In Southwest Virginia, Ballad Health is sending medical supplies to Ukraine.
In Lynchburg, a restaurant is raising money to send to the family of one its servers, who is from Ukraine.
In Danville, Averett University and West Main Baptist Church have teamed up to host a piano recital that will benefit Red Cross Ukraine.
In Roanoke, the Sisters Cities organization – the same one that’s been in the news for maintaining ties to a city in Russia – has sent $1,000 to a relief organization in its Polish Sister City of Opole to help with refugees.
In Bristol, a woman is organizing a bake sale to raise funds for relief groups in Ukraine.
All that has me thinking about what the governor has done – the governor of Vermont, that is.
Across the country, we’ve seen governors move to punish Russia in whatever ways they can – divesting of state investments in Russia, pulling Russian-made vodka from the shelves of state-owned liquor stores, breaking off “Sister State” ties with Russian counterparts and calling on their cities to do the same.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin did all that in Virginia. The Norfolk City Council joined in the call to break its Sister City ties with Kaliningrad; the Roanoke City Council very much refused and reaffirmed its ties to Pskov. (Here’s why.)
In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott – a Republican, if you’re curious – did all the things Youngkin did and some more.
First, he called on the Vermont state legislature to appropriate $1 for every Vermonter to use for humanitarian relief in Ukraine – $643,077. If Virginia did that, we’d be sending $8,631,393 to Ukraine. I have yet to hear any Virginia legislator propose this and doubt that I will.
Second, Scott issued an executive order that, among other things, declares that “Vermont stands ready to welcome and accept any Ukrainians who need refuge while their nation fights for its freedom.”
This seems a carefully worded phrase – it doesn’t say Vermont would welcome Ukrainian refugees permanently, only “while their nation fights for its freedom.”
Still, temporary sanctuary often turns into permanent residence and Vermont does have a demographic challenge – some Vermont news media call it a “crisis” – that Scott has been trying to address in other ways. Vermont has the fourth-highest median age of any state in the country (42.8, versus a national average of 38.5; Virginia is just under that at 37.8). The problem with old people, not to be too indelicate about it, is that they tend to die. Before that happens, they tend to require certain services that somebody has to pay for. The VT Digger, a news site covering Vermont (yes, I know the VT is confusing for all of us in Virginia Tech’s orbit), says simply: “The state needs people who are working and who are paying taxes.” That’s why Vermont is one of the places offering to pay remote workers to move there.
So maybe Scott is saying temporary sanctuary now – who wants to be so impolitic as to suggest some Ukrainians will never go back home? – but Vermont sure seems to be positioning itself as a haven for Ukrainian refugees of any duration. Mathematically, demographically, Vermont needs more people – especially young ones.
In that respect, Vermont is not all that different from much of Southwest and Southside Virginia – except that Vermont has been gaining population slowly, while many of our localities have been losing population.
Some of you can probably guess where this is going.
We need more people. Ukrainian refugees need a home. We should invite them here.
The United Nations’ International Organization of Migration says that more than 3.2 million people have fled Ukraine – 157,000 foreign nationals, the rest Ukrainians. The country’s pre-war population was just over 44 million, so that means close to 7% of the population has left the country.
In a perfect world, all those people will someday go home. Of course, in a perfect world, none of this would have ever happened. In the real world we are forced to live in, we all know that many of those people – maybe even most of those people – will never get to go home.
So where will they go?
Right now, more than half are in Poland, a country so welcoming (and so familiar with Russians) that families have left baby strollers at the border for young mothers to use. The Ukrainian refugees will no doubt disperse further from there. The European Union says Ukrainian refugees can stay in any of its 27 member states for up to three years. In Great Britain, which left the European Union through Brexit, more than 100,000 people have signed up to host Ukrainian refugees. So many people signed up so quickly the government’s website for the program crashed. (Whether Britain actually takes in that many refugees is unclear; Britain has not yet waived visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees.)
By contrast, the United States has been slow to institute any formal program for resettling Ukrainians, although the Biden administration is now looking at speeding up the process for Ukrainian refugees with family in the U.S. As with many things, politics are involved – most notably our inability to resolve almost anything related to immigration. History will look back on this era as a time when, economically speaking, we needed more young people but did not produce enough of them naturally – and refused to produce them via immigration. If we can’t figure out how to accept Ukrainians fleeing a horrific war, that’s a sad commentary on a country that claims the Statue of Liberty as one of its national icons.
Let’s skip over that part, though. Let’s assume some Ukrainian refugees make their way here. Where will they go then? If by “here” you mean North America, then probably Canada. Canada – through both liberal governments and conservative governments – has consistently been more pro-immigration than the United States has been. In some parts of Canada, rural localities have been those clamoring loudest for more immigration. You sure don’t see that in the United States. Canada also has a longer, richer history of Ukrainian immigration, dating back to 1891 when political upheavals back home spurred a Ukrainian exodus and many of that refugees traded the steppes of Eurasia for the prairies of Canada. The Canadian census counts more Canadians of Ukrainian heritage – 1.359 million – than our census counts Americans of Ukrainian heritage – about 1 million. (Allow me to geek out for a moment: The Canadian singer John K. Samson, who is based in Manitoba, name-checks his province’s Ukrainian heritage in song.) Since the beginning of the year, Canada has taken in more than 6,100 Ukrainians, according to the government’s website. By contrast, the United States has taken in 521, according to the Reuters news agency.
If Ukrainian refugees have family ties in the United States, then that probably means they’re headed to New York or the industrial Midwest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, five of the six states with the most people of Ukrainian ancestry are from New York to Illinois – with California as the lone exception.
So let’s ask a different question: What would it take to persuade some to settle in Southwest and Southside Virginia?
Every locality west of Montgomery County has lost population during the past decade. So has every locality in Southside along the North Carolina line until you get to the outskirts of Hampton Roads. All these localities say they want to reverse those trends. Here’s our chance. Of course, they all had a chance when we had Afghan refugees huddled into American military bases last fall, too, and they didn’t take advantage of that opportunity, either.
Before you jump to conclusions, there’s a structural reason for this: These localities don’t have resettlement agencies. On the ground level, refugee resettlement is typically handled through nonprofits, many of them church-related, that have made that one of their specialties.
For the Afghans who wound up at Virginia military bases, the state’s Department of Social Services worked with seven different organizations to resettle them, five of them church-related. Of those seven groups, only one has a presence in Southwest or Southside. Commonwealth Catholic Charities has an office in Roanoke that worked with 135 of the 5,217 Afghans who resettled in the state. Most wound up in Northern Virginia.
If we do get any Ukrainian refugees coming to Virginia, the odds are the same thing will happen: most find homes in the urban crescent, a few might come to Roanoke, none will go to the localities in Southwest and Southside that need new residents most. (Buchanan County had the steepest population decline over the past decade – down 15.5%, or 3,743 people.)
There’s only one way to change this: We need one of those nonprofits to open a branch in Southwest or Southside. Or we need an existing nonprofit in those regions to qualify — there are some groups, such as the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, that for whatever reasons weren’t on the list the state worked with to resettle Afghans. Put another way, if Southwest and Southside really want to grow their populations, we need someone to step up and take the lead here. If we don’t, how much do we really want to grow our population?