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Ukrainians seek refuge in NYC as Russian invasion drags on

Six months ago — before the Russian tanks and soldiers poured over the border and the airstrikes began — Olga Shvechkova was a pediatrician in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

“When the war just started — the very first day — my daughter told me not to go to work,” the 37-year-old physician told The Post through a translator Friday.

She and her 12-year-old daughter, Arina, stayed inside for four days as bombs dropped around them.

“The day before we were supposed to leave, an airplane bombed the building across the street from us, and we honestly thought we wouldn’t survive,” she said in Ukrainian before switching to English: “We thought this was [our] last day, maybe.”

In the half-year of war that has devastated Ukraine and razed its cities, an estimated 12 million people have been forced from their homes — 5 million leaving the country altogether.

Olga Shvechkova (R) with her daughter Arina
Olga Shvechkova (right) with her 12-year-old daughter Arina.

An exact count of the number of Ukrainians taking refuge in the Big Apple is hard to come by — some are here on tourist visas, others came to the border and entered asylum claims. Ukrainians are eligible to stay in the US under the so-called temporary protected status, but must apply for it.

But by all counts, thousands Ukrainians have fled the war for New York City, home to one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the US, and where the Adams administration has pledged over $2 million in support.

Shvechkova and her daughter fled Kharkiv for Amsterdam first, where the doctor made ends meet by working as a waitress at a hotel restaurant, she said. But she said she found the Dutch language difficult and could speak better English — sparking hopes she could become a doctor in America. They arrived in New York on May 26.

“I had to leave everything behind — my friends, my family, my home,” she said, crying.

Shvechkova said her mother, her brother and his wife are still in Kharkiv, where the bombing and artillery strikes have barely let up in six months.

Ukrainian firefighters work in destroyed buildings after a rocket attack last night in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Ukrainian firefighters work in destroyed buildings after a rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine on Aug. 19, 2022.

“We call them every single day to see how the night went,” she said. “In the beginning, we prayed until the night was over, because they only bombed at night. Now they bomb all the time.”

“Before this war we didn’t realize how lucky we were, and how much we had,” Shvechkova added.

Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront Y in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, said that one of the biggest issues for those fleeing Ukraine is separation from their families.

“Many of the people coming over, they’re partial family units — a woman and her child, maybe a grandparent.” Fox said.

By law, Ukraine has prevented men of fighting age from leaving, and many Ukrainians involved in the government have stayed behind to help as part of a civilian mobilization, splitting up families as more vulnerable members fled.

“Many people at the get-go felt that they needed to get themselves to safety and it would be temporary,” Fox said. “They never expected to be split this long.”

Olga Shvechkova with her daughter Arina
Olga Shvechkova (right) was a pediatrician in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

The Shorefront Y has been providing education and support services, including childcare and English education, to recent Ukrainian arrivals. It is among the six community organizations to receive money from the city to staff those efforts.

Fox said even six months after the start of the war, her organization is getting as many as seven walk-ins a day seeking resources.

In the heavily Eastern European neighborhood of Brighton Beach, one of those resources is the Ukrainian community itself, she said.

“One of the most important resources are Ukrainians who came a little earlier helping those who came a little later.”

One of those Ukrainians who came a little earlier is Miroslava Rozdolska, who emigrated some 20 years ago.

A former journalist at a Ukrainian-language newspaper in Stamford, Conn., Rozdolska, 66, now lives on Staten Island and runs a Saturday school at the Guardian Angels Roman Catholic Church, a Ukrainian church on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.

In July, Rozdolska started a summer program geared toward Ukrainian children fleeing the war, which includes theater and arts programs, and has two psychologists on staff.

Angels Roman Catholic Church
Miroslava Rozdolska runs a Sunday school at Angels Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn.
Google Maps

“We have children 4 to 15 years old, approximately 40 children every day,” she said.

“We play with them, we joke with them — the teachers, most of them, came from Ukraine.”

Rozdolska said many parents — including Shvechkova — bring their children to the camp while they work, search for work, or search for housing.

“They wait around three months to get [federal] work authorization,” she said. “They cannot find a job for a long time.”

Many agreed that the struggle for recent arrivals is finding a job and an apartment.

“One of the key linchpins will be employment,” Fox said.

“Many people are struggling to find housing,” she said. “If people can’t get jobs, it only exacerbates [it] — there are things landlords are expecting.”

Brooklyn Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, who represents Brighton Beach, agreed.

“What’s frustrating is it’s taking them a long time to get work authorization,” she said.

Even when they can find work, many recent Ukrainian arrivals aren’t earning enough to live in the city, where rents are soaring.

Alina Padalko, a Ukrainian who fled the country during Russia’s attempt to annex the eastern Donbas region in 2014, has been living in Jersey City ever since.

Eric Adams walks with City Council woman Inna Vernikov.
Inna Vernikov is a Ukrainian-born NYC Council member.
Gregory P. Mango

“We moved to the US eight years ago, when the war situation started in Donetsk,” she said, referencing one of the two states that make up the Donbas.

“All my father’s family lives in Donetsk. For us this all started in 2014.”

Since March, Padalko, a native of Kharkiv, has been caring for her two teenage nephews, who fled the country in March as the fighting picked up.

“My sister [the boys’ mother] moved to Kyiv. She’s a notary — like a lawyer [in the US]. She cannot leave the country [because of her job.]”

The boys’ father, meanwhile, is fighting in the Ukrainian army.

Padalko said her father soon joined them, after he survived a Russian airstrike on his apartment complex.

“That day he decided to come to me,” she said.

Padalko said she spent the spring getting her nephews — 13-year-old Nikola and 15-year-old Vlodymyr — enrolled in school.

Russian rockets launch against Ukraine from Russia's Belgorod region are seen at dawn in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Russian rockets launch against Ukraine from Russia’s Belgorod region are seen at dawn in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

“I wanted to do the best for them so they could assimilate or find some friends.”

“It’s really hard, especially for the youngest one, missing his mom,” she said.

Vlodymyr is excited about going to college, she said, but Nikola talks mostly of traveling to Kyiv.

“Thirteen years old is young,” she said. “Of course he wants his mom.”

Additional reporting by Khristina Narizhnaya

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