WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — By day, Iryna Panyukova runs two Smoothie King franchises in Palm Beach and Broward counties. But when she isn't serving customers, she's working around the clock desperate to bring her parents and brothers' family to the United States.
"They lost everything of what they had," Panyukova said. "They need something comforting, and I cannot help them."
Without an official refugee program, her mission is a daunting task. The family left Ukraine following the Russian invasion and sought refuge in neighboring Romania.
"There was bombing right next to their house and their house was shaking," she said.
They are now living with strangers until Iryna can get them here to South Florida. As the war unfolds, she, along with several others, is now pushing for the White House to launch a program that would allow Ukrainians to apply for refugee status in the U.S.
A petition has started online, and it has gained nearly 60,000 signatures.
"The part where everything was scary and unknown," Panyukova said. "They passed that already. Now they are stressed because they don't know what's next."
In the meantime, she said she's been able to help her brother's family apply for visas, remaining hopeful that with approval they could be stateside within weeks.
"I cannot stop the war, but I can do what I can to help people who are still there and going through all of this," Panyukova said.
She's also working to get her parents' passports renewed to come to the U.S.
According to the United Nations, her loved ones are among the more than 400,000 refugees who have fled to Romania.