CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In light of the war between Russia and Ukraine, more than 4 million Ukrainians have fled their home-country seeking safety in neighboring countries and the United States.
In the coming months the U.S. says they will accept up 100,000 refugees.
In addition to awarding Ukrainians refugee status, the Biden administration is looking for other channels to bring in Ukrainians displaced by the war.
This could mean awarding Ukrainians a temporary protective status.
The administration is also working to expand and develop new programs with a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the United States.
According to the administration, they do expect several Ukrainians "will choose to remain in Europe close to family and their homes in Ukraine."
Bridge Refugee Services says the U.S. has yet to accept any refugees who are fleeing Russian aggression.
But the organization says it's likely several who cannot return home will choose to settle in Chattanooga.
Bridge Refugee Services tells us this population began settling in the Chattanooga area back in the 70s as they escaped religious persecution from the Soviet Union.
That means thousands of Ukrainians are already resettled in the Tennessee Valley.
Marina Peshterianu is the Associate Director of Bridge Refugee Services.
She says the last Ukrainian family her agency resettled came here on February 22nd, just two days before Russia invaded their home country.
" For the last maybe 20-25 years it is family reunification cases. These people mostly are Protestant, Adventist, Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, smaller churches, people that were treated unfairly and persecuted for their religious belief. It's a very successful community," said Peshterianu.
Peshterianu is herself part of the local Ukrainian community.
While she is not a refugee, ensuring that Ukrainians will be welcomed in our area is both a personal and professional mission for Marina Peshterianu.
"I'm from Ukraine. I know we will win this war. But not everybody will have a place to go back to," said Peshterianu.
She's worked with hundreds of refugees over the years and others who have needed to leave their country for various reasons.
Most recently, that includes Ukrainian artists Dennis Sarazhin and Victoria Kalaichi.
The couple packed a suitcase for a pre-planned two week art showing at the art school Townsend Atelier in Chattanooga.
Victoria and Denis bought their plane tickets and departed from their hometown of Karkiv for Chattanooga on February 23.
But once they touched down in the U.S on February 24th, they learned that Russia had invaded their home country.
"Victoria's exhibition saved us I think," said Sarazhin.
Most of Denis and Viktoria’s family are still home in Kherson, Ukraine.
Their family can no longer work as their home has now become a warzone, but many of their relatives have refused to leave despite the city being occupied, shelled, and bombed by Russian forces.
While the couple eventually hopes to return home, they are unsure if they will have a place to return to.
It’s why the couple continues to paint here in Chattanooga and make a living to help support family back home.
Friends of the couple helped them secure a studio here in Chattanooga and started this fundraiser which not only benefits the couple but also their relatives in Ukraine.
"In America, many people help us. And if we will compare we don't have any problem like our friends," said Viktoria Kalaichi.
Denis and Viktoria are now joining a Ukrainian community united in their mission, supporting their cause from a far one paint stroke at a time.
The couple's tourism visa expires in August, and they plan on working and residing in Chattanooga until then.
They now navigate a complex legal process as they hope to secure a more permanent form of residency.
They credit their friends in Chattanooga and the local Ukrainian community for support.
The couple has since found temporary housing and is taking English classes.
Dennis learned Friday that he passed his driver's exam and the couple now works towards getting a car to provide them additional freedom in their new life here in Chattanooga.