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Thousands of Ukrainian refugees arrive at U.S.-Mexico Border

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country have begun arriving in the United States. Many are doing so by traveling to Mexico's northern border and asking U.S. immigration agents to let them in on humanitarian grounds. NPR's Adrian Florido traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, where thousands of Ukrainians have landed in just the past few days.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: So many Ukrainians have arrived in Tijuana this week that the city's government turned a sports complex into a makeshift shelter, cots and roll-up mattresses everywhere. Yesterday hundreds of people were waiting for their turn to take a shuttle to the border crossing with San Diego and ask to be let in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

IRYNA MEREZHKO: Nineteen eighty-three - 1983.

FLORIDO: Your number is...

MEREZHKO: Two-two-two-one.

FLORIDO: Iryna Merezhko has been at the shelter for two days. Earlier this week, she flew from her home in Los Angeles to Warsaw, Poland, and then took a train into Ukraine, where she met her sister and her sister's 14-year-old son, Ivan. Her sister is staying to support Ukrainian troops, but she wanted her son to come to the U.S. until the war is over.

MEREZHKO: We told him it will be like a long summer vacation break in California.

FLORIDO: As they said goodbye, everyone, including Ivan, understood that to be more of a hope.

MEREZHKO: If be honest, it can be last goodbye between us, yeah. You know, it was really difficult, yeah.

FLORIDO: Moreschko decided to come through Mexico when she learned the easiest way to get Yvonne into the U.S. was to show up at the border and request humanitarian admission for a year, newly available to Ukrainians. On their final flight into Tijuana, Almost every other passenger was Ukrainian. Olya Krasnykh is one of the volunteers running this shelter. She says the number of Ukrainians arriving at this border city has ballooned faster than anyone had expected.

OLYA KRASNYKH: Six days ago, it was 350.

FLORIDO: In one day.

KRASNYKH: In one day. And the last three days, we were right about a thousand.

FLORIDO: A thousand people arriving at in Tijuana airport every day.

KRASNYKH: With Ukrainian passports, yeah, waiting to cross into the United States. Yep.

FLORIDO: Kresnic is a real estate executive in Silicon Valley. But like many Ukrainian Americans, when she learned that Ukrainians were arriving in Tijuana, she dropped everything and came down to help. They found a growing tent city near the border, so they worked with Tijuana officials to set up this shelter and with immigration agents to take 50 people at a time to the border. But Ukrainians are still arriving much faster than agents can process them.

KRASNYKH: And that our grassroot volunteer effort just cannot scale to keep up.

FLORIDO: She says this effort needs help from a large nonprofit. For now, it's taking two to three days for a newly arrived Ukrainian to be led into the U.S. That's a lot faster than people from Latin American countries who've been waiting months to get in. Still, some Ukrainians have been traveling to other border cities, hoping to get in faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: At the shelter, the mood is a mix of Mexican hospitality mingled with trays of Ukrainian food, along with the anxiety of war-rattled families. Aleksey Ivkov drove from north of San Francisco to meet his 74-year-old mother, Tatiana. She spent weeks determined to ride the war out in a subway tunnel in the city of Kharkiv, before her son was able to convince her to come to Tijuana. When he picked her up, he noticed the PTSD right away.

ALEKSEY IVKOV: Because we came out an airport. It was some trucks stopping, and it was just loud noise. And she was like, oh, My God, what's going on?

FLORIDO: Even so, she's already thinking of her return home to Ukraine.

TATIANA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

IVKOV: As soon as it's going to quiet down a little bit, she will try to go back, basically.

FLORIDO: For now, she's cheerful, she says, excited for the big family party, her grandkids waiting for her in California. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Tijuana, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.