Reporter’s Notebook: Amid Laughter and Tears, Ukrainians Wait at Mexico-US Border
It is more than 10,000 kilometers from Medyka, the Polish border city that is a first stop for many Ukrainian refugees, to Tijuana, Mexico, where more than 1,700 Ukrainians are waiting for a chance to cross into the United States.
“They’re arriving as tourists,” says Enrique Lucero Vásquez, the municipal director of migrant care in Tijuana, with whom I spoke in a sports complex that has been repurposed to receive the Ukrainian families.
About 400 people are already housed at the center, where they spend one to two nights before being escorted to the border crossing and admitted by the U.S. Border Patrol.
In 2018 I was in this same place, in an even more congested courtyard, but instead of Ukrainians it was packed with Central American migrants who had journeyed north in a series of caravans. The process this time is as different as the circumstances that led the people to flee their homelands.
As in Medyka — where I reported before coming to Tijuana — many of the refugees are separated from husbands, parents or children. I remember the pain in the face of Yulia Usik, a mother of children aged 4 and 5, when we spoke at the Przemysl train station in Poland.
Through tears, she repeated the words of her husband who had stayed in Ukraine to fight: “He promised that he would come back for us.”
Now history is repeating itself. This time it is at the San Ysidro checkpoint, where Ukrainian volunteers have set up chairs for people waiting to cross, that a mother of a 4-year-old girl and a 5-month-old girl talks to me with the help of a translation phone app.
Without revealing her name, the woman explains that on the first day of the war, after the first bombing, she decided to leave Ukraine. She arrived with her daughters in Poland where she has a sister and after three weeks decided to try to reach the United States, where another sister is living in Springfield, Missouri.
She traveled to Cancun with her daughters, her two sisters and her 56-year-old mother, who sits nearby with a scarf covering her head and a Ukrainian passport in her hand. In the midst of the people and the noise of construction at the border, the woman stares at the horizon, lost in thought.
According to the older daughter, the family has left four men behind in Ukraine to fight the Russian invaders.
Apart from the sports complex, a tent city has sprung up where about 800 refugees spend the night before traveling by municipal bus to the border crossing. Ukrainian volunteers provide security, food and amusement for the children who run around chasing soap bubbles.
Day and night, the cars line up to cross into San Ysidro, California, beckoned by the American hills visible behind the border wall. Voices rise in Russian and Ukrainian, though the laughter and tears of the children recognize no language barriers.
Lucero, the municipal director of migrant care in Tijuana, tells me the sports complex was opened for the refugees because the tent camp near the Tijuana-San Ysidro crossing had become too crowded.
He acknowledges that the city has responded more quickly to this crisis than to the usual flow of migrants from Central America, Haiti and more remote parts of Mexico. For those, the city maintains another 25 shelters where some have waited for almost two years for a change in American policy that will permit them to seek asylum in the U.S.
He also says some of these Ukrainian refugees have more resources than the Central Americans; some have even been staying in local hotels in the city.
Upon arrival in Tijuana, the refugees are registered by volunteers and placed on a waiting list, explains white-coated Gilberto, who prefers not to provide his surname. We speak in an improvised medical care center in the Ukrainian camp.
“I arrived two weeks ago, before I helped with transportation from the airport, to here or to the other side, but then I came here to help with the medical side,” he says. “Here they are on a priority list, those who came before are here, those who came after stay in the gymnasium, they are gradually moving to the line, but in an orderly manner.”
The coordination of all activities — arrival, transportation, registration, lodging and delivery to the Border Patrol — is managed by a mixed group of volunteers that includes representatives of The Light of the World Church in Sacramento, California, and Calvary Church in San Diego.
The volunteers are deeply committed to ensuring that the families are not only cared for but are quickly admitted into the United States.
To do this, they created a phone app that allows them not only to be registered on a list that will be presented to the Border Patrol, but also to maintain an orderly flow of people through the pedestrian checkpoint.
Anastasiya Polovin, a Ukrainian native now living in Orange County in the Los Angeles area, has left the music academy that she runs to assist her compatriots. Speaking to me in the sports complex, she stresses the importance of providing the refugees with hot food, showers and other basic comforts.
But she says, even more urgent is to speed up the process of admitting them into the United States under a humanitarian exception to normal admission procedures that is not available to most other migrants arriving at the border.
Polovin insists that the humanitarian exception should be available not only here in Tijuana after long journeys and considerable expense. Advocates for the refugees want the government to allow them to fly directly into the United States from Europe.
Polovin shares that she is originally from the besieged southern city of Mikolaiv, where Ukrainian forces halted the Russian advance toward Odesa. “I have lost many people I know,” she says.
Even so, she says, six of her relatives have recently made it into the United States and will join her mother who is already in California. Ironically, one of them was turned down for refugee status in the U.S. two years ago.
“It was not until the war began that he was guaranteed access,” she says.