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These Refugee Grandparents Were Finally Allowed To Flee Ukraine — Then Trump’s Order Stopped Them

Trump’s executive order also halted the country’s refugee program entirely for 120 days, leaving 20,000 people from all over the world in limbo.

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Yuri Karpenko expected his wife's parents to arrive in Seattle from eastern Ukraine in two weeks' time.

Instead, on Monday, he got a phone call telling him that George and Larisa Gabliya, granted refugee status by the US in November 2016, would not be coming. They, like an estimated 20,000 others, had been blocked from entering the country by President Donald Trump's executive order halting the refugee program for 120 days.

“It’s awful, especially because they are older parents, they are not young anymore,” Karpenko told BuzzFeed News. "They want some kind of security in their life, and right now they don’t have any security, or even a place to live."

Karpenko said his father and mother-in-law were granted admission into the US as refugees in November 2016, fleeing religious persecution and the conflict in Ukraine.

They began to prepare, and as required by Ukrainian law, they gave up their Ukrainian identification — and were left with their passport — resigned from their jobs, and sold their apartment before their anticipated departure (their passport only allows for international travel, which they do not have the ability to do, for visa and financial reasons). They are now stuck in Kharkiv, Ukraine. They’re jobless, without a place to live, and without the ability to travel outside of the country. They will be without these safeguards for at least the next four months until — and if — the ban is lifted.

“My wife was crying the whole day yesterday,” Karpenko said. "It’s hard, especially because it was just two weeks away. It’s like a stab in the back."

In addition to the seven Muslim-majority countries listed in the visa ban and halt of the refugee program, many more people from countries around the world have also been adversely affected. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but on Monday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that up to 20,000 people have been affected by Trump’s executive order.

The United Nations estimates that up to 10,000 Ukrainians have died and up to 1.7 million have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in the country, which began when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and then began supporting separatist rebels in the nation’s east. Karpenko said his in-laws live about 40 to 50 miles from the fighting and "have seen all the air force and tanks going through their city."

A year after the conflict began, in 2015, Ukrainian refugees didn't make the top 10 list of those admitted into the US by origin country. By 2016, that number increased sharply, placing Ukraine seventh on that list, accounting for 2,543 refugees admitted into the US.

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The Seattle chapter alone of World Relief, an international nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the US, was expecting around 90 refugees from Ukraine, including George and Larisa Gabliya, in February.

For Lidija Rudenky, the resettlement director of World Relief Seattle, the ban is personal. She was once a refugee from Ukraine, fleeing religious persecution, and was admitted into the US in 1989, after more than a decade of waiting.

Rudenky called 36 families on Monday, informing each one that their loved ones would not be arriving in February. Some took the news calmly, others cried, and asked who they could complain to. By the end of the day, she said, she had lost her voice.

“Honestly, I could not speak, and I could not sleep last night,” Rudenky said, her voice distraught and trembling, on the verge of crying. “It affected me so much.”

Ukrainians, she added, “are the most vulnerable. They are already refugees in their own country.”

“America has been good to me and I want others to see the goodness in America,” Rudenky said. “But,” she said of the ban, “this was ill-conceived, to say the least.”

Talal Ansari is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is 4FEE 894C 8088 7E08 E170 A515 2801 7CC6 95D3 11C2

Contact Talal Ansari at talal.ansari@buzzfeed.com.

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