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Bill in Oregon Legislature helps Ukrainian refugees secure housing, driver’s licenses

Kristian Foden-Vencil
Ukrainian refugee Vasyl Rosokha brought his wife and two daughters to Hillsboro in the summer of 2022. Finding a place to rent was so difficult he had to get a sponsor to sign his lease. Feb. 24, 2023

As the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine passes, Oregon legislators are considering a bill to make it easier for Ukrainian refugees to do things like rent an apartment and get a driver's license.

Furniture maker Vasyl Rosokha came to Oregon last summer with his wife and two daughters.

When the war started, Rosokha had just left Ukraine to work in Slovakia, where he could make three times his salary. Being outside the country meant Rosokha avoided the requirement that Ukrainian men between 18 and 65 remain as Russia invaded.

The family met him in Slovakia, drove across Europe to Portugal, then flew to Oregon.
Speaking through an interpreter with Oregon’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO, he said they left because he was worried something might happen to the family.

They arrived in Portland with just $1,800 in cash. But they were also sponsored by Rosokha’s wife’s cousin, Nataliya Smith.

Under the federal government’s Uniting for Ukraine program, people fleeing the war can stay in the United States on what is called immigration parole, for two years, so long as they have the financial support of a sponsoring family.

In practical terms, that meant the Rosokhas moved into the Smith family home in North Plains.

“It’s my husband and I and our four kids. They are a family of four as well,” Smith said. “It just got super busy.”

Smith arrived from Ukraine when she was 7. She said the first challenge for refugees is to find work and a place to live.

Kristian Foden-Vencil
Unlike many Ukrainian refugees, Vasyl Rosokha managed to find a sponsor for his family. His wife's cousin, Nataliya Smith, pictured here with Rosokha, let them move into her home in North Plains and then helped them find an apartment and jobs. Hillsboro, Feb. 24, 2023

The Rosokhas got jobs quickly as attendants at a North Plains gas station.

But like many Oregonians in the midst of a housing crisis, securing a place to live seemed almost impossible.

They found an apartment in Hillsboro renting for $1,900 a month. But they didn’t make enough to qualify. In the end, Smith’s husband put his name on the lease.

“Their number one priority is to pay rent,” Smith said. “I just trust them that much.”

The Rosokhas were lucky. It’s very difficult for most refugees to find someone willing to sign their lease.

That’s why, as the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine passes, Oregon legislators are considering a bill to make it easier for Ukrainian refugees to settle.

Senate Bill 935 would prohibit landlords from denying a rental application from a Ukrainian refugee for financial reasons.

“They don’t have a credit history,” said Nelli Salvador, who directs IRCO’s center for Slavic and Eastern European immigrants. “There’s no way they can check their ability to pay.”

In other words, Salvador said, the bill would mean Ukrainian refugees like the Rosokhas would not have to find someone to cosign a rental application or a lease.

“I think for the newcomers we should give them a chance to establish their life,” Salvador said. “They’re not coming to just sit down and do nothing.”

The Oregon Rental Housing Association is monitoring the bill, but so far has not taken a position.

In addition to waiving the requirement for a cosigner, the new bill would also waive the $40 fee for Ukrainian refugees when applying for a driving license so long as they already hold a valid Ukrainian license.

Kristian Foden-Vencil
Nelli Salvador directs IRCO's center for Slavic and Eastern European immigrants. She estimates 4,500 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Oregon since the war started last year. She welcomes Senate Bill 395 and the help it could provide to them.

Salvador said avoiding even small fees can make a difference to someone new to the United States.

“If you have five people in a family, so it’s easily $200,” she said.

Salvador is a refugee herself. She came from Uzbekistan 23 years ago and now helps other refugees settle.

Just about everything she knew about the states before arriving came from soap operas like “Santa Barbara.” So she understands why many refugees arrive with unrealistic expectations.

“People think coming to the United States everything is easy. And everything is given to you,” she said. “But in reality, you need to do step-by-step to establish your life in the United States.”

Back in Hillsboro, Vasyl Rosokha and his family have spent the last seven months settling in. He has already found a better job, installing fire sprinklers. His two daughters are doing well in school, and he’s bought an old Toyota.

“I like it very much here,” he said. “Because like everything, the big cars, the roads, the road signs and the people. How people greet you and smile at you.”

Rosokha’s sponsor, Nataliya Smith, doesn’t think many Ukrainian refugees will return. “I think a lot of people want to stay,” she said.

“We have some family members who are hoping to go back. But I doubt it will happen because once you get a taste of, I’ll say, ‘the good life,’ it’s hard in Ukraine.”

An estimated 6 million people are thought to have been displaced by the war in Ukraine.

So far, 4,500 refugees have come to Oregon since the war began, effectively quadrupling the local Ukrainian population.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He specializes in health care, business, politics, law and public safety.