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CBS 8 gets firsthand look at Ukrainian refugee crisis in Tijuana

Volunteers say more than 1,500 refugees are at our border, with another 500 arriving daily.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — There are over 1,500 Ukrainians believed to be waiting for asylum right now near the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Volunteers shared with CBS 8, that 500 refugees arrive daily. Many have been staying at a makeshift camp set up at a Tijuana bus station.

There, children play with bubbles to help pass the time. A table full of food is always stocked, with donations coming in every hour.

There's even a local woman giving out free massages, and a retired nurse from Chula Vista doing what he can to keep people healthy.

"Are you seeing a lot of issues with the children?” asked CBS 8 reporter Shannon Handy.

“Yeah. Dehydration, and I think it will get worse with the heat wave coming," said the retired Chula Vista nurse. 

The camp is where hundreds of Ukrainian refugees have been sleeping nightly as they wait their turn on a growing list of others seeking asylum.

It was set up through a grass roots effort, made up of volunteers, including Inna Levien.

“And it seems like it's been working, and it's been working well,” said Levien. “Yeah. We're bursting at the seams,"

As of Tuesday, Levien says there were nearly 1,500 Ukrainian refugees in Tijuana with about 500 arriving daily, triple what it was just one week ago.

While some are housed in hotels or nearby churches, the majority begin their stay in Tijuana about two miles away, at a city run facility called Benito Juarez, known as “The Hub.”

It’s a city-owned gymnasium where Ukrainian refugees are taken straight from the airport before they go through the immigration process.

Inside, nearly every inch of space is being used. Volunteers say close to a thousand people are staying there.

CBS 8 cameras captured volunteers assembling bunk beds to accommodate even more.

On average, refugees stay at “The Hub” two nights, then move to the bus stop near the Port of Entry, where they stay another night or two before meeting with immigration officials.

Ukrainians started fleeing to Mexico after the Biden Administration announced up to 100,000 refugees would be allowed in under what's known as humanitarian parole.

Most left everything behind, traveling extensively to get to this point.

"First of all, we arrived in Romania, we get to Budapest. From Budapest, we had a plane to Madrid. From Madrid to Mexico City, and from Mexico City right here to Tijuana," said 21-year-old Aliona Darmorost.

Darmorost and her 24-year-old cousin, Bohdana Haikova, left Ukraine last week after a friend in Sacramento offered to host them.

Their relatives are still there, including the men in their family, like Bohdana's brother, who is serving in the army defending Ukraine.

WATCH: Full Interview: Young Ukrainians waiting for asylum at U.S. border in Mexico

"Do you see yourself going back to Ukraine anytime soon?” asked CBS 8 reporter Shannon Handy.

“We hope. We hope so because our families are there,” said Darmorost. “Being separated from there really breaks our heart and knowing they're still there and we are not with them it's sad,"

On Wednesday, the bus stop shelter was shuttered. Refugees there have since been moved to Ped West, where Border Patrol agents hope to process them more quickly.

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said his department has already sent 600 law enforcement officers to the border and would add more as needed.

WATCH RELATED: Border Patrol begins processing Ukrainian refugees in Tijuana (April 2022)