Opinion: Why welcoming Ukrainians and allowing them to work helps Alaska

By Dasha Pearson

Shortly after Russia started bombing the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, I begged my father and older sister to leave immediately. “If you can get to Warsaw,” I told them. “We can get you a flight to Seattle and meet you there.” Nearly 10 days later—after walking in the freezing cold amid raining missile shells and riding a train in the pitch black so the bombers couldn’t see it — they made it to Poland and soon boarded a plane to safety.

My family members were extremely lucky. A few years ago, they’d attended my wedding and still had time on their visas. Now, my American husband and I were able to welcome them into our home in Sitka and into our wonderful generous community. They’re grateful for our hospitality, but they’ve made it clear: Their hearts are in Ukraine. Once the war ends, they intend to go home to a sovereign nation. The problem is no one knows when that will be.

That’s why I’m calling on the United States to offer humanitarian visas for Ukrainians fleeing the war. Allowing some of them to temporarily relocate to America is one way we can share the global responsibility for protecting these innocent people who have been driven from their homes. I welcome President Joe Biden’s pledge that the U.S. would resettle 100,000 refugees, but most Ukrainians I know hope to return eventually. That’s why they should be allowed to stay here for several years and have the right to work.

The benefits are clear: Such a program would give Ukrainians fleeing the war the peace of mind they desperately need, would relieve the financial pressure on their hosts, and could help alleviate labor shortages in Alaska and across the Lower 48. We’re hardworking people who could fill entry-level jobs in manufacturing, hospitality, food service and retail, while learning English. We’re also an educated workforce with experience in fields that are struggling—like healthcare and construction. Ukrainian students who have had their studies disrupted by the war could be a good fit for the White House’s new program that allows them to study and later train here for up to three years.

Yet for now, many Ukrainians who are stranded in neighboring European countries only have the option of applying for tourist visas to the United States. Not only are they extremely difficult to get – according to this report, interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw aren’t even available until September—but these visas don’t help them in the long term. Most tourist visas are good for only six months, and they don’t allow visitors the chance to work.

The right to employment—including a pathway to convert their professional licenses to meet American standards—would help them earn income and keep up their skills during such a difficult time in their lives. Finally, Ukrainians who can stay and work here will be able to save money to help rebuild their country. I’ve been devastated watching the suffering of my people and the destruction of my beautiful hometown.

What’s particularly hard is seeing our progress obliterated. My family wants to return home because Ukraine had become such a nice place to live. The economy was booming, and many people were rightly proud of supporting the budding democracy and building the civic institutions that are the bedrock of peace and stability.

I know deep in my heart Ukraine will rise again. But in the meantime, I urge the U.S. to offer a pathway for people like my family to find shelter in our country, and be able to contribute their time and talents to our shared progress.

• Dasha Pearson is a health care professional and resident of Sitka. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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