SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war, are continuing to flock to the US-Mexico border in hopes of applying for asylum. Volunteers from the Bay Area are now on the ground, trying to help.
"I think people are very surprised when they come to Tijuana and really face this level of chaos," said Natasha Sharapova of San Francisco, who volunteered in Tijuana with the Coordination Council for Refugees.
Sharapova says many of the refugees have been arriving at the border traumatized, and some injured, expecting their entry into the US to be relatively easy and efficient, but the reality they’re faced with is far different. The process to enter the US can be cumbersome and take days, as they wait in newly created tent cities and shelters.
"Some of them of course feel panicked, because they don’t know what’s going on," said Sharapova.
The Coordination Council for Refugees (CCFR) is one of several groups on the ground helping provide the refugees with everything from food, water, and blankets to transportation and temporary housing. Among the refugees Sharapova met, was a 75-year-old woman who barely escaped Mariupol after Russian forces bombed her apartment building.
"She was like thrown across her entire apartment. She broke her shoulder, and her arm," said Sharapova.
Because visas are required to travel from Europe to the US, thousands of Ukrainians are opting to fly to Mexico instead. Despite sometimes long waits at the border, and difficult conditions, volunteer Olya Krasnykh, also from the Bay Area, says given the alternative, many are just grateful to be there.
"I walk around, and I ask, how long have you been waiting, because we’re hoping the duration of wait is going down," said Krasnykh, adding that one woman who escaped Mariupol recently responded, "I don’t know what you’re asking me. I’m just glad that there is a policeman, and that the sun is shining, and there’s civilization."
Meantime, Sharapova says her group is also helping to coordinate temporary shelters for refugees once they cross the border, and helping to lobby US lawmakers to provide refugees with expedited access to work permits and social services. Some are arriving with essentially nothing, but the clothes on their backs.