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Syracuse couple aims to put small dent in Ukrainian refugee population

By Tim Vandenack - | Apr 18, 2022
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Leyla Kazvin of Syracuse, pictured in Ogden on Sunday, April 17, 2022, plans to travel to Poland with husband Ashim Raiani to aid Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country due to the Russia invasion.
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This map shows Ukraine, in pink, and the surrounding countries many Ukrainian citizens have fled to due to the Russia invasion, which started Feb. 24, 2022.
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Leyla Kazvin of Syracuse, pictured in Ogden on Sunday, April 17, 2022, plans to travel to Poland with husband Ashim Raiani to aid Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country due to the Russia invasion.

SYRACUSE — Nearly 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia started its invasion Feb. 24.

Layla Kazvin and her husband, Ashim Raiani, can’t put a huge dent in that massive number — an estimate from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency — but the Syracuse couple wants to help. They plan to travel to Krakow, Poland, later this week to help shuttle Ukrainian refugees from the city to more permanent homes in the region. They also plan to seek out a refugee family and help them immigrate to the United States.

“So many refugees around the world. … It has become a global issue,” said Kazvin, herself an immigrant originally from Azerbaijan, which, like Ukraine, borders Russia and was part of the ex-Soviet Union.

They join a contingent of independent humanitarians from around Utah and beyond who feel compelled to act, want to take direct action to aid Ukraine and the people of the country as they fend off Russia. Plenty of organizations are seeking donations from the public to aid Ukraine, Kazvin noted. But it’s hard to know where exactly donations go, she said, and she and her husband are anxious to help directly.

“I want to see it with my own eyes,” she said.

They plan to tap perhaps $25,000 of their own funds as part of the initiative, according to a budget of the effort prepared by Raiani, and team with reps from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Poland in providing help. They’ve also launched an online fundraising drive to raise money to help a second refugee family immigrate to the United States, if they get sufficient funds.

Kazvin, a software analyst, knows what it is to be an immigrant in the United States. She also knows what it means to be the target of Russian aggression. Before coming to the United States with her parents and brother, she remembers Russian forces from the nation on the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, where she lived. It wasn’t as bloody as the Ukraine invasion, but intimidating just the same.

“I remember the soldiers. I remember the army. I remember seeing them on the street,” Kazvin said. Notably, she speaks Russian, which will aid in efforts since Ukrainians typically speak the language as well.

Raiani, who works in information technology and is originally from Iran, remembers wanting to help as the Syrian civil war launched more than a decade ago and turned more and more violent, but not being able to do anything. Now he wants to take action. He cited a poem by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, that states there is “no better prayer than public service.”

According to figures from the UNHCR, there appears to be plenty of need for help. Some 4.93 million Ukrainians had fled the country in the wake of the Russian invasion through last Friday, with 2.78 million of them in Poland, where Raiani and Kazvin plan to go.

Still, getting them to the United States could be a challenge. Raiani spoke of bringing the family through Frankfurt, Germany, or Tijuana, Mexico, while Kazvin said Canada may be the ideal conduit.

The administration of President Joe Biden announced in March that the United States would help as many as 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing the Russia invasion. “In particular, we are working to expand and develop new programs with a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the United States,” the White House said.

Kazvin and Raiani say their plan is to bring a refugee family to Utah and help set them up here. Raiani bristles at the possibility of running into hurdles that keep him and his wife from getting a family to the United States. That, he said, would “make me feel sad and depressed.”

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