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Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees are at the U.S.-Mexico border hoping for asylum

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some Ukrainians fleeing the Russian attack on their country have made it to the United States. Many have done so by traveling to Mexico's northern border and asking U.S. immigration agents to let them in on humanitarian grounds. On the Mexican side, in Tijuana, authorities turned a sports complex into a makeshift shelter. That's where the new arrivals can wait for their turn to ride a shuttle to San Diego to ask for admission into the U.S. NPR's Adrian Florido visited the shelter recently and spoke to some of the hundreds of Ukrainians waiting there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

IRYNA MEREZHKO: 1983, 1983.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Your number is?

MEREZHKO: 2221.

FLORIDO: Iryna Merezhko has been at the shelter for two days. She flew from her home in Los Angeles to Warsaw, Poland, and then took a train into Ukraine, where she met her sister and her sister's 14-year-old son, Ivan. Her sister is staying to support Ukrainian troops, but she wanted her son to come to the U.S. until the war is over.

MEREZHKO: We told him it will be like a long summer vacation - break, break - in California.

FLORIDO: As they said goodbye, everyone, including Ivan, understood that to be more of a hope.

MEREZHKO: If be honest, it can be a last goodbye between us, yeah, you know. Yeah, it was really difficult, yeah.

FLORIDO: Merezhko decided to come through Mexico when she learned the easiest way to get Ivan into the U.S. was to show up at the border and request humanitarian admission for a year, newly available to Ukrainians on their final flight into Tijuana, almost every other passenger was Ukrainian. Olya Krasnykh is one of the volunteers running this shelter. She says the number of Ukrainians arriving at this border city has ballooned faster than anyone had expected.

OLYA KRASNYKH: Six days ago, it was 350.

FLORIDO: In one day.

KRASNYKH: In one day. And the last three days, we were right about 1,000.

FLORIDO: A thousand people arriving at Tijuana airport every day.

KRASNYKH: With Ukrainian passports, yeah, waiting to cross into the United States. Yep.

FLORIDO: Krasnykh is a real estate executive in Silicon Valley. But like many Ukrainian Americans, when she learned that Ukrainians were arriving in Tijuana, she dropped everything and came down to help. They found a growing tent city near the border, so they worked with Tijuana officials to set up this shelter and with immigration agents to take 50 people at a time to the border. But Ukrainians are still arriving much faster than agents can process them.

KRASNYKH: And our grassroot volunteer effort just cannot scale to keep up.

FLORIDO: She says this effort needs help from a large nonprofit. For now, it's taking two to three days for a newly arrived Ukrainian to be let into the U.S. That's a lot faster than people from Latin American countries who've been waiting months to get in. Still, some Ukrainians have been traveling to other border cities, hoping to get in faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: At the shelter, the mood is a mix of Mexican hospitality mingled with trays of Ukrainian food, along with the anxiety of war-rattled families. Aleksey Ivkov drove from north of San Francisco to meet his 74-year-old mother, Tatiana. She spent weeks determined to ride the war out in a subway tunnel in the city of Kharkiv before her son was able to convince her to come to Tijuana. When he picked her up, he noticed the PTSD right away.

ALEKSEY IVKOV: Because we came out in the airport, it was some truck stopping, and it was just loud noise. And she was like, oh, my God, what's going on?

FLORIDO: Even so, she's already thinking of her return home to Ukraine.

TATIANA: (Non-English language spoken).

IVKOV: As soon as it's going to quiet down a little bit, she will try to go back, basically.

FLORIDO: For now, she's cheerful, she says, excited for the big family party, her grandkids waiting for her in California. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Tijuana, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.