Vail woman tries to get young grandchildren out of war-torn Ukraine, asks USCIS to expedite process
VAIL, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A Vail woman is on the biggest mission of her life to get her son, daughter-in-law, newborn granddaughter and 12-year-old granddaughter out of Ukraine and into the safety of her Southern Arizona home.
Ayna Kekilova became a U.S. citizen in January. Days after receiving her citizenship, she filed a petition to sponsor her son and his family. It’s typically a lengthy process.
“8 to 11 years,” said Kekilova, “that’s how long it takes.”
When war broke out in Ukraine last month, Kekilova submitted a request to expedite the process under ‘Emergencies and Urgent Humanitarian Reasons.’
On Feb. 22, her request was denied. In an email, USCIS said it did not “meet one or more of the expedite criteria or otherwise merits expedited processing.”
“Then what merits that?” asked Kekilova. “What should happen to them? Should I die here? Should they be killed there so you can expedite it? I want to see my family alive.”
Kekilova’s son, Aman, and his family were living in Severodonetsk; an eastern Ukrainian city that borders Russia. According to Kekilova, the couple would have fled sooner if it wasn’t for their six-month-old daughter, Jasmine.
“The baby was born with a heart condition, she is not supposed to cry,” said Kekilova. “Can you imagine a baby that is not supposed to cry because she might develop arrhythmia or something else? They had a tiny apartment. So, they hid in a tiny closet, put blankets on windows just for sound protection and bomb protection, put mattresses at the doors. What they had with them in their apartment at that time was all they had. That was their food supply, their diaper supply.”
Kekilova says she hasn’t been eating or sleeping regularly since the conflict started.
“It is so scary,” said Kekilova. “If I start thinking about it, I start to cry. I can’t eat because I don’t know if they are able to eat.”
Wednesday night, she received some good news. Her son and his family boarded a train and are now making the long journey across the country. They plan to seek refuge in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania, depending on which route they are able to take.
Kekilova says her 12-year-old granddaughter is living in another Ukrainian village with her mother. Leily is named in the visa application, too.
“My family, my two little girls right under all this,” she said. “If it is a [traumatizing] for me here, I can’t imagine what it is like for them there.”
Kekilova spends her days on the phone. She’s emailed and called USCIS, the Department of State and congressmen and women. She’s now submitted a second request to expedite her case. This time, she included evidence supporting her family’s dire circumstance. Kekilova says Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick has agreed to submit a congressional inquiry on her behalf.
“That just felt like, ‘At least I have some support,’” she said.
Kekilova says she won’t give up until her loved ones are safe. She encourages others to contact their local representatives to show their support for speeding up processing times for those fleeing Ukraine.
KOLD News 13 reached out to USCIS for comment. We were redirected to the Department of Homeland Security and are waiting to hear back.
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