Kilpatrick Townsend attorney Vita Zeltser and her daughter, Talia Pivoshenko, in their yellow volunteer vests, at the Przemysl train station in Poland, where they helped Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Zeltser is working with an immigration-focused nonprofit and says she's infinitely grateful for the firm's "unwavering support" of her desire to help those displaced by the war, including Russian dissidents.
"When the war broke out, it was just very personal and very shocking, especially the feeling of helplessness from abroad," Zeltser told Law360. "This [help] just needs to happen. Someone's gotta do it. There's just this endless sea of need."
Zeltser was born in Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine on the Romanian border. Her family emigrated through a refugee program to reunite with relatives already in the United States.
Fluent in Russian and English and with a basic understanding of Ukrainian, Zeltser just returned from an almost three-week stint in Poland, where she and her family helped refugees on the Ukraine border. Her husband also left Ukraine for the United States in his youth under a refugee program, and the couple speak Russian at home with their three children.
Zeltser's work as a border volunteer included translating English materials into Russian, which she said most Ukrainians understand. She witnessed multiple trains arriving from Ukraine daily, filled with refugees fleeing cities under attack. Her help in Poland was most effective at a refugee center and in translating for volunteer medical staff.
"Some people arrive with no luggage, just the clothes on their backs and small backpacks," Zeltser said. "Multiple full trains also go back every day, with refugees who have been in Europe for some time deciding to accept their risks [and] go home. It is all heartbreaking."
Through the firm, Zeltser has partnered with the Texas-based organization VECINA, which primarily mentors and trains pro bono attorneys working with vulnerable immigrant populations.
Zeltser is helping other lawyers develop resources for Ukrainians and translate them into Russian, and research issues with the federal government's new Ukrainian refugee program as they emerge. She also connects Ukrainians across the country with the right resources in their area, and helps them understand their options for staying in the U.S., what the application process entails and how sponsorship works.
"There is a wonderful community of practitioners online, frontline immigration attorneys who share resources and information, and I'm deeply plugged into that," Zeltser said. "There are certain skills that lawyers inherently have that are very helpful in a situation like this. I think attention to detail, and frankly creativity, because you're in uncharted waters."
Zeltser's contribution to the war relief effort is just one of the ways in which Kilpatrick is helping the cause. The firm has raised more than $100,000 for Ukrainians through humanitarian organizations CARE and American Red Cross, and about 40 of its attorneys have volunteered their help to Ukrainians applying for temporary protected status in the United States.
Tamara Caldas, the firm's pro bono partner, says that kind of assistance will continue as long as it is needed. She said Zeltser's involvement with VECINA is an exciting start to the firm's relationship with the nonprofit.
"We'll continue to look for opportunities to engage, to help individuals," Caldas said. "A lot of organizations didn't really have Ukrainian infrastructure to support the changing ways that the United States is providing relief to this population. And I think we're going to be on the front lines of that as things progress because Vita is up close and personal with what's happening."
VECINA CEO Lindsay Gray said Zeltser is a vital part of a small group working on the nonprofit's effort to help Ukrainians, which is supported by the International Academy of Trial Lawyers Foundation. She said the ultimate goal is to provide Ukrainians and volunteer attorneys with valuable, factual information to ensure the U.S. is a safe haven for those who need it.
"We could not do the work we are doing without her," Gray told Law360. "With mentorship and guidance from VECINA, Vita's analytical skills, coupled with her ability to speak and write Russian, provide a level of assistance that few others could offer. Her passion to assist the Ukrainian people in their time of need allows her to engage in trauma-informed lawyering in a time where such compassion is desperately needed."
Ukrainian refugees not only face uncertainty about how long the war will last and if their homes will survive, but also whether they'll be able to permanently stay in the United States, Zeltser said. The country's current two-year humanitarian parole process does not include a path for permanent residency, she said.
Most of the refugees are women and children because Ukraine is barring most men of conscription age from leaving the country. Some seeking asylum in the U.S. are Russians who fear persecution for opposing the war.
Part of Zeltser's goal is to get people the right information in the right language and prevent the spread of unhelpful or incorrect information. She said it's important that those affected are updated on the latest developments, especially when dealing with a federal program that only just launched.
"It's become this kind of area rife with legal issues where there really were none before," Zeltser said. "And they're only just beginning as the program develops, as more people apply, and as more issues emerge."
The United States is allowing Ukrainians without visas, who were already in the U.S. when the war began or who entered the country shortly after, to apply for temporary protected status. Ukrainians outside the U.S. can enter on a temporary basis with sponsorship from someone inside the country.
Zeltser described her fellowship with VECINA as a perfect match. She sees her value at the "issues level," where she can support more "frontline" immigration lawyers. Though she's previously worked on pro bono efforts through the firm, Zeltser said those projects were more conventional than dealing with the fallout from a war in her birth country.
She tips her hat to immigration attorneys, knowing how difficult and emotional their work can be.
"You get personally invested," Zeltser said. "You stay up late at night worrying about people. It's a different animal entirely from what I've known in my career as a data privacy attorney."
--Editing by Nicole Bleier and Lakshna Mehta.