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One year after start of Ukrainian war, Washtenaw County reflects on local refugee resettlement efforts

Refugees fleeing conflict from Ukraine arrive at Zahony, Hungary on Sunday.
Anna Szilagyi
Refugees fleeing conflict from Ukraine.


Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU FM. I'm Cathy Shafran. Today marks the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, and it's a war that has seen millions of people fleeing the country and many coming here to Washtenaw County as refugees. Today, we talked to two women who are involved with the resettlement of those refugees. One: Mira Sussman, resource development manager with Jewish Family Services. And the other: Daria Rothe. She is the former president of the Ukrainian National Women's League of America, the branch based here in Washtenaw County. At age 12, she herself was a Ukrainian refugee, leaving in 1949 and eventually arriving in the United States. Thanks for being with us, Daria.

Daria Rothe: Oh, you're very welcome.

Cathy Shafran: I'm curious. From your perspective, from your vantage point as a Ukrainian refugee yourself, as you've encountered those who are now fleeing the war in Ukraine over the past year, are you finding similarities in their stories from your story?

Daria Rothe: You are basically estranged. And I think that that's one of...and you have nothing. You have no money. You have no position. You are zero, basically.

Cathy Shafran: When you hear their stories as they have fled Ukraine, does it trigger memories of similar stories that you experienced?

Daria Rothe: Yeah. I mean, you know, we lived through World War Two, and you had a similar situation. Killing machines have not changed that much. So, you know, you have you have explosions. You have places being destroyed. You don't know what the next day will bring. That doesn't really change.

Cathy Shafran: You've had the opportunity to interact with many of the refugees coming from Ukraine over the past year, most of them women and children. When you meet with them and talk to them, what do they share with you? What are their concerns?

Daria Rothe: Well, their basic concern is isolation. I mean, you have connection. You have human connections wherever you are, and these are cut off. Your economic situation changes drastically. Your position, as far as whatever you were, you were teaching somewhere, the university route. That's not happening. You were a physician somewhere. Yes, you have to just start from the beginning.

Cathy Shafran: What are their fears? What are their thoughts?

Daria Rothe: Well, they have mothers they left behind. Husbands they left behind. Apartments or condos or houses that they left behind, some are no longer standing. Some people cannot, you know, get in contact with their relatives. So, that's another horrible thing. You don't know what's happening.

Cathy Shafran: Do they speak about the war itself?

Daria Rothe: A couple of women that I talked to who are the younger woman said, "Yes, of course, we knew that this was going to happen." And that it just went in stages. First of all, there was Crimea, and everybody was so enthralled with the Olympic Games. Nobody really cared about anything except isn't this wonderful, this stadium and the other stadium and the third stadium. And I think it was, you know, I saw it coming.

Cathy Shafran: And what is the hardest part of them being here?

Daria Rothe: Here, in Ann Arbor, you have several women who are at the Weiser Center continuing to do research that they were doing while they were in Ukraine. Not everybody is that lucky. There are many, many people who have nothing to go to and have to start to go from scratch. You are trained to be this and you are trained to be that, and, all of a sudden, there is nothing for you there. It's a very difficult thing to face.

Cathy Shafran: Mira Sussman is the resource development manager with the Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. What can you tell us about what Jewish Family Services were seeing as the war broke out and the need that was created from those fleeing the country?

Mira Sussman: When the war started, we started hearing more anecdotally from members of the community who were desperate to bring their family members to the United States and were trying to figure out how to do so safely and legally. We heard a lot of families coming with women and children, a lot of trauma, a lot of uncertainty. A lot of that uncertainty remains.

Cathy Shafran: What is the total number of Ukrainian refugees that have arrived in Washtenaw County?

Mira Sussman: We know about roughly a hundred folks who are in Washtenaw County. And we expect more people to be arriving in the next year. There is a pipeline, and there's a lot of people that we expect to see coming in the next year. The truth is, when this war started, nobody knew how long it was going to last. A lot of us thought it was going to be a few months. And now that we're hitting the one-year mark, it's looking like it's a much more long-term situation. So, we're having to change our approach, and a lot of the sponsors who are helping their friends and relatives come--they're having to change. Everything is sort of evolving.

Cathy Shafran: Is there housing available for the 100 or so who have come to Washtenaw County?

Mira Sussman: It's slow. It takes a while. A lot of folks are staying in their friend's living rooms, sleeping in mattresses on the floor. That's happening a lot. But there is, eventually, most people...eventually, everyone that I know of so far has found a place to stay. Either their sponsor helped them or JFS helped them.

Cathy Shafran: And what about the children?

Mira Sussman: Well, the children have been enrolled in school. A lot of them are learning English. I've met a bunch of kids at a Ukrainian community picnic a couple weeks ago, and they looked really happy to be with their peers. A lot of them spoke English, very brokenly, but better than I speak Ukrainian. And they looked like they're adjusting as well as they could be adjusting.

Cathy Shafran: I'm assuming that you had the opportunity to speak with their parents. Do they tell you stories of a longing to want to go back home?

Mira Sussman: Honestly, the biggest thing that I'm hearing from adults is terror and uncertainty. They just don't know what's going to come next. And they're living sort of day by day. Everyone is completely traumatized. Everyone is longing for home, appreciating the peace and security that they have here in Washtenaw County, unsure if they would have that if they went back home. Everyone still refers to it as home. Ukraine is still home.

Cathy Shafran: And what lies ahead for them? You said it looks like there might be more refugees coming from Ukraine. Is that what you're looking at? At least through Jewish Family Services and the resettlement program, is that what you're preparing for?

Mira Sussman: Absolutely. So, recently, the federal government announced the welcoming program, Welcoming Corps program, and it's expecting to serve about 100,000 people. It's unclear how long it'll take to serve that many people. There's a lot of details that are still coming out. But the federal government has made very clear that we're going to expect a lot more people. One of the things that's really new that the federal government is unrolling is private sponsorship. Private sponsorship means a small group of individuals or a church or a book club or a group of neighbors. They can come together, raise a little bit of money, and support a family who wants to come to the United States. This is a relatively new initiative. It's only been going on for about two years. And so, we don't really know how many people will wind up in Michigan or in Washtenaw County through private sponsorship. We do want these private sponsorship groups to reach out to us. We have some resources. We can help them organize. It's a lot easier for them if they know what to expect and what the resources are locally. So, we really want them to talk to us. Come to us. We have a clothing closet. We were able to help them with that, with personal hygiene items, and with lots of support and resources, referrals and information. The hardest need that really nobody has been able to solve is housing. The housing shortage is awful for everybody. For newcomers, it's even harder because they often don't have appropriate documentation, even when they're here legally. And they don't have proof of income. They don't have a Social Security card. They don't have a credit history. So, landlords don't really feel like they can rent to them. And so, finding housing has consistently been the biggest need and challenge. Can I add one more thing?

Cathy Shafran: Please.

Mira Sussman: So, Jewish Family Services has been partnering with local churches and synagogues to sponsor families. We call it the Co-sponsorship Program. We work together with these congregations to support newcomers and refugee families. And there's an expansion of that program. There's a lot of opportunities for locals to support newcomers and really get involved. And we would love to talk with anybody who's interested. They can go to our website: www.jfsannarbor.org. All one word. And they can call us 734-769-0209. We'd love to talk with them.

Cathy Shafran: Mira Sussman, resource development manager at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. Daria Rothe, Ukrainian National Women's League of America branch 50 in Washtenaw County. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is 89. WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County

Ukrainian National Women's League of America (UNWLA)

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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