By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
Ukrainian staff of the US Embassy in Kyiv are asking the State Department for urgent help as their country comes under attack by Russia.
In a letter sent Thursday to Department leadership, the locally employed staff asked for “immediate answer and action” on issues like evacuating the country and securing visas to the US “as there is no safe place in Ukraine anymore.”
The letter, sent on behalf of hundreds of locally employed staff and seen by CNN, said they had not received adequate answers or communication from the State Department.
“Today (Locally Employed) Staff were waken up by the sound of exploding bombs in multiple cities around Ukraine. Situation is critical, and our questions remain unanswered,” they wrote in the letter, which was first reported by Foreign Policy.
“We have worked side by side with you for two decades, and always had strong faith in the work US Government was doing. We need your help now. This is not a time to wait and research. This is time to act. Your actions can save our lives,” they wrote.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Friday the department had received the message and was exploring options to support the staff, and said they had “already taken some important steps.”
As the threat of a Russian invasion loomed, the State Department drew down the number of US employees at the embassy in the Ukrainian capital to only a small team. That team was then relocated to Lviv, a city in the west of the country, and has now been moved to Poland in the wake of the Russian attack.
The Ukrainian staff were not included in those moves, and the sense of neglect suggested in the letter resembles that felt by locally employed staff of the US Embassy in Afghanistan. As Kabul fell to the Taliban and the US pulled all diplomats and forces from the country, Afghans who had worked for the Embassy were left to make their own perilous journey to the airport to be evacuated.
Among the requests in their letter, the Ukrainian locally employed staff asked the State Department to provide them a “clear and simplified” Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) procedure, which would allow them to come to the US, and that the requirements to qualify for such visas be lowered “in same way as it was done in the past for Afghanistan LE Staff.”
“Before, we were told, that Ukraine is not Afghanistan. We don’t want it to be, but if the difference is in size of bombs flying over our heads, it is not fair,” the letter said.
They asked for immediate relocation to work in neighboring countries and help crossing the borders, noting that “there is already shortage of gas, no flights out of Ukraine, lines at the border, etc.” They also requested financial support and help securing their banking accounts, and a dedicated contact at the State Department to answer questions and provide assistance.
In a different letter dated Thursday to leadership at the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID), a group of foreign service officers and other staff expressed concern about the “lack of responsiveness to date to the questions, concerns, and requests raised by U.S. Embassy and USAID Kyiv locally employed staff.”
“The unspeakable events unfolding in Ukraine have deeply shaken and impacted the entire U.S. Embassy Kyiv community, but none more than our local Ukrainian staff who remain in harm’s way and face the uncertainty that the coming hours and days will bring,” said that letter, which was seen by CNN.
“Our Ukrainian colleagues deserve better. Now is the time they most need our help. We are concerned their needs have not been prioritized,” it said.
Asked about the letter from locally employed staff at a State Department briefing Friday, Price said they “are exploring all legal options available to us that would enable us to support them at what clearly is a very difficult time for our locally employed staff.”
He said the State Department had implemented paid leave for all staff, and established a dedicated communications channel “for all of our locally employed staff to contact us with their questions, with their concerns, so that we can be responsive directly to them.”
“We provided the option of salary advances to support those locally employed staff who need an extra amount of assistance at what is clearly a very difficult time,” Price said.
Price claimed that the State Department had “provided guidance” to those locally employed staff who sought information about leaving Ukraine.
“These relationships are deeply meaningful to us. They’re deeply important to us. Again, our operations could not continue without our local employed staff,” he said.
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CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.