Artur Ravlyk fled Ukraine for Chicago in November, eventually landing in New York City. And the 19-year-old refugee appears to be thriving.
A year after Russia invaded his homeland, Ravlyk now spends three to five hours a day teaching ballroom dance in Chinatown. As someone who’s competed in and won some of the world’s top dance competitions – in the Netherlands, Ireland and England – he's a sought-after instructor. A poster bearing his image and advertising his talents hangs near the entrance of Queens Ballroom Dance Studio in Flushing. It reads: “Artur: Available for Private Lessons and Social Dancing.”
“USA, it’s the country of chance,” he said, by which he means opportunity – to succeed in world-class competition and also help Ukraine. “Maybe here I can help my country more,” Ravlyk said, by explaining to the West “how we can help Ukraine.”
The new resident of Woodside, Queens, is among the more than 275,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in the U.S. since the start of the war a year ago, according to federal government statistics. That number includes tens of thousands who have made their way to New York state, with roughly 14,000 landing in Brooklyn alone.
Many are crammed into small apartments with hosts who’ve opened their homes, and in many cases, their pocketbooks, new arrivals and aid workers tell Gothamist. Yet they generally have attracted far less notice than another group of newcomers who have landed in the city in large numbers in the last year: the 44,000 asylum-seekers mainly from Central America.
The Ukrainians have largely arrived through airports, beyond the gaze of TV cameras. The asylum-seekers, many of whom arrive after harrowing journeys, have predominantly come by the busload, dispatched by Southern governors calling attention to record-high monthly crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of the Ukrainians have resources and access to a web of support, including to expats with connections in real estate, restaurants and other businesses.
But that does not mean these new arrivals are without hardship and longing. Some say that the well of support they have received is not limitless. In some cases, housing deals and financial sponsorship have evaporated. And some of the Ukrainians in New York are dealing with enduring uncertainty and their own scars from the fighting.
Alina Mazurova, 36, who fled Kyiv last March, said the war has been deeply traumatizing for her entire family. In the days before the invasion, her daughter Maiia, 11, made a painting that reads, “Russian soldiers, please don't kill us. Please don't kill our animals,” a plea on behalf of the family’s hamsters and chinchilla.
As soon as the invasion happened, mother and daughter traveled by car with friends to the Polish border, where they waited in line for a day. During that time, she said, a rumor spread that they were at risk of being bombed, so everyone turned off their headlights and phones.
In the morning, Mazurova decided remaining in the car was too dangerous, so she and her daughter walked to the border and upon crossing, spent a day in a refugee camp, then two weeks with relatives.
Mazurova and her daughter arrived in the U.S. on March 14, but soon found that the woman who’d offered to house them in New York had backed out of the arrangement.
“She first asked me to stay, but I had some psychological issues,” she said through an interpreter. “It was hard for me to talk. My hands were shaking and she was not ready to take this responsibility, especially since I was with a kid. And for example, I asked her, what happens if I get sick? And I saw in her eyes that she wasn't ready for that.”
Then she met an old friend, who got her a job as a merchandiser at a store in Manhattan. Mazurova was legally able to work after gaining Temporary Protected Status.
Not long afterward, she was managing that store, and then a second. Soon, she said, she will be managing a third. Meanwhile, her housing dilemma was resolved when a new nonprofit called the Ukrainian Habitat Fund found her an apartment on the Upper East Side, rent free.
“Since we moved to New York, I've met so many wonderful people, and I'm so grateful for their support,” she said through an interpreter.
‘Uniting for Ukraine’
For immigration advocates working on the front lines, the past year has brought a surge in cases from Ukraine and a variety of challenges, namely the difficulty of finding housing for entire families in an expensive city.
Overall, however, advocates have praised the federal government’s humanitarian parole initiative for Ukrainian nationals, known as Uniting for Ukraine, which has allowed large numbers of people to arrive in the U.S. relatively quickly and equipped to legally earn a living.
Jodi Ziesemer, the director of the immigrant protection unit at New York Legal Assistance Group, said “the response by the federal government has been fairly positive,” and a stark contrast to the roadblocks set up for asylum-seekers from Latin America.
“I think we've all, as a community of resettlement providers, been kind of in awe of the speed at which the administration has been able to stand this size of a program up,” said Kelly Agnew-Barajas, the director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities of New York. “It has been very fast, very responsive and effective at bringing large numbers of people to safety as quickly as possible.”
One of the pillars of Uniting for Ukraine is sponsorship, a nonbinding arrangement for those willing to host one or more people fleeing the war.
“Ukrainians participating in Uniting for Ukraine must have a supporter in the United States who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in the United States,” states the website of the Department of Homeland Security.
As of late February, more than 216,000 Ukrainians have been sponsored nationwide, according to Agnew-Barajas of Catholic Charities. That includes nearly 30,000 in New York state, with the vast majority residing within the five boroughs. Brooklyn alone accounts for almost half the statewide figure.
While the sponsorship model has allowed many Ukrainians to receive quick passage, it’s far from perfect. Agnew-Barajas said her agency had found instances of people attempting to illegally sell sponsorships for $5,000 or more online.
“So the Ukrainians are in some cases spending a lot of their savings, just trying to get the sponsorship,” she said. “People are desperate.”
Far more common, Agnew-Barajas and other experts said, is the problem of sponsors finding that they cannot host someone they initially offered to take in, or realizing that they can’t do it indefinitely. Since the sponsorships are nonbinding there is no cost to walking away from a commitment.
“I don't think anyone really understands what they're committing to, which is to provide the full financial support, housing, food, orientation to the United States, all of the needs that this person has until they can get stabilized,” Ziesemer said.
‘They have nowhere to go’
In some situations, the hosts struggle to end the arrangement, said Luba Reife, the co-founder and the director of the Legal Information Network for Ukraine, a volunteer initiative launched after the invasion.
“The sponsors are kind of sick and tired of them and want them to move out, but of course the way that eviction works in New York City, you can't evict these people,” said Reife. “So you're getting a lot of these disputes where people don't want to leave. They have nowhere to go.”
Agnew-Barajas said 1,200 Ukrainian nationals had sought out Catholic Charities since September, and she said three other resettlement agencies had encountered similar levels of dropoff in sponsorship support. By her estimate, between the various agencies there were probably “thousands” of arrivals in New York who lacked support or housing.
So far, however, that hasn’t translated into a surge in homelessness. According to city officials, only a small proportion of asylum-seekers currently in DHS shelters appear to be from Ukraine or Russia, likely less than 5%.
Ziesemer said that at least 15 of her organization’s Ukrainian clients left the U.S. “because they were not getting the support that they needed” from sponsors. In most cases, she said, they moved to Europe.
Help with housing
Mazurova, who arrived on a visa last March, realized that she needed a home of her own if she wanted to get her 11-year-old daughter Maiia into school, but discovered it was extremely difficult.
“I toured 24 apartments,” she said. “And since I didn't have any documents, I didn't have any credit score. They were all saying that it's impossible for me to rent an apartment.”
Her situation changed dramatically after meeting the founders of Ukrainian Habitat Fund, Lidiya and Gabriella Oros, sisters who had immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine as children and eventually founded their own firm, Oros Team Real Estate.
I toured 24 apartments. And since I didn't have any documents, I didn't have any credit score. They were all saying that it's impossible for me to rent an apartment.
The sisters launched UHF last year in order to find apartments for people fleeing the war. They were joined by Robert Perl, the president of Tower Brokerage, and Tom Birchard, the owner of Veselka restaurant in the East Village.
After hearing of Mazurova’s struggle, the sisters said they conveyed her situation to Perl, who in turn reached out to associates in the real estate business. Eventually, they found a landlord on the Upper East Side who was willing to provide Mazurova and her daughter an apartment. It was steps from Maiia's new school. Even better, it was rent free.
So far, Gabriella Oros said, the nonprofit has found 15 apartments for Ukrainian nationals, housing around 30 people in total.
“But we have a list of 85” people waiting for homes, she said.
For Mazurova’s daughter Maiia, the housing situation has brought stability to what has been a highly unstable situation. She misses her father, who remains in Ukraine, but she now attends M.S. 177 in Yorkville, and enjoys trips to Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA.
Recently she read the “Diary of Anne Frank” and “Fig Pudding,” by Ralph Fletcher, and is taking classes in English as a second language.
“I have some friends,” Maiia said, “so it's better now.”
Russians in Kyiv
The UHF also found a home for Yana Miroshnychenko, 35, who was pregnant with her second child when war broke out. She delivered in New York; now all three live on the Upper East Side. Her 5-year-old son attends the Rudolf Steiner School for free. Regular tuition at the private school starts at $45,000 for the coming year.
“He got a scholarship, and he got an amazing opportunity to go to this good school,” she said.
Like many others, Miroshnychenko arrived here without her husband, but in her case she’s married to a high-profile person: Ihor Miroshnychenko, a member of the ultranationalist Zvoboda party of Ukraine.
She said that soon after the family had fled Ukraine, Russian troops entered their house in Kyiv, searching for her husband. They remained there for a month.
Although she’s grateful for her situation here, she longs for the day when she can return home.
“If I read news about the war, that it's finished, I will buy tickets and move to Kiev, to my husband, to my friends, to my family,” she said.
Dancing in California?
Ravlyk, the dancer, hopes New York is just the start of his journey. His experience competing in the world’s top dance competitions makes him a sought-after talent.
Nearby, several clientele and their instructors moved across the dance floor as a cha-cha boomed from the speakers. Ravlyk, who's danced since he was 7, made dance his life long ago – except for a five-month stretch last year, when he said the war made it impossible for him to practice or perform.
Others from Ukraine are on the same journey. He estimates 20 other ballroom dancers had arrived in the city from Ukraine, and possibly 100 nationwide, bringing their dance skills with them. These include his female dance partner, who moved to Arizona and is expected to join him in New York.
If things work out, he will travel to Costa Mesa, California, in August for the 2023 U.S. Championships. He thinks he has a shot at the title, and figures he can use his platform to speak out for his homeland.
“I can include all my soul in this music,” he said.