‘A Time of Worries’: New York City’s Ukrainians Are Anxious and Afraid

‘A Time of Worries’: New York City’s Ukrainians Are Anxious and Afraid

‘A Time of Worries’: New York City’s Ukrainians Are Anxious and Afraid

When the first news reports of Russian troop movements began to appear in the Ukrainian media a few months ago, Vironika Giacchi, who manages a jewelry store in Manhattan, enrolled in a first aid class near her home in Staten Island. If Russia mounts a full-scale invasion, she said, she will return to Ukraine and volunteer as a nurse.

“I love Ukraine, it’s my country, and if there’s a need to defend it, I would definitely go back.”

New York City is home to more than 150,000 Ukrainians, the largest such community in the country, with pockets in Manhattan’s East Village and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, and scattered populations throughout the five boroughs. There are Ukrainian banks, restaurants, bars, schools, churches, synagogues and cultural centers.

Some came in the 1970s or 1980s, knowing Ukraine only as part of the Soviet Union. Others, millennials of the fourth wave of immigration, grew up after independence, with global connections via the internet. Many have Russian relatives or Russian friends and get news from Russian media.

They left behind very different countries, and arrived bearing different relationships with Ukraine, Russia and their new home. “The biggest difference is whether you were going to somewhere or whether you were leaving somewhere,” said Dora Chomiak, president of the nonprofit organization Razom, which formed in 2014 to support the independence movement in Ukraine. “The people who came in the ’70s and ’80s, the refuseniks, they were getting out for a better life. The people who emigrated recently because Google hired them here or something, they’re going somewhere.”

Ms. Giacchi’s Red Cross class was filled with Ukrainians, and it highlighted some of the divisions within the community. A few people shared her opposition to Russian aggression. “But there’s a lot of mixed opinions, and it can be very heated,” she said. “I didn’t want any arguments, so I wasn’t asking others.”

At the New Wave Ukrainian Heritage School in Brooklyn, students painted cards for Ukrainian fighters killed in the 2014 revolt against the country’s Russia-allied government. Michael Rozdolska, 8, whose grandmother is the principal, said he did not know any classmates who were afraid. But if they were, he said, “I would tell them Ukraine is going to win. Or maybe the Russian president will die, and they will get a better one.”

The tension was palpable last week at Streecha, a Ukrainian church canteen in the East Village. These days, the room’s television plays Ukrainian news nonstop, and still it is not enough for the customers, said Dmytro Kovalenko, the manager.

“We’re all checking for updates every 10, 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s a time of worries.”

Mr. Kovalenko, 41, emigrated from Eastern Ukraine amid a previous clash with Russia and pro-Russian forces in 2014. He said the current situation is even more fraught.

“Back then, in 2014, we didn’t know what’s coming, so we didn’t worry that much,” he said. “When they invaded Crimea and began the real war, shelling, killing people, now we know what might happen. There’s more tension because we know what’s coming after the first steps.”

Ukraine has become a tech hub in Eastern Europe, and many of the recent arrivals work in tech businesses that keep them connected to their former homeland. Anna Polishchuk, who divides her time between New York and the Bay Area, is the co-founder and chief product officer at the start-up Allset, which has offices in the United States and Ukraine. Part of her work now is planning for the unknown.

What if the internet connection goes down? What if she has to move operations to safer areas of Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe?

“Connection in Ukraine can be easily attacked, so there’s always a risk that there will be no connection,” Ms. Polishchuk said. “If something happens and it’s shut down, we need to move people really quick. You never know before it happens. We need to have a plan in case, who goes where.”

Even if Russian troops do not advance past the separatist territories they entered on Monday, Russia may cripple Ukraine financially, said Bogdan Globa, an L.G.B.T.Q. rights activist who claimed asylum in the United States in 2016, and is still active in promoting L.G.B.T.Q. causes in Ukraine.

“A lot of investment will not come to Ukraine this year,” he said. “It’ll have a huge economic impact on Ukraine. It’s what Russia wants. They want this mess forever on the border. People will leave Ukraine, the economy will be in bad shape. They don’t need to invade Ukraine. They can politically take Ukraine with pro-Russian parties and win elections.”

Warnings of an invasion coincided with New York fashion week, which brought Russian and Ukrainian models, photographers and others to the same runway shows and parties. The models Sasha Knysh and Helga Hitko, who moved to New York from Dnipro, in Eastern Ukraine, said their Russian colleagues had been very supportive.

“It’s one of the top topics to talk about right now,” Ms. Knysh said. “They want to know, How’s my family. But it’s hard to tell them, because nobody knows.”

Like others interviewed, they said it was disturbing to talk to their families back in Ukraine, who refused to think about leaving.

“They choose not to believe in it,” Ms. Knysh said. “They believe that a lot of Russian troops are on the border, but they don’t believe anything’s going to happen. They think it’s all a huge provocation. I said, maybe they want to move to the west of Ukraine, because it’s more stable, but they don’t want to talk about it, because all their life is there. They’re trying to stay hopeful, but you have to see the reality, too.”

Because of the time difference, events in Ukraine reach New York in the middle of the night, adding sleeplessness to the other stresses, said Maryna Prykhodko, who works with Ukrainian women’s organizations at the United Nations.

“The act of opening my eyes and waking up in the morning means that I have to look at my phone and potentially see that my idea of my home country is no longer in existence and people I love and know are dead or dying,” she said. “It’s quite a lot to wake up to.”

As the day goes on, the stress does not let up, she said.

“I can be at a crosswalk in New York and I’m calculating how much time my family has to get into their basement before a bomb destroys their house, I’m calculating how much time a Russian tank has to reach the front doorstep of my house in Ukraine from the Russian border,” she said. “When I get those updates on my phone at 4 a.m. that something happened somewhere, I’m immediately alert and there’s no hope of getting functional sleep at that point.”

Katya Shokalo, a Ukrainian lawyer, planned to spend the year earning a degree at New York University, then return home with her husband, Vitalii Peretiatko. Now all plans are suspended.

“It’s quite hard to think about the future,” she said. “This is the real change. It’s one thing to plan when you’re just planning for yourself. But now you worry every day what’s going to happen to your family. It’s not possible to plan anymore.”

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