When Lesya Kyrpenko arrived in New York in March with her twin adolescent children after fleeing war-torn Ukraine, she had one suitcase of clothes and little to her name.
Nearly a month later, that’s still the case as she desperately searches for housing and a way to pay for food and basic necessities.
Kyrpenko, 45, and her 12-year-old twins, Stefanie and Nikolay, are currently living with four other people in a one bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
But they will soon need to find another spot to make room for more incoming Ukrainian refugees who have closer ties to the primary tenant.
Nearly two weeks after the Biden administration announced the nation would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, the city agency tasked with assisting those people and a leading nonprofit say they are still in the dark about basic details of the plan. And no one knows what it might mean in a city already struggling to provide affordable housing options.
New York City is home to some 150,000 Ukrainians, the largest population in the country.
The Adams administration — which touts the motto “get stuff done” — has not made any public announcements about possible initiatives in the works, or soon to be in place, to assist people like Kyrpenko.
“Why isn’t the government doing more to help people like me?” she asked via a Russian interpreter. “They go on TV and say all these nice words about standing with Ukraine but I have not been able to get any government assistance. It seems like it doesn’t exist.”
Behind the scenes, officials with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs have been meeting with nonprofit organizations in the Coney Island and Brighton Beach area, a hub of various eastern European communities. The talks are in their nascent stages and have not entailed any discussion of added funding, according to several people involved.
Waiting for a Sign
The main holdup is the lack of detail and any concrete action from the Biden administration since it made the announcement on March 24, according to local immigrant aid groups and city officials.
“It’s been pretty frustrating,” said Alex Caudill, assistant director at HIAS NY, a nonprofit that’s been helping refugees for 140 years. “We’re daily getting calls and emails from family members of Ukrainians in the New York area.”
They are all trying to figure out how their family and friends can access the refugee resettlement that the White House proposed, she added.
Over 2,000 Ukrainians have fled to the U.S. border via Mexico, which does not have visa entry requirements, in the absence of any plan from the Biden administration, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
At stake is a host of benefits they might be able to access under the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program (USRP). It offers refugees everything from social worker case managers to housing to English language classes and possible job opportunities and training.
“Everybody is waiting to see what’s going to happen,” said Susan Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach. The group held a legal clinic to “provide urgent assistance” to Ukrainian immigrants and family members on March 27.
“It had a huge response,” Fox said, noting that people “basically have to wait.”
One major outstanding question is what will happen to people already waiting as part of the Lautenberg Amendment. That legislation, first enacted by Congress in 1990 to make it easier for Jews from the former Soviet Union to resettle, covers people from Ukraine. It has since expanded “to include persecuted religious minorities in other countries,” according to HIAS.
To be eligible, applicants need family members legally living in the United States to help bring them over.
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 Caudill.
Some may have even been approved for access to the refugee program or are awaiting travel but have not been able to come over since the war began, she said.
An Impossible Journey
As for Kyrpenko, she and her family spent the first few days of the Russian invasion in Kiev bomb shelters near their two-bedroom apartment.
She fled with her children and mother south to the Slovokian border to avoid some of the crowds in other areas.
They spent three days at the border inside their car being fed by volunteers before making their way back north to Warsaw in Poland.
A travel agent, she’d obtained a U.S. tourist visa about five years ago and used that to come to New York.
But it does not allow her to work and it expires in September.
Her husband, an engineer, remains in Ukraine fighting against the Russian onslaught as a volunteer in the army in a battalion protecting key infrastructure, she said.
Her 70-year-old mother, who also fled the country in March, is stuck in a shopping mall that’s been converted into a refugee camp in Warsaw.
In Brooklyn, Kyrpenko is sometimes able to make between $20 to $50 with “small jobs” to help contribute for food.
She was near the Coney Island boardwalk when she saw a rally for Ukrainian refugees held by RUSA LGBTQ on March 19.
Inspired by the gathering of people holding Ukrainian flags, she addressed the people in attendance and told them about her plight. Group members are trying to help with her many needs.
“I’m trying to look for housing but it’s seemingly impossible,” she said. “I don’t have a job so I don’t have money. The idea of finding free housing seems impossible.”