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Gov. Wolf calls on schools, communities to prepare to welcome Ukrainian refugees to Pennsylvania

Ukrainian Refugees Poland Russia Ukraine War
Sergei Grits
Refugees check their luggage after fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland, Friday, April 1, 2022.

The United States is expected to take in as many as 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, and Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania agencies are preparing to welcome them. Gov. Tom Wolf is calling on schools to admit newly resettled students and for state legislators to support appropriating $2 million for support programs.

“We have all watched with tremendous sadness as Ukrainians endured horrific and unprovoked attacks on their homeland. Now we will have opportunities to ease the tragic after-effects of that horror for some of the youngest Ukrainian refugees,” Wolf said.

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It’s expected that most Ukrainians will prefer to stay in Europe, according to NPR. But the U.S. government is ready to use its refugee and immigration programs to bring in vulnerable people, including LGBT individuals, those with medical needs and journalists and dissidents.

Wolf and Pennsylvania Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Friday that the administration sent a letter to schools to remind administrators of their legal obligation to enroll students within five days of receiving their documentation.

“In anticipation of an influx of Ukrainian families coming to Pennsylvania over the coming weeks, it is imperative that our school communities are prepared to provide high-quality education services to new students in a seamless and efficient manner,” Ortega said.

The letter also expressed a requirement for schools to offer language services to students and parents who may not be proficient in English.

“Schools must identify English Learner (EL) students and take affirmative steps to ensure that all EL students are provided with appropriate language assistance services to allow them to meaningfully participate in educational programs,” the letter reads. “Additionally, school districts and charter schools must communicate information to EL parents in a language they can understand.”

Legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania House and Senate last week would give the Department of Human Services $2 million to use for its refugee resettlement program. The bill's sponsors argue that the funds would allow contractors to work faster and more efficiently to help refugees find and retain employment and fully integrate into their new community.

“The first Ukrainian refugees are beginning to arrive in Pennsylvania this week, and the agencies ready to receive them need our support,” said bill sponsor Senator Lindsey Williams.

Wolf issued a statement in support of the legislation and called on the legislature to continue to sever financial ties with Russia.

“Pennsylvania was founded on the ideals of peace, tolerance, and safety for all people, and we will continue to model these ideals and be a welcoming home for any who seek safe refuge in the United States,” he said. “This proposed funding will allow the commonwealth the flexibility to invest in refugee services quickly and efficiently, and ultimately provide a safe haven for these individuals.”

In Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services have already been assisting people fleeing the war in Ukraine, according to Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of the organization’s immigrant and refugee services. So far, JFCS has helped 10 people who fled to the Pittsburgh area to join family members or with a special visa.

“At this moment, we are helping individuals from Ukraine that arrived on their own,” Smith-Tapia said. “Helping them with whatever they need. Navigating systems, enrolling the kids in schools [and] helping them access benefits that they qualify for.”

Smith-Tapia said local school districts are very familiar with enrolling international students who arrive in Pittsburgh. “The schools are really the ones handling that process,” she said. JFCS will help students with the necessary paperwork and other requirements such as vaccinations.

The organization has resettled refugees from more than 100 countries over its 84-year history. JFCS began helping Afghan refugees resettle in Pittsburgh last summer, but Smith-Tapia said the process for Ukrainian refugees would be a bit different.

Ukrainian refugees “are not going to arrive the same way that the Afghan refugees arrived in Pittsburgh,” Smith-Tapia said. “Even though the Biden administration announced that the U.S. will receive refugees, we don’t know when that will happen.”

Smith-Tapia said many refugees would remain in Europe or apply to come to the United States through a longer process. Some may not arrive for many months.

But when the first wave of refugees begin landing in the Pittsburgh area, JFCS will be ready to assist them with housing, clothes, food and other services. According to Smith-Tapia, the organization will also work with Pittsburgh’s Ukrainian community to help the newly resettled find churches and other cultural organizations.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.