Russian emigre family fleeing over Ukraine war now in Chicago in legal limbo like other asylum-seekers

After Russian officials announced a military draft to bolster their efforts in the war against Ukraine, Aleksei Eremenko drove through the night to reach Kazakhstan.

His wife and children joined him about a week later. The family thought they could rebuild their lives in the country that was once part of the Soviet Union.

“The main idea was just to leave Russia, just to be not in the borders of Russia,” Eremenko said through a translator.

Soon, the family heard reports of Kazakhstan officials deporting Russians. Eremenko said he did online research, then led his family on a journey that would take them across continents and oceans until they reached Mexico.

At the Mexico-U.S. border, the family joined the thousands of immigrants seeking asylum. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has sent buses carrying thousands of asylum-seekers to Democrat-led cities like Chicago, where city officials declared an emergency in the face of struggles to keep up with the demand for housing that have left many of the newcomers sleeping on the floors of police stations while waiting for a shelter bed.

Like other asylum-seekers, newly arrived Russians are facing similar hurdles getting work permits while living on their savings, said Zhanna Soloveychik, a case manager at the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi-Service Center in Uptown.

Asylum-seekers have to wait 150 days after filing their application to apply for a work permit. And they can’t get the authorization until their application has been pending for at least 30 days, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s heartbreaking what’s going on with the families,” Soloveychik said. “They are in fear. Most of them don’t speak English.”

The number of Russians entering the United States had been on the upswing but has decreased in recent months. In December, more than 9,000 Russians — more than twice the number trying to enter the United States in the same month a year earlier — encountered U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. Those numbers have declined in April, to 3,653.

Soloveychik said she started to hear last fall from families like Eremenko’s who fled Russia and were seeking assistance and has heard from at least one family a week since then.

Aleksei Eremenko and his family fled Russia and moved to the United States to avoid his conscription into the Russian military to fight in Ukraine. At the kitchen table at their South Side home (from left) are Vasilisa Butenko, 7, Avrora Butenko, 1, Eremenko and Marina Butenko.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Eremenko and his family made their way to the city in mid-December after spending four days in a detention center along the border. They were released to a church in Phoenix, Arizona, before using their savings to buy tickets to Chicago.

They had an acquaintance in Chicago connect them with a Russian-speaking real estate agent who helped them find housing after a few nights at a hotel.

The family has been getting by on savings and donations, Eremenko said. He’s unable to legally work in the United States, and he hasn’t been able to find an immigration lawyer.

After calling organizations around Chicago, he was put on wait lists with others trying to find legal help.

Eremenko said he’s grateful for the treatment he’s gotten from everyone from border agents to nonprofit groups in Chicago and that he just wants his family to find stability and independence.

“We cannot ask from America, but I wish America could help people who oppose this war, who protest against the war,” Eremenko said.

Eremenko was born in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. His father’s family is Ukrainian. He said he couldn’t see himself “participating in any way” in the war that Russia escalated against Ukraine in 2022.

He also viewed the Russian government with skepticism, saying that, while serving in the Russian military in 2015 — which he was required to do he saw a disconnect between what he saw and what officials told the public about military operations.

By 2020, he was taking part in protests against the government over issues including not having provided financial support to people when businesses were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last summer, he said, he was arrested during a protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and spent two days in jail.

After he was released, he said, Russian authorities came to his home while he was at work and searched it.

“It’s just a demonstration of power and a way to scare people,” Eremenko said.

He said authorities later questioned his coworkers about whether he was promoting political views at work.

He’s optimistic about his family’s future in the United States. He speaks of the kindness of a taxi driver in Arizona who gave his children hats on hearing about their journey to Chicago. And various organizations have helped them.

Eremenko said he’s seen “more good things” from people here than he ever did in Russia.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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