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Berkshire County residents offer shelter to Ukrainian refugees through website

But can those fleeing war get through U.S. immigration?

There are the buildings lit with the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Then there are the shelters for people fleeing the war. At least four of these, as of Monday, are in Berkshire County.

There’s a “small cottage with two bedrooms” in Adams listed on Ukraine Take Shelter, an Airbnb-style platform where hosts can list a house or an apartment. There’s a “small space with comfort,” in West Stockbridge — “1 room w bath above my restaurant.”

There’s also “availability for 3 people” in North Adams: “We have a basement with a bedroom and living room, bathroom and shared kitchen,” the listing says. Another in North Adams: “Private guest house 4 bedrooms and bath at an artist retreat LGBT friendly.” The hosts speak “Russian, English, French, Hebrew and Italian.”

Many more options are farther afield, including in Northampton, Amherst, Montague and Easthampton.

Yet there is much red immigration tape blocking those fleeing Ukraine from coming to the U.S.

“There is a problem between what is presented as support for Ukraine and the absence of any preferential treatment of anyone who is in Ukraine,” said Northampton-based immigration attorney Aleksandra Peryeva, who said she has worked with more than 20 people who are trying to bring Ukrainian relatives to the U.S. “They must follow all normal immigration processes that one would follow.”

She has not seen any success so far, and she’s not alone. “We have heard form other immigration attorneys that it is mostly denials with a few exceptions,” Peryeva said.

Two Harvard University students — in just three days — created the website that allows people around the world to offer a dwelling space to refugees from Ukraine as Russia continues to wage war there.

The Twitter feed of one of the platform’s creators, Avi Schiffmann, reveals a fast-moving initiative that is working wonders for refugees fleeing to other countries, as he and co-creator Marco Burstein troubleshoot security concerns about the site.

“We have successfully housed thousands — the stories we hear from refugees and hosts alike genuinely bring us to tears,” Schiffmann tweeted Monday.

It is unclear whether the Berkshires will see an influx of refugees, or if any Ukrainians have found shelter here. Schiffmann and Burstein could not be reached to comment about this.

Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts, which is the area’s refugee resettlement agency, has not yet received official notice from the U.S. State Department, said JFS Director Maxine Stein.

The State Department will make an announcement when it has made a decision about this, she added.

Peryeva said making matters more difficult is an overburdened main U.S. consulate in Warsaw, Poland. The consulate is booking out to December for appointments to apply for tourist visas. COVID-19 restrictions in other consulates are not helping. Peryeva said humanitarian parole, like that given evacuees from Afghanistan, is “extremely difficult to get.”

“People are surprised to find out that there is no way to actually get here that is easier [for Ukrainians],” she said. “It is more difficult.”

She said she is also working with people trying to bring relatives from Belarus and Russia, given the heightened tensions.

Neighboring countries are absorbing most fleeing Ukrainians. Others, like Japan and Australia, have eased immigration restrictions and refugees began entering those countries earlier this month.

CNN reported Saturday that “essentially no Ukrainians of those 3 million who left since the war began have come to the U.S.” As visa nightmares surface, advocates for refugees as well as some lawmakers are chiding the U.S. for not doing more.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week said that the U.S. will look into whether it can harness the family reunification program. Applying for refugee status is also possible but that will take time, he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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