angeles.

She placed drumsticks and fried cottage cheese cakes onto people’s plates. And she tried to make eye contact with each one.

“These are my people,” she said, her voice catching. “It’s just people. It’s horrible what’s happening right now. And if we don’t all put in a little bit, it’ll get worse.”

“It could be the last goodbye”

Last week, Iryna Merezhko flew from her home in Los Angeles to Warsaw, Poland. Then she took a train into Ukraine to meet her sister and her sister’s son Ivan at a hotel. Her sister had decided to stay in Ukraine to support the country’s soldiers, but she wanted Ivan, 14, to join his aunt in the United States.

In the hotel room, Merezhko’s sister handed her a thick stack of documents — anything a border agent might conceivably request as proof that Merezhko had permission to bring Ivan into the country. Ivan felt uneasy about leaving his parents behind.

“We told him it was going to be like a long summer break in California,” Merezhko said. “Disneyland! Universal Studios!”

At the hotel, they all exchanged tearful embraces, and promised to see each other soon. No one spoke what everyone understood.

“We knew it could be the last goodbye,” Merezhko said.

Ivan said he’d left his heart in Ukraine. “My friends, my family,” he said.

But the strength of the their family’s convictions, Merezhko said, left them no other choice. “I am very proud of my sister.”

Children played at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex shelter. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)
At the shelter, women picked out donated clothing. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)
Ukrainians have been arriving at other Mexican border cities, but Tijuana — with the world’s largest border crossing — has become a main point of entry to the United States for Ukrainians fleeing the war. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for NPR)
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