January 13, 2023
Permission to work boosts local refugees in resettlement
Matt Benoit

English language classes are just one important step for many refugees aspiring to secure jobs and integrate into a new home; Evergreen Goodwill in Bellingham is among services offering such courses. (Matt Benoit photo © 2022)

January 13, 2023
Permission to work boosts local refugees in resettlement
Matt Benoit

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Yuliia Malachynska never dreamed of trading a life in Ukraine for one in the United States. 

But today, the 26-year-old Ukrainian is figuring out her future here, nearly nine months after arriving in Whatcom County. So far, she has a place to live, a car and friends. But until a few weeks ago, she couldn’t get a job: she was waiting for a work authorization card from the federal government. 

Delays in the permitting process have greatly affected those who’ve fled Afghanistan and Ukraine in recent months. Designated as “humanitarian parolees” by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), people such as Malachynska weren’t officially considered refugees who could otherwise be cleared to find work. 

In November, following an Illinois lawsuit, the USCIS announced a new 90-day grace period allowing those with humanitarian parole status immediate job-seeking abilities.  

Lost opportunity

While Malachynska is happy that others won’t have to wait for a permit like she did, it’s of little consolation to her personally. 

Yuliia Malachynska never imagined a life in the U.S. until faced with the need to leave her native Ukraine after it was invaded by Russia. (Courtesy photo)

After legally entering the U.S. through the southern border in April, Malachynska made her way to Ukrainian friends living in the Whatcom County Paradise neighborhood north of Kendall. Within a week, she began taking English classes through Whatcom County’s Evergreen Goodwill, which provides free job training and education classes to immigrants and others in-need. 

Malachynska found herself learning aboard Goodwill’s digital-equity bus, a mobile classroom equipped with laptops, wi-fi and other digital learning tools. She took initial classes alongside other immigrants, many of them also Ukrainian. 

Currently, the Whatcom County Goodwill is serving 24 students who identify their home country as Ukraine, said Ryan Hodges, communications specialist for Evergreen Goodwill. Another two students are from Afghanistan. 

As Malachynska advanced through English courses, she also took advantage of Goodwill’s job training help to update her resume for American employers. Back in Ternopil, the western Ukrainian city where she’d lived, Malachynska had a stable job with an international technology company; first in customer service, then in sales. 

While colleagues who fled to other European countries were able to continue working for the company remotely, Malachynska found herself too many time zones away to continue. She initially lived for free with her friends before moving into a nearby rental house with two roommates.

Malachynska sought résumé help in June, the same month she filled out her form to receive a work permit. She learned of a job opening at the Mount Vernon Goodwill as a digital navigator — a position connecting people like herself to Goodwill’s computer and internet-related services. 

Though both parties wanted each other, she didn’t have a work permit so the position went to somebody else. 

“This position was open for a long time,” she said. “They were waiting for me for months.”

A world of relief

Without a job, making rent was possible for Malachynska only through short-term rental assistance from World Relief Western Washington (WRWW), a federally-recognized resettlement agency with an office in Bellingham.  (See “Refugee resettlement in Whatcom works to meet growing needs,” Salish Current, April 1, 2022.)

Steven Shetterly, the office’s resettlement manager, said they’ve resettled 56 people since opening in October 2021, including 31 from Afghanistan. Others have come from places including Guatemala, Syria, Sudan and El Salvador, and more will arrive in 2023. 

To help with housing, school enrollment, legal services, English classes or even getting furniture, World Relief receives federal dollars to ease the transition of resettlement in someone’s first 90 days. 

More than 200 Ukrainians have arrived in Whatcom County via various means since Russia’s invasion began last February, Shetterly added. Many have congregated in the Kendall-Maple Falls and Ferndale areas, with smaller numbers in Blaine and Bellingham. 

Ukrainians arrived via various means including through the U.S.-Mexico border and USCIS’s Uniting for Ukraine program, he said. 

World Relief also gets funding from Preferred Communities, a program from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. That funding allows the Whatcom County office to help with rents and purchasing household goods, as well as the hiring of part-time workers who speak Russian and Ukrainian, Shetterly said. (Not all World Relief services are available in Whatcom County. Classes in English are available in King County; legal services are available at their Kent office.}

World Relief also recently contracted with Whatcom County for funds from a Washington State Department of Commerce grant to help the same populations Preferred Communities targets for help, he added. 

Long waits for work approval

Despite all this, World Relief was not able to help with the work permitting process, which takes place solely at the federal level. 

The frustrations of long waits for approval were felt deeply among those World Relief has assisted, Shetterly said.  Some even had to personally pay the $400 application fee for their work permits, as World Relief’s federal funding couldn’t be used for that purpose. 

“They all wanted to work, they all needed to support their families and support themselves, and the fact that they couldn’t do that was deeply frustrating to them,” he said. “There was nothing more we could do to help them, other than to say, ‘Please be patient, and we’ll try and assist you with rent and other items until then’.”

Goodwill case managers like Graciela Gomez also did their part.

Gomez, who works one-on-one with Goodwill students to help them achieve their goals, said she connected them to local food bank resources, hot meal programs and affordable internet options. They also utilized Toys for Tots so children of students could have Christmas presents. 

“None of these services solve the root cause of their need, but it’s what we can do to supplement their lives in the meantime,” Gomez said. 

Looking ahead

There is no telling today how or when the war in Ukraine will end. 

If it ended tomorrow with victory for her homeland, Malachynska said she would probably go back. 

“Life in your [own] country is easier, because you know how to live there,” she said. “Here, everything is new.”

Some of her family — grandparents, cousins and a 61-year-old father who tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Ukrainian army — remain behind. Her mother and brother moved to Italy in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

While life in Ukraine before the war was good, Malachynska said she doesn’t believe most of the young people who’ve fled will ever return once they adapt living elsewhere. 

Her adaptation consists of attempting a move to the Everett area; she currently splits her time between Paradise and friends in Everett, searching for both an apartment and a job there. 

Making friends is a vital part of settling in to a new home, as are finding work and a place to live. Ukrainian refugee Yuliia Malachynska (fifth from left) gathers with friends – many of whom also are from Ukraine — in Whatcom County’s Paradise Valley. (Courtesy photo Yuliia Malachynska)

“It’s a very important goal for me now,” she said of heading south. “I want to move there because there are more people, more young people, more friends.”

Finding an Everett rental has proven difficult given her situation, as many property management companies insist on credit scores, co-signers or utility bill proof of former residences — all of which a recent immigrant is unlikely to have. 

Still, Malachynska has a positive outlook. Now able to search for work, she’d like to do something she genuinely loves and finds purpose in, she said. While her current English skills may not yet be good enough for customer service positions like the one she had back home, she said she’s more than willing to learn new skills. An industry like property management, she said, could be a way for her to help other immigrants find housing. 

“I need to practice English,” she said. “I’d like to work with English people and be useful for Ukrainians and Russians in my language. I think that this would be the best decision.”

For refugees who will soon find themselves in Malachynska’s shoes, the new 90-day work rule is a welcome change that will likely make a difference in the resettlement process. 

Policy limitations

But even so, Shetterly said there are still limits to what the policy provides. 

Asylum seekers and undocumented migrants aren’t covered by it, and for those who are, issues may now arise later instead of immediately.  

When the 90-day period is up, an employer must still verify that workers have valid government-issued work documents — which means that if permits still take four months to acquire, immigrants may find themselves temporarily out of work until a permit is issued. 

The process now seems to be moving faster for most people, Shetterly said. Those who came when the war began via the Mexican border have waited the longest, for unknown reasons, he added.  

But despite prior work permit frustrations, World Relief has still been a significant help to those fleeing untenable situations in their homelands. 

“We’ve been able to get a number of people into housing who wouldn’t have been able to get into housing, and we’ve been able to furnish their apartments and at least get them the basics of what they’ve going to need to live here,” Shetterly said. “People have been very grateful for that.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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