Igor Semenkov and Galyna Semenkova hold a picture taken in...

Igor Semenkov and Galyna Semenkova hold a picture taken in 2014 of Galyna with their daughter Kseniia Isaienko, who escaped the war in Ukraine. They are trying to bring her and her husband to Oyster Bay. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Jenya Semenkova, a Ukrainian American in Oyster Bay, wants to keep her sister and brother-in-law safe as the war with Russia in their home country rages.

The couple, who escaped from Odessa to Italy, applied to visit her temporarily as they wait for Ukraine to be safe enough for a return, Semenkova said.

But the U.S. Embassy in Milan denied the application and they are now stuck in a foreign land, staying with kind strangers, said Semenkova, who moved to the United States 16 years ago and became a U.S. citizen.

"My sister and her family has to bounce from European country to European country to European country — driving how many miles, not speaking the language, not knowing what to do — (when) we're here," Semenkova, 36, said.

Jenya Semenkova, with her son Robert Schwartz, 6, holds a...

Jenya Semenkova, with her son Robert Schwartz, 6, holds a picture taken in 2014 of herself with her parents Igor Semenkov and Galyna Semenkova and sister Kseniia Isaienko. Her sister fled the war but is unable to get to the U.S. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

This family is one of many trying to bring their Ukrainian relatives stateside to safety. But under U.S. immigration law, tourist visa applicants must show their ties to their home country are strong enough that they would return after their visa expires.

But that proof is nearly impossible when your home country is being bombed, said Rep. Tom Suozzi, whose office Semenkova and her husband contacted about the visa denial. He said his office has heard from about five other families with similar struggles to bring relatives over.

"I don’t remember when was the last time I just had a good night’s sleep," said Semenkova, a practice senior manager at Northwell Health, who said her parents — who are green cardholders — live with her.

Semenkova’s sister and brother-in-law, Kseniia and Oleksandr Isaienko, ages 28 and 34, sought a tourist visa because they plan to return home soon, based on their hopes the conflict will be short-lived, said Semenkova’s husband, Benjamin Schwartz, a gynecologist oncologist at Northwell.

Other immigration visas would have ruled out the possibility of them returning home, he said.

"To be a citizen of this country — the greatest country in the world — to have your sister fleeing a war and having your government be the reason why you can't safely bring her here" has made "our lives incredibly stressful," Schwartz said.

Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) wrote a letter asking President Joe Biden to help refugees live with relatives in the U.S., including through potentially increasing the refugee cap, creating a special refugee program or setting up a humanitarian parole program, which accepts people who would otherwise be ineligible for admission into the country.

The White House and Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

A State Department spokesperson said the department does not typically comment on congressional correspondence or individual applicants' visa eligibility.

The department is prioritizing support to U.S. citizens and their immediate families, and the U.S. has granted temporary protected status to Ukrainians who have been in the country since March 1, officials said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday "the best way that the United States can contribute to this refugee crisis is by providing humanitarian assistance, funding to a range of countries who are welcoming refugees."

About 2 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia invaded last month.

Pavlo Legchylkin, a 30-year-old airline pilot who lives in Brooklyn, said he wants to bring his mother and younger sister to the U.S. for a short visit. The two escaped to Warsaw, Poland, where the U.S. Consulate denied their tourist visa, even though the pair plans to return as soon as possible to their lives and loved ones in Ukraine. He hasn't seen them since he left Ukraine in 2014.

"It's a terrible time," he said. "But if I'm working in a good job and paying taxes and I prove myself as a good citizen in the U.S., why (can’t I) bring my family?"

Hauppauge immigration attorney Olivier Roche said a similar visa issue unfolded after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. A number of Long Islanders sought his help to bring Haitian relatives over on tourist visas temporarily but they were denied, partly because of an "exponential influx" in applications.

"It’s a difficult situation" because the government suspects people will stay past their visa when "given the conditions in your country, you’re unlikely to go back anytime soon," Roche said. "From a humanitarian standpoint, of course your heart goes out to these people."

Afghans fleeing the Taliban after the U.S. military left said they also struggled to gain visas. Only about 100 of more than 28,000 Afghan applications for humanitarian parole were approved since July 1, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told news outlets late last year.

For Semenkova, her sister’s situation compounds the stress she feels watching her home country at war. "It's devastating. Honestly, I was in tears for many nights because I know those cities, I know those streets," Semenkova said. "It's almost like my heritage is just getting wiped out just right in front of me."

With Laura Figueroa Hernandez

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