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Ukrainian refugee groups decry trickle of U.S. help

“The need is overwhelming” but there are a limited number of funds going directly to refugees in search of housing, food and employment.

July 8, 2022 Reuven Blau, THE CITY
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Social service groups assisting Ukrainian immigrants say they are overwhelmed with thousands of calls and walk-ins from people seeking refuge from the war-torn country — and that limited government funds haven’t come close to covering basic needs.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has given a total of $2 million to five nonprofits supporting newly arrived Ukrainian refugees since Russian forces invaded in late February.

“The need is overwhelming,” said Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach.

The group was given $200,000 from the city’s “Ukrainian Response Initiative” to pay for staff dedicated to helping people fleeing from Ukraine.

“We have all of these phone calls coming in for help but there are limited dollars,” she said, noting that none of the money her organization got is being used to pay for housing or legal assistance.

Some 9,803 “supporters” have applied to sponsor Ukrainian immigrants in New York since April, the highest total of any state, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Illinois is the next closest state with 8,056 sponsor applications.

The number of Ukrainian refugees in New York is around 15,000, because each sponsor can assist multiple people, immigrant advocates note. The true total is unclear because it could also include people who have come to New York or other parts of the country on tourist visas but are now staying because of the war.

‘There’s Not Really Robust Support’

In New York, many are struggling to pay for basic necessities like food and housing, according to advocacy groups. The challenge is particularly difficult for people living in New York City where the price of housing has spiked to record highs since the pandemic.

And the issue isn’t unique to Ukrainians: immigration advocates point out. Social service groups have for decades been stretched to the seams trying to help immigrants from Afghanistan, Haiti and various other countries.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Kelly Agnew-Barajas, director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities.

Sheepshead Bay residents displayed their support for Ukraine, March 11, 2022.
Sheepshead Bay residents display their support for Ukraine, March 11, 2022. Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“Asylum seekers have been coming to the United States, people in very similar circumstances for generations, and there’s not really robust support to help.” 

Some of the slow rollouts are due to bureaucratic red-tape holding up federal funds and how that money will be distributed, according to social service groups.

“Part of the problem is that the [federal] assistance is piecemeal,” said Alex Caudill, assistant director at HIAS NY, a nonprofit that’s been helping refugees for 140 years.

She noted that about a month ago the federal Office of Refugee Settlement got  $5 billion from Congress to help Ukrainian immigrants.

Ukrainian immigrants are eligible for some financial assistance for employment help and case management. But that doesn’t cover housing or furniture costs.

“That’s been a struggle for refugee resettlement agencies because we’ve had to adjust how we provide assistance,” Caudill said.

‘All the Resources Are Spread Out’

Many are primarily just left to seek help from friends and family.

Inna Malamura, 36, and her daughter, Polina, 10, came to New York City after fleeing from Vinnytsia, a city in west-central Ukraine near Kiev.

Now they live in a one-bedroom apartment with three other people in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where they share the tight living space with another Ukrainian immigrant. Everyone — aside from the unit’s owner — sleep on makeshift beds.

It’s a far cry from Malamura’s cozy apartment back home — located near a military base that has been shelled — which is now being watched by a neighbor.

Before fleeing, the 36-year-old worked as a top manager in charge of the country’s ambitious street repaving and expansion plan.

Now, she spends her days trying to navigate a maze of bureaucracy.

A Ukraine supporter rides a Q train from Brighton Beach, March 11, 2022.
A Ukraine supporter rides a Q train from Brighton Beach, March 11, 2022. Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“The main problem is the paperwork,” she said through a Russian interpreter. “There’s no manual on how to legalize our status. There’s no step-by-step instructions. All the resources are spread out.”

Shortly after Russia invaded, Malamura, her daughter and 17-year-old son spent days racing to a nearby bomb shelter. The sirens seemed to go off all the time, she said via a Russian interpreter.

To get away from the onslaught she drove to her parent’s home in the countryside along with her kids and parents. They thought it would just be for a weekend so only took a few items.

From there, she and the two children eventually drove to the Polish town Ostrów Wielkopolski, where they found shelter with a family in the area that was taking in refugees.

Her son is staying in Poland to get an affordable college education while her parents and brother — who is now in the army — remain in Ukraine.

In Brooklyn since June 10, she’s received $1,000 from Catholic Charities, which is also partially funded by the city’s new initiative for Ukrainian refugees.

She’s also looking to begin taking classes in English and trying to enroll her daughter in some summer camp.

“I like living in big cities,” she said, noting she’d like to continue to live in New York despite all the challenges.

They’ve also gotten some financial help from other Ukrainian immigrants who have lived in New York City for years.

Meanwhile, a call to amend a federal law to make it easier for Ukrainains to come to the United States remains in limbo: The Lautenberg Amendment — legislation first enacted by Congress in 1990 to make it easier for Jews from the former Soviet Union to resettle with family in the states — has not been touched since the start of the war.

There are currently at least several thousand Ukrainians in the Lautenberg pipeline whose applications have been submitted or they’re at some stage being processed, according to HIAS NY’s Caudill.

As for the broader influx of Ukrainian immigrants, some activists are worried that their plight will be forgotten or garner less attention as the war drags on.

“It’s been over four months since the war started and it seems like many people in the West moved on with their lives and forgot about the existential threat that Russia is causing to the rest of the world,” said Violette Matevosian, development coordinator for RUSA LGBTQ+, a group assisting Malamura.

“We should keep trying to do as much as we can and remember that even small efforts can impact lives of those who are suffering from this war right now,” they added. “Routinization leads to dehumanization. We cannot afford to routinize this war on humanity.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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