Sisters living in Everett granted asylum after nervous months

EVERETT — An American flag flies from the Nesterenko family’s porch in south Everett.

In many ways, the recent arrivals from Ukraine have thrived. As Baptists, they’ve enjoyed religious freedoms denied to them back home. They’re grateful for the chance to work and, most of all, for their children’s education.

For much of the past year, though, immigration troubles for their three young daughters created a gnawing anxiety.

Foremost on their minds was 18-year-old Angelina, who cannot care for herself because of developmental disabilities. Younger sisters Nataliya, 14, and Rufina, 12, also faced the prospect of deportation.

“I was really afraid of what’s going to happen if they were forced to leave and go back to Ukraine,” said older brother Dema Nesterenko, 30. “I was hoping but I thought our chances to resolve this with a positive result wouldn’t be big.”

Immigration authorities had informed the family in April that the daughters, who arrived on visitor visas, had lost their immigration status.

The family appealed and nervously awaited a hearing date in September.

Other family members didn’t have the same immigration problems. Dema, who lives in Seattle, had come to the States as a political refugee in 2006 and became a U.S. citizen. That allowed him to obtain green cards for his parents, Oksana and Sergii Nesterenko.

Immigration laws impose tougher requirements to get permanent residency for siblings. That’s why the sisters had green cards. The family had hoped to apply to get the sisters asylum status after their arrival, but their plans hit a snag. Ordinarily, you cannot apply for asylum if you’ve been in the United States for more than a year.

The Nesterenkos said bad advice from an immigration attorney in Ukraine left them unaware of that rule.

Oksana arrived in May 2012 with her daughters. Sergii rejoined the family about six months later. Both parents found work, Oksana in a Russian bakery and Sergii as a welder.

“Everything you see here, they worked hard to earn it,” said Dema, from his parents’ duplex near Paine Field. “Both of them work hard to provide the family what they need.”

They have been elated with Angelina’s progress during the two years she’s been enrolled in special education classes at Mariner High School.

She can write her name in English, something she never learned in her native Russian. Even more important though, was finding a sense of dignity.

Angelina didn’t attend school in Ukraine, where official paperwork branded her with a stigmatizing medical designation. Without her family providing full-time care, she faced a grim future in a government facility.

“Anegelina had lived in isolation for 16 years,” Dema said.

While sitting still, there’s little that sets Angelina apart from any other shy, gangling teenager. She’s quiet, but has a ready smile.

Her family says she has the mental ability of a child as young as 4. She has trouble with coordination and a higher-than-normal risk of falling. She has a sharp memory, though.

Her family isn’t sure what caused the condition, or what to call it. They suspect it may stem from a lack of oxygen during her mother’s difficult labor. They didn’t realize anything was wrong until she was a toddler.

In addition to Angelina’s disability, other factors complicated the family’s situation.

They hail from the Donetsk region, one of the eastern Ukrainian provinces hardest hit by the country’s civil war.

More than a million people have been displaced by the conflict, the United Nations Refugee Agency reports.

The family’s former home lies about 10 miles from the crash site of the Malaysian Airlines jet shot down in a rebel-controlled area on July 17, Dema estimated.

“The house they lived in is destroyed because of the war,” he said.

Like many others, they’re unsure what to think of the conflict. Russian and Ukrainian news channels portray events in such a different light, that it’s often difficult to believe they’re describing the same developments.

The family’s own ethnic makeup also put them in a tough spot. The mother, Oksana, is Russian while the father, Sergii, is Ukrainian. That could create problems for one or the other, depending on what region of Ukraine they’re in.

Another worry involves religion. The Nesterenkos are Baptist and say they suffered persecution as minorities in predominantly Orthodox Christian Ukraine.

As they awaited the sisters’ immigration hearing, people were quick to help.

Support letters came from a teacher at Mariner High School, a neurologist who has been treating Angelina and their pastor at Spring of Life Church in Mukilteo.

Dema counted on support from co-workers with at Local 775NW of the Service Employees International Union.

An immigration attorney in Everett offered her services for free. Newspaper and television stories drew attention to the case.

By the time they reached their immigration interview, the officer who heard the case already seemed to know the details. Dema said he found himself biting his nails during the proceedings.

Then they waited.

A few weeks later, in October, they received a phone call.

Dema went with their immigration attorney, Mirka Nakovski, to the bakery where his mother works. They wanted to deliver the news in person.

“She literally dropped everything,” Dema said. “She didn’t speak.”

Relief had replaced anxiety.

The girls had been granted asylum. A follow-up letter from Citizenship and Immigration Services, dated Oct. 30, explained that the sisters could stay in the United States and, later, apply for permanent residency.

“It was a very difficult year,” Dema said. “I think God was helping us and guiding us.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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