As the Ukrainians and their supporters finished supper in Uptown one recent evening, Aswar Rahman called the room to attention. He praised the bravery of the eight refugees sitting before him and the Americans who enabled their escape.
He presented them one by one with scarves and badges, thanking the Edina retiree who gave rides to the newcomers, the Ukrainian refugee who took a 7-year-old trick-or-treating.
Rahman, 28, was hardly a refugee resettlement expert — he runs a business creating digital content for political campaigns — but after Russia invaded Ukraine, he founded a nonprofit to bring endangered Ukrainians to Minnesota and connect them with sponsors and temporary aid. Private sponsors have signed up to bring 100,000 refugees under President Joe Biden's program Uniting for Ukraine, and Rahman nodded to the unusual nature of this effort.
The initiative, Rahman told the group, "relies entirely on civilians ... where average Americans will file a piece of paper that opens up a way for Ukrainians to come." He added: "In one hour of effort, you can bring an entire Ukrainian family here … and in this room right now, I believe, there are other people who have taken that risk."
He urged them to eat more, and traded hugs and encouragement. But even amid the celebration at the Minneapolis event, Rahman knew the work was unrelenting: more refugees awaited a chance to come, and he was planning his third trip to Lviv, Ukraine, in December.
When the war began in February, Rahman's girlfriend, Rachel Busse, told him she was headed to Poland on behalf of her employer, Alight, a refugee relief organization, to connect fleeing Ukrainians to Airbnb housing in their northern neighbor.
"Unlike a lot of crises, anybody could go, so we're talking about this and Aswar was like, 'Could I go?'" recalled Busse, who lives with Rahman in St. Paul.
Soon Rahman was on a plane to Warsaw with just a backpack. He took a bus to the border and began volunteering. After Uniting for Ukraine launched, he founded a nonprofit called American Service in Ukraine using his private business earnings and hired several Ukrainians in Lviv. They started English and cultural training classes for displaced families, and began matching them with Americans who agreed to sponsor them by filing a Form I-134.
Refugees of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are not admitted to the U.S. under the country's official refugee program. They don't receive the usual three months of government assistance for housing and other expenses. Instead, the government vets I-134 filers based on income to ensure they can support Ukrainians over the next two years, at least at a poverty level, since traditional refugee supports aren't guaranteed.
Under Rahman's program, filers state that financial support is provided by his nonprofit. Ukrainians are expected to be largely self-sufficient once they start working. That got much easier as of Monday, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Uniting for Ukraine refugees are automatically approved to work.
Rahman had no connection to Ukraine, only a feeling of what it was like to come here as a "dirt poor immigrant" from Bangladesh at age 6.
"When I see a Ukrainian family coming to the program now, they are much more akin to our experience — without the important distinction of war," Rahman said. "But the American part of the journey, I feel a connection to because it was our journey as well, having to rebuild … and how much my family relied on the kindness of strangers."
He stayed in Ukraine until June, and returned for the month of September. Rahman filed 20 I-134 forms, though five were rejected — "it raised some red flags," he said — and Busse filed eight. Some Ukrainians he was approved to sponsor are still headed here; others changed their plans.
Meanwhile, two friends who escaped Kyiv learned of Rahman's enterprise. Ruslana Voznyak and Daria Silka, both women in their mid-20s, wondered if it was legitimate. A little-known organization wanted to help them for free?
"Our friends are like, 'How can you trust them? It seems like a scam.' … I thought, if I don't pay for it, what [have] I lost?" Voznyak recalled. "I just take my chance."
Busse filed an I-134 to bring over Silka, and a friend of the couple filed for Voznyak. Silka was scared to meet Rahman at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in September. "I'm just waiting, I'm so stressed, I'm trying to read him if he [kidnaps] me or not." Then he brought her to a house in Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood to meet other Ukrainian refugees, and she relaxed. She told Voznyak she would be safe, too, when she flew in a week later. "I was like, 'It's OK, it's not a scam.'"
The two women heard many stories of desperation. Silka said one Ukrainian abroad offered her $3,000 to find him an American sponsor, but she declined. Other Ukrainians said that they paid $2,000 to have Americans sponsor them.
The women briefly stayed in the Longfellow house, where Rahman arranged to have Ukrainians reside for their first few weeks until they found housing through the Minnesota Council of Churches. Soon Silka and Voznyak moved into a high-rise in downtown Minneapolis featuring a spectacular view, but they were shocked to see so many homeless people in this powerful country and taken aback by the frequent stench of marijuana.
As they awaited work permits, Silka and Voznyak posted TikTok videos chronicling their new life. Voznyak filmed herself dancing on Nicollet Mall, and Silka posted videos glamorously posing in front of the light rail and on the bus.
Sometimes the women field antagonistic messages, guilting them for enjoying themselves during a war, and for leaving Ukraine. Silka and Voznyak reason that they have already despaired enough; they need to lighten up once in a while. The best way to help the Ukrainian cause, they believe, is to earn money here at higher rates and send it back to their families. Silka walked into a restaurant and was hired as a waitress. Voznyak is still looking for work, hoping to land a job in her field as a social media manager.
The friends heard from other Ukrainians who want to participate, but learned that Rahman's organization has a waiting list and he is still looking for more sponsors.
To supplement his own investment, Rahman installed photo booths at breweries around the Twin Cities to donate proceeds for Ukrainians. But then in the second week of November, Rahman received a $250,000 foundation grant. He was still thinking about what it could do for his mission as he went to the airport to pick up a mother and her two daughters escaping Kyiv.
Waiting in Terminal 1, he joked that he was going to go bankrupt trying to back the nonprofit with his business income; it wouldn't be sustainable.
"The thing about Ukrainians not being full refugee status is what's really complicating it … we're going into the wilderness kind of alone," Rahman acknowledged.
The Minnesota Council of Churches, with whom he is collaborating, is also concerned about increasingly limited government resources for Ukrainians — they are ineligible for the usual three months of resettlement aid, and the federal Matching Grant program cannot offer housing stipends for every new Ukrainian, as it did for Silka and Voznyak. Rahman wants to bring 100 families here by March, but that is a daunting number for the council — even Rahman admitted it makes him nervous.
"This is a brand-new frontier in American humanitarian policy, and if we can make it work," he said, "then maybe we can make the world a better place because then we can repeat [this] for the next crisis."
After nearly two hours of waiting, Rahman spied the family approaching and hurried over. Viktoriia Bolotina held her 5-year-old daughter Polina Bolotina. Her second daughter, 21-year-old Elizabeth Surzhko, wore a Ukrainian flag wrapped around her like a shawl.
"Is she nervous? … She's tired, must be hungry," Rahman said of the child clinging to her mother. He complimented Surzhko on her flag, and assured them dinner was waiting. Rahman pushed the baggage cart as Surzhko recounted how they had lived without electricity six hours a day; she had reached out to Rahman's nonprofit after seeing a link on the Telegram messaging app. He drove the arrivals to the Longfellow house, where a painting of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sat in the front window, and a family living there for three weeks had prepared a traditional borscht soup.
"Eat, eat, eat, eat," Rahman urged.
Bolotina fed the girl on her lap, and Rahman ticked off their plans for the next day: He would drive the family to the Council of Churches, where they could apply for food benefits. He told them they needed those as soon as possible so they could apply for work permits. The following day, he would help them enroll Polina in kindergarten.
Rahman said he might ask some of the new arrivals to accompany him as he made presentations to recruit more sponsors for Ukrainians. It "will motivate someone," he told them, "when they see a [person] that would benefit."