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Ukrainians Find a Wealth of Community But No Legal Work in New York

Because Ukrainians fleeing war have not yet been offered a legal status, they are relying on New York community members for help.

Natalya wakes up early every morning to get ready for a different series of gigs. Sometimes it’s holding music and Russian language classes for children. Other times it’s walking dogs near Central Park. And some days, it’s taking care of a family’s baby, or going to pick up their children from school.

“I don’t want to think about whether this is forever. I don’t know,”  Natalya, 58, said in Russian through an interpreter. “We live in the day… We don’t know what happens tomorrow.”

Natalya, who preferred to go by just her first name due to privacy reasons, is one of what is estimated to be hundreds of Ukrainians who have arrived in New York City in recent weeks. By foot, trains, planes, and buses, Ukrainians have made their way out of the country to New York City, where about 150,000 Ukrainians already live — the biggest Ukrainian community in the United States. 

Because Ukrainians fleeing war have not yet officially been offered a legal status by the federal government, which would grant them access to resettlement services, they are relying on New York Ukrainian community members, families and friends for aid. Long time residents of New York are also grappling with how to help their families who are stuck abroad.

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On a recent Friday, about a hundred Ukrainian community members arrived at a free legal clinic held at the The Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst. One man was wondering how he could get his grandchildren out of Mariupol. Another woman arrived with letters she had written to elected officials pleading for help to get her aunt to New York, who had fled Kharkiv and was waiting in Israel. One elderly Ukrainian woman sat in the corner holding a cane, tears streaming down her face as she spoke to organizers about her recent escape from Ukraine.

Those evacuating from the war are staying on couches of strangers and in guest rooms of families. They’re enrolling their children in schools where their kids do not understand the language. They’re searching for legal help as many of their tourist visas may expire in a matter of months. They’re relying on funds from friends or family members, or have to find cash jobs, as their legal situation bars them from obtaining immediate work authorization.

Also Read: What Happens if You Overstay Your Tourist Visa 

Natalya made the journey from Ukraine to New York City in early March. From her hometown of Odesa, she crossed the border into Moldova, made her way through Romania and Poland, and flew to New York. Now, she lives in her cousin’s Manhattan apartment, where she arrived about a month ago. 

“Psychologically, my condition is not easy… our entire life, our entire happy and successful life, ended,” Natalya said.

Although the Biden administration has announced that it will accept 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression into the United States “through a full range of legal pathways, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” the White House said in a March announcement, there has been little additional information about what those pathways may look like, said Alexandra Caudill, the Assistant Director at The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a New York refugee resettlement agency. The administration has also said that Temporary Protected Status for 18 months will be extended to Ukrainians who entered the country on or before March 1 — a date which could potentially leave hundreds out of the program. 

Natalya, a 58-year-old Ukrainian woman who fled from her home in Odesa in early March, is now staying with her cousin in Manhattan. She is struggling to find a way to make a living legally while on a tourist visa.

“As a state and federally funded resettlement agency, we’re not actually able to provide formal resettlement services to the Ukrainians arriving in New York on temporary visas right now, which is extremely challenging,” Caudill said. Ukrainians do not currently have a legal status that would allow them access to resettlement services that agencies like HIAS offer — including financial aid with housing, English classes, and legal case assistance.

On Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke with Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, “to reiterate New York State’s willingness and readiness to assist individuals fleeing the egregious violence that has embroiled Ukraine and the region,” she said in a statement. But the governor did not detail what specific steps might be implemented to aid Ukrainians arriving in New York. 

Also Read: How the Office of Refugee Resettlement Works

Although the agency has begun to pull together informal resource lists in order to refer people on a case by case basis to the resources they need, what the agency can do right now for Ukrainians is “quite limited,” Caudill said. “In order for the resettlement as it exists to start supporting these people in a substantial way, the State Department needs to make a policy change to make them eligible for resettlement services.”

The New York Legal Assistance Group has conducted consultations or heard about consultations for about 100 Ukrainian families fleeing war, who previously had tourist visas and used them to come to New York, said Jodi Ziesemer, the group’s Director of the Immigrant Protection Unit. “In the past two months, border officials processed almost 10,000 undocumented Ukrainians, CBS News reported, while thousands seek entry to the United States through Mexico.”1:48 PM. 

Many of the families requesting entry through the Mexican border expressed plans to travel to New York, Ziesemer said, citing NYLAG’s data and information from the Ukrainian Consulate, and other legal providers.

Kseniia Nadvotska, who is from the Odesa region, is one of those admitted into the United States through the southern border. Nadvotska, 36, left her hometown the day after the war began, and did not arrive in New York until about a month after she first left Ukraine, she said. From her home, Nadvotska traveled through five countries — Moldova, Romania, Poland, Germany and Mexico — before arriving in the United States. 

With her nine-year-old son, she arrived at the Tijuana border in late March, where she received humanitarian parole, and was let into the United States. After a brief stay in San Diego, she flew to New York — the only place where she had family or friends outside of Ukraine, she said. 

“It was very difficult, especially for the kids,” Nadvotska said in Russian about the months-long journey, through an interpreter.  “We came here with zero,” Nadvotska said. “My head is spinning.”

Evacuees struggle to find legal work opportunities 

Ukrainians arriving with tourist visas — which they already held — like Natalya, are barred from legally working in the United States, forcing them to turn to gigs paid in cash just to sustain themselves. 

Demonstrators attend a rally in support of Ukraine near the United Nations Headquarters on Saturday, April 2.

“Technically, on a tourist visa, you are not allowed to work,” said Evangeline M. Chan, Director of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon. “It’s for a limited purpose, for a limited time.”

Even for Ukrainians entering the country with humanitarian parole — a legal status for individuals granted entry to the United States “for urgent humanitarian reasons” according U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — work authorization can take several weeks, Ziesemer said. “People are not being immediately given work authorization,” she said. 

Ievgeniia Shevchenko was living in Kharkiv before the war and is now staying with her sister in Brooklyn. Shevchenko, like Nadvotska, made a grueling journey out of Ukraine to New York and came here on a tourist visa. She is hoping to find work as soon as possible to support her family. 

When the war began, Shevchenko, 39, sheltered below ground with her five-year-old daughter and her elderly mother as air raid sirens rang out in her hometown.

“It was hard. A lot of bombings. We were sitting underground and sitting in basements all the time,” Shevchenko said. “It was a big trauma.” 

Also Read: How Ithaca Became a Haven for Refugees

The family was able to evacuate about a week after the war started. With tourist visas, they bought plane tickets to New York from Poland, and arrived on March 25th.  “I want to work, like legally,” Shevchenko, who was an engineer in Ukraine, said. “I’m a little confused how I can do that.”

Anastasiia Melnyk, who also recently arrived from Ukraine, is staying with her sister, Kateryna Volo, in Manhattan. Melnyk fled her home of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine and arrived in New York with a pre-existing tourist visa at the beginning of April with her six-year-old son. 

“Now I have a big problem,” Melnyk, 36, said. “My visa cannot give me a chance to work.” 

Melnyk was a dental technician in Ukraine, but without work authorization she’s not sure how to make a living. “We don’t know how it works here,” said Volo, 33, her sister who moved to the country just a year ago. “She needs work so she can have money to survive here.”

All that Melnyk has in her possession currently, her sister said, is a passport, $300, pants, shoes and a coat. “What’s next?” Volo asked.

Natalya, left, meets Yuliya Zolotarevsky, center and Anya Shvetsova, right, near Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Zolotarevsky and Shvetsova operate a Facebook page to connect recently arrived Ukrainians in New York like Natalya with jobs, housing and other assistance.

Nadvotska, the mother who requested parole at the southern border, worked as a lawyer in Ukraine and is also hoping to be able to find a job in New York. “But without good English,” she said through an interpreter, “I can only do very simple jobs. That’s why my focus is to learn English.” Nadvotska has not yet received work authorization, despite arriving in the City at the end of March.

Back in Odesa, Natalya, the 58-year-old woman who has been teaching music lessons and taking care of children, worked to organize music concerts. But now, she’s starting over “So I have to combine both learning [English] and the search for some kind of work at the same time,” she said. 

The language barrier leaves children behind, too. Melnyk, who is staying with her sister in Manhattan, has a six-year-old son who doesn’t speak English. She wants him to continue his classes in Ukrainian, which are still held remotely from their home country. But with the time difference, she gets up at 3 a.m. to record the lessons, showing them to him when he is awake. 

“In the Ukrainian language, there are no schools,” Volo, Melnyk’s sister, said about New York City. “So we don’t know what to do.”

In the absence of consolidated aid, Ukrainians in New York lean on each other

The Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst has become a hub for Ukrainians recently arriving in New York, and individuals trying to get their families to the City, said Alex Budnitsky, the Executive Director of the center. More than seventy percent of the staff is from Ukraine, Budnitsky said, and the center has enrolled recent arrivals in English classes, brought individuals to doctors for immunizations, and helped them apply for medical insurance.

 “So far, JCH is the only organization that has helped me on the ground,” said Nadvotska, who came to New York through Mexico.

Also Read: Organizations Serving Immigrants in New York

Natalya, the 58-year-old woman from Odesa, was able to make connections in New York through Yuliya Zolotarevsky, a 50-year-old Ukrainian woman who has been living in New York for eight years. Zolotarevsky created a Facebook page, called New York Communities for Ukrainian Refugees, to help assist Ukrainians arriving in New York with jobs, housing and other needs – and through that page, Natalya was able to find gigs for cash.

“Everything I have here, right now, all my contacts, come back to Yuliya and her organization,” Natalya said.

Zolotarevsky, who works at the Brooklyn Public Library by day, and her daughter, Anya Shvetsova, are working around the clock to assist recently arriving Ukrainians, and have matched recent arrivals with jobs and host families willing to help with housing.

Zolotarevsky estimates that she has been contacted by hundreds of Ukrainians arriving in New York. “We have so many cases, so we haven’t slept,” she said. 

Still, there is only so much that community groups can do without more consolidated state and federal assistance. “It’s sad even to describe this. There are a sizable amount of requests where we are helpless,” Budnitsky, from the community center, said.

And as Ukrainians seek to rebuild their lives, at least for the time being in New York, their home country remains at the forefront of their minds.  “It’s just a question of time and our home will be destroyed,” said Shevchenko, who fled Kharkiv with her daughter and mother.

Natalya says the sounds of fire trucks, ambulance sirens and helicopters are triggering, jolting her back to the violence she fled from. “My head and my thoughts are always back at home in Odesa,” she said. “My life turned out to be hanging in the balance.” 

On the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library, Natalya looked up as a chopper soared overhead. Zolotarevsky placed her arm around Natalya’s shoulder, understanding that the sounds of the helicopter whirring in the sky were a sharp reminder of the war Ukrainian loved ones were still enduring back home, almost 5,000 miles away.

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio is a Report for America Corps Member who covers immigration for Documented, where she focuses on immigration courts and detention.



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