A lifelong resident of Ukraine, Natasha Hrytsenko, has always dreamed of having a fluffy white dog. When she started working, Ms. Hrytsenko, 30, used her first salary to buy a purebred Maltese puppy. She brought Eddie home in the Kyiv apartment she shared with her older sister.
Eight years later, when war swept their country and they decided to flee, Ms. Hrytsenko remembers telling her sister, “I can leave my best clothes, my favorite bags, and even my cell phone. But I won’t leave Eddie behind.”
The two made their way to Poland, then Germany, then Portugal, eventually heading to the United States, where they had friends in Virginia. The little dog traveled with them, folded under their arms or fell into their arms.
The sisters arrived in Tijuana, the Mexican city on the southern border of California, before they heard the news that kept them short: dogs from Ukraine were not, in most cases, allowed into the United States. A number of people have already had to leave their pets in Mexico under federal health regulations.
“I’d rather go back to Europe,” Ms. Hrytsenko told her sister.
Among the thousands of Ukrainians who have lined up at the southern border since the Russian invasion, the past few weeks have been marked by the agonizing progression of loss: homes, loved ones, jobs, and the quiet rest of familiar neighbourhoods. For those who manage to carry a beloved pet on their journey into an uncertain future, the barrier on the border has proven devastating.
“It’s everything to us,” Ms. Hrytsenko’s sister, Ira, 31, said of the dog.
“The number of dogs here is increasing day by day,” said Victoria Pendrick, a volunteer with Rescue Ukraine Relief Fund, which works with Ukrainian refugees trying to enter the United States. “The dogs have been brought back to us.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, except on a “very limited basis,” prohibits any dogs from entering the United States if they are in any 50 countriesincluding Ukraine, which it classifies as “high risk” for rabies.
At the busy border crossing in Tijuana, where a pedestrian lane opened for quick handling of Ukrainian refugees, Customs and Border Protection initially allowed a number of pets into the country, volunteers working at the border said. But recently, pets were not allowed from Ukraine.
Once they left Ukraine, the Hrytsenko sisters took steps to make sure their dog was ready for international travel.
Volunteer vets gave Eddie a rabies shot first in Poland and second in Germany, where vets also vaccinated him against parasites, implanted a microchip in his neck and provided him with papers and an international identity card to ensure he could travel.
The two sisters planned to travel to the United States via Mexico, a roundabout journey attempted by thousands of refugees due to delays in establishing a legal pipeline for Ukrainians to enter the United States. Mexico does not require visas, so refugees have been able to travel to Mexico and apply for humanitarian admission at the US land border.
The sisters boarded a flight from Lisbon to Mexico without any problem, their bags stuffed with cans of Newman’s Own organic chicken dog food. Eddie came in a small portable carrier.
After they landed in Cancun last week, an animal inspector at the airport reviewed their papers and checked Eddie from head to toe. He handed over an official, stamped document proving the dog’s health. The sisters flew to Tijuana on Sunday.
There, they joined hundreds of Ukrainians who were waiting for their turn to cross the border. In no time Eddie was gleefully heading across the mats lining the large gymnasium that had been turned into a huge refugee dormitory.
“We felt confident, confident that everything was fine,” Ira recalls. “Then, all of a sudden, we heard you couldn’t cross with your dog.”
After their journey of more than 6000 miles, across four international borders, this barrier seemed the most terrifying. They thought of reversing their steps.
Ms Pendrick, a US volunteer who works with refugees in Tijuana, said the process of legal access to the US under current procedures, which include a permit and possible quarantine, could take weeks.
“For many of these families who have experienced trauma, it is important to keep their family members together, including the pets they have spent so much energy, money and care bringing with them,” she said. “We understand the requirements and reasons set by the United States, but it is impossible for refugees to satisfy them.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has issued a number of permits to people coming from Ukraine with their pets. “We are working with NGOs in Mexico and the United States along the border to ensure that people arriving from Ukraine with their dogs meet entry requirements before entering the United States, or that they have a safe place to quarantine dogs if they arrive and do not meet the CDC entry,” the agency said.
Among the Ukrainians who managed to cross the border with their pet before the rabies ban was apparently escalated is Anastasia Derezenko, who crossed after spending a few nights in Tijuana with her husband and two children. She said they entered the United States with their little Maltese king, Luca, last week, after a visit to a Mexican vet who gave them the necessary paperwork.
When the US Immigration Police picked us up, we had Luca in our arms. Everything was fine, said Ms. Derezenko of Portland, Oregon, where her family resides with friends. Luka, 6 months old, has quickly become friends with the pups of their hosts.
“He came with us all the way from Brovary, and it was a very difficult journey,” she said, referring to the Ukrainian city east of Kyiv.
Newcomers, such as the Hrytsenko sisters, have been warned not to attempt to enter the United States with their pets.
For the sisters, it seemed like an impossible barrier. Then they learned there was an interim solution: Mexico is not on the CDC’s rabies list, and Americans who bring dogs in from that country are unlikely to face scrutiny at the US border. In fact, Americans who arrive with dogs from a low-risk or rabies-free state are not required to present a rabies vaccination certificate or special permit.
Several days ago, American animal lovers began transporting Ukrainian-owned dogs across the border themselves. Dozens of Ukrainian pets, mainly dogs and cats, have already made their way to California with American help. The Hrytsenko sisters began to look for someone who would agree to take Eddie.
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On Tuesday evening, they were told 3748, their designated number in line, should join a group at the border checkpoint, where the sisters will be escorted to California for processing by US authorities.
At first, they were elated. Their months-long journey was coming to an end.
Then they learned there was no American to take Eddie through until the next day.
“We broke apart,” Natasha said. “We didn’t want to leave Eddie overnight. We never left him alone. He really bonded with us.”
They postponed their transit to the US until the next morning after confirming that Eddie was handed over to them soon after.
On Wednesday, at about 10 a.m., they put Eddie in his white and gray box near the gym, where they were told he would be taken.
The dog began nibbling cracks and the trunk door, remembers Natasha, who said she was overcome with guilt. The two sisters started crying.
“You can’t explain to a dog that everything will be fine,” Natasha said.
After crossing into the United States, the couple joined a Kyiv native, Lyuba Pavlenko, a fellow dog owner with whom the sisters had bonded in Tijuana. Mrs. Pavlenko and her two children were waiting at a hotel in San Ysidro, near San Diego, to bring in a Chihuahua, Maya, from Mexico.
“I am sorry that Maya and Eddie had to be refugees and endure this journey,” said Ira when they met at the hotel.
Families became anxious as the day went on.
“I’m running out of patience,” Natasha said. It was after 3 p.m., more than five hours after they had left Eddie in the box.
Then their phone rang with a video live from the border, showing Eddie being taken toward the port of entry into the United States. They peered at the screen, trying to determine how their dog was standing.
“Oh my God, he’s getting old,” Natasha said.
“Look at him. He might be thirsty. He didn’t eat,” her sister said.
After about 45 minutes, the dogs were reunited with their owners, who smothered them with hugs and kisses.
Then it’s time to shower.
Natasha cleaned Eddie in the sink with a special White on White shampoo which, along with organic pet food, she made sure to pack in her individual bag.
Only then are they ready for the final stage of their journey – to Virginia, where their friends are waiting.
What happens next to Ukrainian dog owners in Tijuana is unclear. Ms. Pendrick said a local shelter has agreed to start looking for a way to help pet owners. In the coming days, new immigration regulations are expected to allow Ukrainians to travel directly to the United States, where they may face similar hurdles at airports until the CDC updates its guidance.
For Hrytsenkos, the only thing that mattered was that Eddie made it through. They ordered an Uber and drove to the airport, five hours before their flight.
Ira said it’s better to be early than to have problems that she doesn’t have time to solve. “We don’t want to take the risk with Eddie not getting on the plane.”
Mark Abramson Contribute to the preparation of reports.