MAINE, USA — Immigration and political leaders in Maine are continuing to look for ways to support the people of Ukraine. According to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion.
UNHCR data show that hundreds of thousands have fled Ukraine to countries like Romania, Republic of Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia. Poland has received the most, with an estimated nearly 2 million refugees traveling to the country.
"Poland needs help in dealing with these refugees, and there are humanitarian needs throughout Ukraine, so we're working on all fronts," Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said Wednesday after listening to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's speech to Congress.
Congressional leaders from Maine and across the nation are looking to gain a better idea of the humanitarian crisis in the region.
Sens. Susan Collins and King announced Thursday that they plan to travel to Germany and Poland over the weekend along with a bipartisan group of eight senators.
The group of 10 senators issued the following joint statement ahead of their visit to Poland and Germany:
"This strong, bipartisan delegation proves the Senate stands united in its support for Ukraine. During our time in Poland and Germany, we will have the opportunity to gain greater insight on the U.S. and NATO response through engagements with top military leaders. We will return with better insight on how Congress can and should continue to support the Ukrainian people and our NATO allies, and see firsthand the heartbreaking humanitarian impact of Putin’s war of aggression."
Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, spoke with NEWS CENTER Maine Wednesday after hearing President Zelenskyy's address. They expressed interest in looking for additional ways to support Ukrainian refugees fleeing violence.
"I even think that we should consider a humanitarian airlift of some of the refugees who have flooded into Poland, and bring them to our country," Collins said.
"I think Americans would be very willing to open up to more Ukrainians, to unite families that already have family here," Pingree said.
The prospect of supporting refugees from Ukraine in the U.S. is something both are paying close attention to. However, it's a complicated process.
"It's a careful selection, and it's done in a way to protect the folks that are the most vulnerable," Siobhan Whalen, refugee resettlement manager with the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, said.
JCASM is one of two official refugee resettlement agencies in Maine. The other is Catholic Charities of Maine. Both organizations have said they have not received word yet whether they would be helping to resettle refugees from Ukraine to Maine, but have said they are prepared.
"When and if it's decided that Ukrainians are destined for refugee resettlement, HIAS and our organization will be ready and willing to welcome them," Whalen said.
HIAS is an international organization that helps support global refugees and helps coordinate with resettlement agencies before refugees arrive in countries.
"We're ready when folks are ready to join us," Whalen said. "That's one of the things I love most about this work. I know I can trust HIAS to keep us informed and ready for action."
Catholic Charities Maine released the following statement about its preparations to support refugees resettle in Maine.
"Catholic Charities Maine is concerned and saddened by the current crisis unfolding in Ukraine. We pray for peace and for the safety for those in harm's way. While we do not know what’s to come from this rapidly unfolding situation, as Maine’s longest provider of resettlement services for federally designated refugees we stand in solidarity with vulnerable individuals and families fleeing violence and persecution and remain ready to help should the need arise"
The resettlement process for refugees typically is not quick. Whalen said that processing can take several years.
The process begins with the UNHCR, which screen individuals seeking refugee status. Once cleared by UNHCR, refugees are referred to a country of third asylum, that country completes its own screen process. After all screenings are completed, travel plans would be put in place to help relocate refugees to their new country.
In 2021, the United States established the Afghanistan Placement Assistance Program, or APA, which helped streamline the resettlement process. A similar program for Ukrainians has not yet been created by the U.S.