Ukrainians flee to Mexico in attempt to reach US

More than 3,000 Ukrainians have entered the US from Tijuana, Mexico since the war started

Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine

Sandra Fominova, 21, a Ukrainian refugee, sits on a rubber mat in a Mexican gymnasium that is being used as a shelter 10,000 kilometres from her home and family in the suburbs of Kyiv.

She is one of thousands of Ukrainians who have travelled to Tijuana, a bustling frontier city a few kilometres south of San Diego in California, in the hopes of crossing into the US.

The university student was on holiday by herself in Israel when Russian forces invaded her homeland on February 24. She watched in horror as one of the world’s most powerful militaries attacked Ukraine.

Within weeks, a Russian missile had struck her childhood home, she said. Her family had already fled.

“I feel emotional when I start talking about them,” Ms Fominova said, her voice wavering. “I worry about them a lot.”

Her parents chose to stay in Ukraine. Her mother moved to the relative safety of the western part of the country, while her father joined the territorial defence forces, Ukraine's civilian army.

Ms Fominova communicates with her mother through a near-constant stream of texts and phone calls. But reaching her father is harder – he messages only occasionally to let her know he is all right.

After more than a month in Israel, with Ukraine still engulfed in war, Ms Fominova chose to try to get to the US, where she has a cousin who lives in California.

“I understood that it's really hard being alone and I understood that it's impossible, when there is no person near you who can support you and understand what you are going through,” she told The National.

Unable to fly directly to the US because of visa restrictions, she took five planes to reach Tijuana, where she will stay until she can cross the border.

The US may offer refuge but it is not where she wants to be.

“It is just another place for me to stay that is not my home,” she said.

More than 4.6 million Ukrainians have fled since Russia’s invasion, according to the United Nations, while an additional seven million people have been displaced within the country, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

President Joe Biden's administration has said it will take in 100,000 Ukrainians, but has offered scant details since making the announcement last month.

While Ukrainians can not enter the US without a visa, Mexico has no such requirement. Over the past month, thousands of Ukrainians have arrived in hopes of entering the US by land.

Between 600 and 800 Ukrainians are arriving into Mexico every day, according to Enrique Lucero, who is in charge of migrant services for the city of Tijuana.

In the space of only a few weeks, a crush of Ukrainian refugees has arrived in a city already inundated by Central American migrants hoping to enter the US.

“Tijuana is a migrant city,” Mr Lucero said. “Our door is open for all migrants, whether they are here to live or only to transit through.”

Migrant communities in Tijuana have quickly grown frustrated by what they see as a double standard.

Ukrainian refugees are being fast-tracked into the US, while migrants of other nationalities stay stuck in cramped living conditions waiting for their asylum applications to wind through US courts.

Many have been waiting for years.

“We feel there is a little bit of injustice,” said Albert Rivera, president of Agape Mission Mundial, which houses migrant women and children in Tijuana.

Mr Rivera said he feels for the Ukrainian refugees and is glad they are getting the help they need, but he said the same treatment and care has not been afforded to migrants, many of whom fled cartel violence and life-threatening situations in their homelands.

Volunteers flock to Mexico to help

Tijuana authorities are now housing many of the refugees in a sprawling sports complex along the border fence, although initially they set up camps.

Dozens of Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Americans have descended on both sides of the border to help the refugees.

In Tijuana, volunteers have banded together to provide security, food, transport and logistical help.

Anastasiya Polo, a Ukrainian who has lived in the US for 13 years, put her life on hold in Orange County, California.

“Everything started from nothing,” said the music school director. “We just came and saw what was going on and decided to stay.”

At first she slept in her car, while she and a handful of other volunteers divided up tasks and figured out how best to help.

Many of the refugees arrived with just a small suitcase, so Ms Polo helped them to find clothes and blankets and even plastic mattresses to make life in the camp a little more comfortable.

“We built a huge city, with tents, with a kitchen, with a medical department,” she told The National.

On a warm Sunday, inside the Unidad Deportiva Benito Juarez Sports Complex, children scramble up and down slides. Two men play basketball, and hundreds of people crowd under a tent seeking shade.

Karina Konotopets, 27, sits in a folding camping chair and chats with two friends. She has been on the move since the war began. Her home city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, was right on Russia’s path to Kyiv and came under immediate bombardment.

She fled to her grandparents' house in a nearby village but the Russians soon followed and were eventually within a kilometre of where she was staying.

“There were a lot of bombings,” she said. “We could see the fires from Chernihiv from our window.”

She and her brother piled into a car and headed for Belarus. It was a perilous journey filled with detours and close calls.

“We were lucky. I mean, we had some adventures on the way, but in the end, we were both safe,” she told The National.

From Belarus she went to Poland, where the rest of her family eventually followed.

Her parents and siblings went to Austria but she decided to try her luck in the US. After two days sleeping in the camp, she was finally allowed to cross the border.

Now, after six weeks on the move, she is in Los Angeles, which she hopes to call home, while she waits for her country to emerge from the wreckage of war.

On Monday, Ms Fominova, the student who had been in Israel, crossed into the US and took a plane to her cousin in Sacramento, California.

“I still need to realise where I am and how I got here, but I feel a bit relieved that the first part – and the most most difficult one I hope – of my journey has come to an end,” she told The National by text message.

Like millions of her compatriots, Ms Fominova is happy to be safe – but desperate to go home.

Updated: April 15, 2022, 1:05 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS