The seven Ukrainian sailors who were stranded on a merchant ship docked in Philadelphia as Russia invaded their country have finally been allowed to disembark — presumably into the arms of Philadelphia’s Ukrainian community.
The sailors left the ship Wednesday morning and headed for the US Customs and Border Protection office in Old Town. Their hope is to receive temporary protected status, which would allow them to live here while their homeland is at war, according to Iryna Mazur, a Philadelphia attorney and honorary consul for Ukraine.
The men had previously been spared detention, which had been another possibility.
For nine months, a week and four days, Captain Gennadiy Shevchenko and his crew had been confined to the merchant vessel Ocean Force, a 348-foot-long, 66-foot-wide freighter docked first in Delaware and then in South Philadelphia, at Pier 82. They I had done maintenance and kept the ship running while lawyers and lawyers tried to sort out their future.
Since the Russians invaded the homeland of the crew on February 24, more than 4.9 million Ukrainians fled their country. The Biden administration agreed to resettle 100,000 Ukrainians. Those who land in Philadelphia will join approximately 60,000 emigrants and people of Ukrainian ancestry, one of the largest Ukrainian communities in the country.
The men followed the news from their ship. They say they lost friends during the war, but not family members.
Boatswain Sergiy Kuzhbarenko, 53, has a five-and-a-half-year-old daughter in Mariupol, the war-torn city in southeastern Ukraine where, according to its mayor, more than 10,000 civilians were killed.
The first chance Kuzhbarenko has, he says, he wants to see his face. He misses home “deeply”, he said via the captain, who translated for many of the crew.
Help came from Barbara Shipley of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, Seamen’s Church Institute, Mazur, and J. Stephen Simms, a maritime lawyer from Baltimore, who worked to ensure the crew received salary arrears – they received nothing between November and March – and find out what will happen to the crew.
The heavy-lift carrier’s former owner ran out of money, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Delaware. On March 1, the ship’s owner changed hands and the new boss paid the crew to operate the ship until now, when it can be towed for repair in the Caribbean.
In March, the crew members received the funds they had not received since November. This money will help them settle into the Ukrainian community in Philadelphia until it is safer for them to return home.
In the meantime, they want jobs, says their captain.
But they don’t know if their legal status will allow them to work here. They know little of what awaits them.
Vitaliy Boyko’s daughter turned 12 on March 14. Throughout the day, the ship’s third officer was able to talk to him and his wife, but being so far away from them is heartbreaking. Watching the news, seeing your country at war, it’s heartbreaking.
“War is war. It’s always the same. It’s blood and tears,” the 53-year-old said.
Once he gets a few days off, Boyko hopes to find work and contribute to the country that took him in – until he has the first chance to return to his loved ones.
“I’m not going to stay in the United States forever,” he said. “What will I do? My family is there, I’m here. I’ll try to make some money and then I’ll come back.
Most of the crew agreed. As they rejoice at the chance to see the city after spending so many days at sea and in dock, they can’t help but think of home. Although they say their families are safe, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried about them.
Most of the crew are from Odessa, which more than one called “the biggest city in the world”. The strategic Black Sea port is home to an impressive opera house which today is heavily guarded to prevent Russian attack.
“Each space, each building, they have their own story,” Shevchenko said. “The city is full of history.”
Andriy Tiupa, a 19-year-old Ocean Force steward, said he misses his mother, father, siblings and fiancée. He knew he wanted to be on a boat and be a sailor, but he didn’t expect to be this far away when trouble hit his home.
He too wants to rest, then find work to support his family.
As the seven men stood for a group photo in front of the ship on a recent afternoon, their mood was high. This ship, while protecting them for nearly a year, would finally find its way into their rear sight.
The men got a little taste last month of what life in Philadelphia might look like. After their initial fate became public knowledge, a reader named Jim Malin brought the men hot cheesesteaks from Campo’s in Old Town.
Via email, he shared the experience: “I had an interpreter and after praying over the meal, when I looked up two of the guys were crying. Such a sad and tragic situation.