Thousands of Ukrainians have arrived at the US-Mexico border: NPR


A temporary shelter for Ukrainians in Tijuana, Mexico. Thousands fleeing the war have arrived here waiting to be picked up by U.S. border agents.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


A temporary shelter for Ukrainians in Tijuana, Mexico. Thousands fleeing the war have arrived here waiting to be picked up by U.S. border agents.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR

Thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war have arrived in Mexico’s northern border cities. There, they introduce themselves to U.S. border agents and ask for temporary entry into the United States for humanitarian reasons. Thousands of Ukrainians have been locked in – and take advantage of the avenues that the Biden administration has opened to facilitate their access to the United States faster than people who have come from other countries.

But so many Ukrainians have arrived that a backlog has formed.

In Tijuana, Mexico, opposite San Diego, rising numbers of action spurred a massive voluntary effort organized by Ukrainian-Americans and others associated with the region. They established an extensive temporary shelter, brought trays of Ukrainian food from Los Angeles and San Diego, and coordinated with immigration agents to transport large groups to the border for processing.

Despite their rapid mobilization to ensure some comfort for thousands of refugees approaching the end of their journey to safety, their efforts have been overwhelmed by the endless stream of new arrivals.

Here are some of the people whose lives have come together at the border between the United States and Mexico thanks to a war half a globe away.

“The war still affects her”

It took weeks for Aleksey Ivkov to convince her mother Tatiana to leave Ukraine. She had been determined to await the war by seeking refuge in an underground tunnel in their hometown of Kharkiv. But as the war intensified, she finally agreed to evacuate – and meet her son in Tijuana.

The trip took her nine days. Ivkov drove from north of San Francisco to pick her up. He immediately noticed that loud noises startled her. As they stepped out of Tijuana Airport, the rumble of a large truck made her jump.

“The war is still affecting her,” he said. On a recent day, Ivkov and his mother sat in folding chairs at the shelter that housed Ukrainians while awaiting their turn to be processed into the United States.

Tatiana, who only shared her first name, is 74, and said after more than a month of anxiety that she felt more cheerful now, eager to see her relatives and grandchildren in California. But she is looking forward to her return to Ukraine and to being reunited with her partner, who because he is in his late 50s is considered to be in the fighting age and has a ban on leaving the country.

“When things have calmed down a little,” she said, “I’m going back.”


Ukrainians board a shuttle from the shelter to Tijuana’s border crossing to San Diego. The United States allows Ukrainians fleeing the war temporary entry on humanitarian grounds.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


Ukrainians board a shuttle from the shelter to Tijuana’s border crossing to San Diego. The United States allows Ukrainians fleeing the war temporary entry on humanitarian grounds.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


On the shuttle to the border.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


On the shuttle to the border.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


Volunteers worked with Tijuana officials to turn a municipal sports complex into a shelter that houses thousands while waiting for their turn to be processed at the border.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


Volunteers worked with Tijuana officials to turn a municipal sports complex into a shelter that houses thousands while waiting for their turn to be processed at the border.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR

“We need more help”

Olya Krasnykh is a Russian-American real estate agent in Silicon Valley. But when she heard about the Ukrainians arriving at the border, she put her job aside and came down to help. A tent city was formed within a few steps of the border crossing. Krasnykh and other volunteers worked with city officials in Tijuana to move everyone into a municipal sports complex a short drive away.

It became an extensive operation. Ukrainian-American volunteers began to greet entire planes full of Ukrainians at the airport and shuttle them to the shelter, register them and line them up. When it’s their turn, they and their luggage are loaded onto another shuttle to the border. In recent days, people have been waiting from two to three days at the shelter for their turn to come up. But the wait became longer because Ukrainians arrive in Tijuana faster than border agents can process them.

From a few days ago, Krasnykh estimated that the shelter had registered about 10,000 people.

“It’s an operation that has been well managed by a group of grassroots volunteers,” Krasnykh said. But she added that it had grown so fast that it now needed the support of a professional nonprofit. “We’re at a breaking point where we need more help.”

“We bought like six air mattresses”

Phil Metzger had not planned for his church in San Diego to become a major stopover for Ukrainian refugees. Metzger is the high priest at Calvary San Diego, about 15 minutes drive north of the Mexican border. When the Ukrainians began to arrive there, he thought he could lend a helping hand.

“Two weeks ago, we bought like six air mattresses, and thought, let’s help a few people,” he said. “We just had no idea. The next night it was a hundred people.”

On a recent day, shuttles arrived at his church filled with people who had recently been admitted to the United States. Many needed some time to contact family and friends that they would join in other parts of the country. They reserved airline tickets, and church volunteers drove them to San Diego airport for the final part of their trip. Other newcomers needed a place to stay for a few nights, as not everyone was sure of their next move.

It’s all been a bit stressful, Metzger admitted.

“But I’m grateful that these people are not back in Ukraine right now, because it’s dangerous,” he said. “I’m glad they’re here.”


A backlog meant that Ukrainians waited two to three days for their chance to request humanitarian admission at the border.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


A backlog meant that Ukrainians waited two to three days for their chance to request humanitarian admission at the border.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


The shelter, which houses Ukrainians, is run exclusively by volunteers.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


The shelter, which houses Ukrainians, is run exclusively by volunteers.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


Ukrainian refugees arrive at Tijuana shelter.
Ukrainian refugees arrive at Tijuana shelter.

“It’s my people”

At the shelter in Tijuana, Helen Davidov handed out Ukrainian food: bitochki, plow and grechka. She and other Ukrainian-Americans drove it down from Los Angeles.

She laid thighs and fried cottage cheesecakes on people’s plates. And she tried to make eye contact with each one.

“These are my people,” she said in a catchy voice. “It’s just people. It’s awful what’s going on right now. And if we do not all put ourselves in a little bit, it’s getting worse.”

“It may be the last goodbye”

Last week, Iryna Merezhko flew from her home in Los Angeles to Warsaw, Poland. Then she took a train to Ukraine to meet her sister and her sister’s son Ivan at a hotel. Her sister had decided to stay in Ukraine to support the country’s soldiers, but she wanted Ivan, 14, to join his aunt in the United States.

In the hotel room, Merezhko’s sister handed her a thick stack of documents – everything a border guard could ask for as proof that Merezhko had permission to bring Ivan into the country. Ivan felt insecure about leaving his parents behind.

“We told him it was going to be like a long summer vacation in California,” Merezhko said. “Disneyland! Universal Studios!”

At the hotel, they exchanged all tear-soaked embraces and soon promised to see each other. No one spoke what everyone understood.

“We knew it could be the last goodbye,” Merezhko said.

Ivan said he had left his heart in Ukraine. “My friends, my family,” he said.

But the strength of their family’s convictions, Merezhko said, left them no other choice. “I’m very proud of my sister.”


Children played at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex shelter.
Children played at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex shelter.

At the shelter, selected women donated clothes.
At the shelter, selected women donated clothes.

Ukrainians have arrived in other Mexican border towns, but Tijuana – with the world’s largest border crossing – has become a major entry point into the United States for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


hide caption

change caption

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR


Ukrainians have arrived in other Mexican border towns, but Tijuana – with the world’s largest border crossing – has become a major entry point into the United States for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Carlos A. Moreno for NPR

Leave a Comment