Ukrainian refugees arrive at Sea-Tac during tenuous legal window
Cordelia Revells anxiously peers down the arrival gate a Sea-Tac Airport.
“We’re looking for a family of six,” Revells says. “You’ll know it’s them because refugees typically carry a white and blue bag from the IOM.” (That’s the International Organization for Migration, which helps coordinate refugee travel from overseas.)Revells is a refugee resettlement case manager with Jewish Family Service of Seattle and we’re on the lookout for a multi-generational Ukrainian family —- five adults and an 18-month-old toddler.
These airport pickups are a familiar routine for Revells. She’s welcomed hundreds.
“I don't know that I could count,” she says with a laugh. “But it still feels special every time. You can see that there's often a lot of joy, but also a lot of fear and uncertainty about what their life will hold for them here.”
The father she’s here to meet, Mykola Salamakha, 56, is a Protestant pastor. The family faced religious persecution as conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalated in recent years. Salamakha traveled here with his wife Nataliya Salamakha and daughter, together with his son Dmytro Salamakha, 30, and his wife Vira Salamakha and child.
This past week was a gut-punch for refugee families and resettlement agencies across the country. On January 27, an executive order from President Trump immediately halted all refugees coming in to the U.S. and some refugees were turned away from American airports.
Days later, federal officials announced nearly 900 exceptions for people who’d already been cleared to resettle here. Then on February 3, a court ruling in Seattle re-authorized refugee arrivals to start up again, at least for the time being.
The Salamakha family would make their way to the U.S. during this tenuous legal window.
It’s nearly midnight, and the Salamakha flight landed a half hour ago. Revells starts to look worried. Since the executive order, "business as usual" is a thing of the past.
There’s also uncertainty ahead for people like Revells who work with new refugees.
“It’s definitely a pretty devastating time for us,” she says.
President Trump’s executive order put a four month pause on refugee resettlement. That’s now in flux and will play out in court for a while. The administration argues the order is in the interest of national security, while opponents say the ban amounts to religious discrimination.
The president’s order also cuts the annual number of refugees allowed to come to the U.S. by more than half.
“It's really hard to imagine — for myself and for my team — this not being our day to day,” Revells says. “I am sad that this is the last [flight] that I know of for a long time.”
Some relatives of this Ukrainian family arrive to wait with us. They stand out in the nearly empty airport, with flowers and mylar balloons that display the American flag with the slogan, "Welcome to America." It looks like a mini Fourth of July party.
It turns out three sisters are here to meet Mykola.
“I didn't see him 24 years,” says Anna Salamakha in a think accent. She was the first of her family to come to the U.S., along with her father.
She says the last week was a rollercoaster of waiting and wondering.
“Yeah, first of all they told them that the flight was already full, and you going to wait two or three more months,” Anna says. “And later on they call and say, ‘we will try to make one more group.’ We are so lucky.”
“Yeah it’s so amazing how God did that,” chimes in her younger sister, Marina Salamakha, whose tight curls spill out of a bun atop her head.
“People live there very hard,” Marina says in a matter-of-fact tone. “They don’t have enough food, they don’t have enough money. I don't know how people survive there.”
“There are no jobs,” Anna adds. “We were sending them dry foods because they didn't have money to buy food. Their refrigerator was empty.”
“I tell him to come, because the war started,” Marina says. “And I tell him you have to come…”
She stops mid-sentence as she sees Mykola’s family in the distance.
“Oh, they are here they are!” she announces, her voice slightly rising and her face beaming.
Mykola arrives, all smiles, and they all exchange hugs and pose for a round of group photos. Someone ties balloons on the toddler’s stroller, and she tugs at them with a quiet laugh.
“It’s hard to believe that we came to America,” Mykola says, as his sister interprets for him. “It seems like we came just to visit.”
His son Dmytros says he’s dreamed of this for a long time.
“Of course I want to get a job, but what is a job?” he says. “We don't know yet.”
He looks at his daughter, still playing with the balloons. He has big dreams for her life here, too. “The very best,” he says. “I hope for the very best."
Mykola's sisters start to rush everyone toward the exit. It’s time to go now. Everybody is here now.
“The whole family is together,” Anna says. “We feel very blessed.”
But they confide this reunion comes with a tinge of sadness. Mykola’s resettlement process took more than two years, with all the paperwork and screenings. They’d hoped it would come through in time for Mykola to see his elderly father. But time ran out. His father passed away a few months ago.
Tired from their journey, the Salamakha family heads home, where a light meal is waiting. A bigger feast is planned for the next day.
Then later they plan to meet more people who came here like they did due to past conflict and turmoil in Ukraine. In recent years, Ukrainian refugees have been one of the top groups to resettle in Washington state.