Steven V. Roberts: Welcoming the Ukrainian refugees

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 11, 2022

Avram Rogowsky grew up in Bialystok, then a part of the Russian Empire and now in Poland, near its eastern border with Belarus. In 1914, he escaped from the czar’s army, boarded a ship for Palestine and planned to send for his betrothed, Miriam Wasilsky.

When Avram finally reached the Holy Land, however, he found a deeply unsettled political landscape, unfit for a new bride. So he sent Miriam a message: Change of plans, meet me in Brooklyn. Two years later, they had a son named Wilfred. He was my father.

Harry Schanbam was raised in Grodno, a city just 45 miles east of Bialystok in what is now Belarus. A fiery socialist in his youth, Harry evaded persecution by the Russian Cossacks, wound up in Bayonne, New Jersey, and married Sadie Meltzer, whose family came from a village near Grodno. Their third child was named Dorothy. She was my mother.

This ancestry explains why I feel so strongly about the refugees now fleeing Ukraine as the modern incarnation of the czar, Vladimir the Violator, invades their homeland. At least 2 million are already on the move, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and more will be displaced every day.

Most of those refugees will want to stay in Europe, with the hope of returning home eventually. But there are already more than 1 million Americans of Ukrainian descent — my hometown of Bayonne has two Ukrainian churches — and those exiles who want to join them should be welcomed warmly.

The Biden administration has announced it will grant “temporary protected status” to Ukrainian nationals now in this country, which means they can stay and work for 18 months. That’s a good first step, but the ruling only applies to an estimated 30,000 people: a small down payment on a much larger bill that is coming due very quickly.

Letting in a wave of Ukrainians won’t be easy. The whole system for processing refugees was decimated under President Trump, and the nine private agencies that directly handle resettlement are still rebuilding their staffs and services. But the head of one of the nine subcontractors, Mark Hetfield of HIAS, told the Associated Press: “There’s so much interest in helping these people that the resources would be there, the volunteers would be there. It would be a challenge because we are all stretched too thin. But we would definitely make it work.”

The European Union is already leading the way. As The Washington Post reports, “Under rules announced last week, Ukrainian nationals will be offered temporary protection anywhere within the 27-country bloc for up to three years, depending on conditions. They will have the right to live, study and work within the EU.”

“All those fleeing Putin’s bombs are welcome in Europe,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last week. “We will provide protection to those seeking shelter, and we will help those looking for a safe way home.”

This outpouring of support for the Ukrainians throughout Europe has been both astounding and inspiring. “On the eastern side of the border, it is heartbreaking,” Chris Melzer, a U.N. spokesman, told NPR. “And on this side of the border, it’s heartwarming.”

But the Europeans cannot handle this crisis alone. The numbers are too great. Filippo Grandi, the U.N.’s top official for refugees, pointedly noted that help also has to come from “beyond the EU,” and that countries like the U.S. and Canada had to “share this responsibility” with their European allies. And Americans are ready: 79% told Quinnipiac they’d accept more refugees from Ukraine, with only 14% opposed.

The administration sent $54 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine when the invasion began, and is seeking at least another $10 billion from Congress. But that still doesn’t help the tide of exiles rapidly flooding westward across Europe. Many of those who still hope to return home could choose to remain abroad if and when Russia occupies their country.

As the Post asserted in an editorial, it “would send a strong signal to Poland, Hungary and other nations taking in refugees if Mr. Biden would announce that the United States would accept tens of thousands of Ukrainians as well … The president can do this on his own, without Congress. This is yet another way to truly stand with the brave and industrious Ukrainian people and our allies around the world.”

More than a hundred years ago, America took in my grandparents as they fled czarist tyranny. It’s time to do that again.

(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at

(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at