They Fled Danger for New York. When Will Their New Lives Start?


She spends her days cooking and cleaning to help her parents. She follows the news from Ukraine and worries about her brother, who is still there. Without the papers to enroll in school, her daughter is getting bored. Her parents — one a home health-aide worker and the other in construction — found a two-room apartment through a local broker that they can afford. In that way, Arsirii said, she has been lucky. She and her daughter will have a little more space.

Arsirii would like to contribute to the household expenses but is waiting to hear about her work permit. She hopes to work in an office but knows she will have to learn English first. Her days are spent in relative isolation. She has painted her nails blue and yellow, in honor of Ukraine. She is waiting, mostly, for her new life to start.

No one knows exactly how many Ukrainians have arrived in the city since the war started in February. But the incoming flow of people can, in some ways, be measured by the overwhelming number of requests made to neighborhood and civic organizations. When the Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach scheduled an information session for Ukrainian immigrants, 300 people signed up in advance, and many more came on the day of the event. Michael Levitis, a local Russian-language radio personality on Freedom FM 104.7, has been hosting call-in programs with immigration lawyers. Schools and day care centers have been working to open spots for Ukrainian children.

In a cubicle located in the back of the Brighton Beach Chase Bank building, along Brighton Beach Avenue, a woman named Yelena Makhnin has been fielding an endless stream of requests since early March. Makhnin is head of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. “I am a referral service, let’s put it this way,” she told me. “Everyone has my cellphone number.”

Makhnin, who was born in Ukraine, arrived in New York in 1992 speaking little English. She took classes at the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), a refugee-resettlement agency that was founded in 1949 to serve Jewish refugees, funded with a mix of donations and federal grants. NYANA earned near mythic status for those who arrived in the 1980s and ’90s. In its heyday, the association was serving more than 50,000 immigrants a year and had an operating budget of $90 million. Makhnin received six months of assistance from the association as well as a Pell Grant, which helped her attend business classes. She has been running the Business Improvement District for nearly 20 years.

“When I first came to Brighton Beach, there were the American-born babushkas,” Makhnin said. “There were a few stores whose owners and relatives came over in the 1940s. Those stores were like clubs.” Makhnin’s babushkas spoke Yiddish to everyone who arrived, offering them advice and helping them understand their new home.

The neighborhood has changed since then. The babushkas are long gone, and Makhnin wishes new immigrants had the same level of support. “I came differently,” she said. “I came as a refugee. We had NYANA. NYANA provided English classes; NYANA provided some financial help. I was in a different category. When they took us as refugees, they took upon themselves some kind of responsibility.” The arrivals Makhnin sees today are staying with friends and family members, packed in small apartments, unsure of how to build new lives. “What is next?” she asked me, raising her eyebrows.

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