One year ago, Russia began its unprovoked war on Ukraine, using ground troops to overtake a country, and to kill, rape, displace and disappear Ukrainians at a level not seen in Europe since World War II. As President Biden traveled to Kyiv this week to remind the world of the US and European commitment to Ukraine and to reinforce the common mission of NATO, subnational actors the world over have found their own footing to help the people of Ukraine closer to home.
As volunteers, mayors and governors have shown—even at the most local level—dedication remains strong to assist with the humanitarian crisis created by Vladimir Putin’s attacks. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine steered people toward donating items for Ukrainians and leveraged the state’s law enforcement agencies to send 2,000 protective vests or other items for use by Ukrainian defense forces.
In Oregon, legislation introduced this week would ease some of the burdens of resettlement for the nearly 5,000 war refugees in that state.
While state and local based diplomacy efforts may not grab global headlines, they do generate change. The Biden administration invested in this effort last year by appointing former Los Angeles deputy mayor Nina Hachigian special representative for subnational diplomacy to ensure these relevant, regional players in the US get the attention and investment they deserve from the State Department to build momentum for city-to-city and province-to-state connections. Hachigian recently met with Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko to discuss the influential role cities—and mayors—play in promoting and conserving democracy.
The United States is currently extending protection to roughly 180,000 refugees, according to the Migration Policy Institute. By and large, the first welcome these war-scarred individuals receive to help them resettle in the US will come at the hands of local refugee organization volunteers from cities, counties and states across our nation. In the midst of a war and humanitarian crisis, people at all sectors and levels of society have a responsibility to ask: what can I do and who can help?
A road map for US state and local action
As Washington continues direct aid to the military of Ukraine and its diplomatic effort to shore up support with our NATO allies, subnational leaders can keep up momentum of their own in line with their narrow policy mandates.
These local efforts should start by listening to refugees resettling locally and thinking of life in their shoes. Irrespective of the horrendous conditions these refugees fled, the trauma they endured, and the loved ones and livelihoods they (at least) temporarily have left behind, what new hurdles do they face at the moment of resettlement? That is what policymakers asked in Oregon recently on the eve of their 2023 legislative session. We asked our leading civil society organizations what they were seeing refugees struggle with, and matched that up with where the state had the clearest role. Oregon also had historic experience to draw upon, given the high numbers of people fleeing the Soviet Union in the early 1990s who later settled in the Portland area.
James Manning Jr., president pro-tem of the Oregon state senate, introduced the bill to remove two key hurdles refugees face in Oregon: one related to housing, another related to mobility and state identification.
On housing, Manning’s bill would ensure that Ukrainian refugees could apply for rental housing without the need for an Oregon co-signer on any rental housing applications, which state law otherwise requires from all out-of-state renters. The bill also waives the written and driving exams and associated Department of Motor Vehicle fees for Ukrainian refugees applying for an Oregon driver’s license so long as the applicant can show a valid Ukrainian driver’s license.
This legislation may not seem groundbreaking, but it will have a direct, positive impact on the more than 4,500 Ukrainian refugees already in Oregon, according to the United for Ukraine program.
A driver’s license will not defend against a Russian rocket. And a waiver for housing in the United States is no consolation for a home destroyed in Ukraine, but putting both in the hands of a refugee sends a strong signal that subnational actors remain committed to helping the Ukrainian people as this war enters its second year.
Bills like those in Oregon can offer a guide for how state and local governments can and should play a role in supporting Ukraine by taking concrete actions to aid refugees in their communities.
As Hachigian has advocated in her own travels, the private sector has a place in this common defense and global alliance for Ukraine as well. Denmark (hosting 37,687 Ukrainian refugees), for example, created a website specifically to advertise jobs from Danish companies seeking to fill positions with Ukrainian refugees. Austria (with 93,171 Ukrainian refugees) developed a program that offers refugee children and parents access to psychologists. Sweden and Finland (hosting 50,740 and 49,726 Ukrainian refugees respectively) have both implemented individualized learning plans for Ukrainian children adjusting to life in a new country, showing the importance of school districts to help build needed connections for resettlement.
These regional forms of diplomacy are so essential to increase awareness of the war effort and aid those in need that the European Committee of the Regions established the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for the Reconstruction of Ukraine in July 2022 to foster dialogue and unite cities and regions from the EU and Ukraine to coordinate recovery efforts.
The potential of subnational diplomacy to have a rapid, positive impact on Ukrainian defense and the people of Ukraine cannot be overstated. Paired with larger-scale international aid efforts and multilateral cooperation, subnational diplomacy is essential to international diplomacy writ large. While the Biden administration continues to lead efforts to protect the people, institutions and borders of Ukraine, state and local leaders across the US ought to know they have a role to play too, using bills like Oregon’s and to aid the tens of thousands of Ukrainians already living in their own communities.