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Opening Our Home to Ukrainian Refugees

More than a century after my own great-grandfather left Odessa for America, a family from Kharkiv found refuge in our house in New York

Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield
February 21, 2023
Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield
‘Anna’ clapping along with Congress as Zelensky addresses them earlier this year while watching on the TV in the author's living roomRachel Jacoby Rosenfield
Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield
‘Anna’ clapping along with Congress as Zelensky addresses them earlier this year while watching on the TV in the author's living roomRachel Jacoby Rosenfield

I have a black-and-white photograph of a man in his 20s: dark wavy hair, mustached, staring grimly at the camera. On the back, the name of the studio in Odessa where it was taken. It is my great-grandfather Morris Verechovsky. He came to America shortly after the photo was taken, changed his name to Morris White, and married my great-grandmother Sarah, whom I knew when I was a young child. I don’t know much more about Morris. Nevertheless, when a fellowship program for Jewish professionals brought me to Odessa in 2008, I asked my Ukrainian colleague Alina to take me to the address on the back of the photo. I felt I was reaching into the past as I stood in the doorway my great-grandfather had once crossed, if only to have his photograph taken, trying to understand something about his story and therefore my own.

Fourteen years later, I read the news in horror as people fled for their lives after Russia invaded Ukraine. My colleague Alina went to the border on her own steam, asking people what they needed, and then running to the store to purchase hundreds of pairs of underwear. Later in New York, sitting with me over drinks, she told me about the cruelty and devastation, about people packing for two weeks only to realize after crossing the border that it would be months or even years before they could return to their homes, if ever. I imagined my great-grandfather’s loneliness and confusion as he left Odessa amid pogroms. Someone here must have helped him. I felt a strong pull to help that I can only describe as being called, and so I blurted out, “Our kids have both left for college, we have an empty nest. Our doors are open.” Five days later Alina texted me: “There’s a family that needs a place to stay in New York. A couple and their 2-year-old daughter.”

I spoke with Vira* for the first time the next day. She was so cheerful, self-possessed, and positive that I found myself momentarily confused and asking the absurd question of why she left Kharkiv. “The war!” she answered, taken aback. We set a time to meet two days later at our home in New York.

In the short video Vira sent me after we spoke, a small child bundled in a heavy coat and knit hat crawled quickly across a table as a siren blares in the background. There were packed bags on the edges of the frame. Her frantic movement captured their need to leave and quickly. An accompanying photo taken in San Diego showed Vira in a brilliant red dress holding a huge teddy bear in one arm and that same little girl in the other. Anna was also dressed in red, they both smiled widely. A young man with a light beard embraced them both; this is Ivan.

They left Kharkiv a month into the war. “Bombs were falling all around us,” Vira said, gesturing toward Anna, now playing with the train set I saved from when my children were small. “There wasn’t a choice.”

They got in their car gripped with fear, carrying two small backpacks, a jar of cash, and papers demonstrating that Ivan had recently been hospitalized with a serious medical condition (so he couldn’t be drafted). They drove toward the border with Moldova. They reached a part of the road flanked by forest, no other cars in sight but an unmarked enormous tank coming toward them from the opposite side of the road. If the tank were Russian, they knew they would be killed. Vira shut her eyes and held her breath. “It must have been Ukrainian,” she said, now standing in my kitchen. They made it to Moldova, then to Romania and then to Bulgaria. From there, they made their way to Mexico and then across the border to the United States.

Refugees from Ukraine who crossed the border into the U.S. prior to April 11, 2022, have Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Those who crossed on or after April 21 are part of the Uniting for Ukraine program, which lasts two years and presumably has a process for renewal. Our family, the Kovalenkos, arrived on April 12, during the 10 days between these programs.

The Kovalenkos are considered “parolees,” just passing through on their way to … who knows where. They have work authorization papers and visas that expire on April 10, 2023, just 363 days after arrival. We have been unable to find any means of determining how or whether these credentials for residing and working in the United States will be renewed.

They and thousands of others will lose their right to live and work here in less than two months. They may have to give up their jobs, leave the country and then begin all over again.

In late August, Vira and Anna, dressed in matching powder blue chiffon dresses, knocked on our door for the first time. Ivan, who was still in Southern California, joined us on Facetime as I walked them around our modest narrow and vertical brick home in Riverdale. This is the guest room where you can stay, if you’d like, I told them. Anna can stay in one of the children’s rooms. Here’s the bathroom you will use—you’ll be sharing it with our two children when they are home from college. And there are two things you need to know about us that are a little strange. The first is that we keep Shabbat. The second is that we keep kosher.

Apart from all that, I said, I think we are “pretty normal.” Before I could reassure her further Vira accepted our offer. “Two months” she said, “we will be able to find jobs and move out within two months.”

“OK,” we said, “but no one will kick you out. It may take longer than that to get on your feet.”

They moved in two days later; Ivan joined them the following week. I felt nervous and a little guilty that I had drawn my whole family into a commitment that would at the very least mean a significant loss of privacy. And we didn’t know this family, the dynamics between them, or how they felt about us as Americans or Jews. And yet, what if we were in the same situation? How would we hope that others would behave toward us? Again, I thought of Morris White—it wasn’t that long ago that we were, in fact, very much like them.

That first Friday night Vira and Anna were with us, we set the table for Shabbat with a tablecloth the color of Ukrainian sunflowers. A delighted Vira took photographs for her Instagram feed. We sang “Shalom Aleichem,” blessed our children, who were home for one last week before returning to college, and washed for motzi. More than once I thought of the words in the Passover Haggadah, “let all who are hungry come and eat.” We had opened our doors, and this family now sitting at our Shabbat table had crossed the threshold. The next week, Anna took to playing Shabbat, pulling a stepstool up to the couch with a little toy teacup in her hand and pretending to splash the water alternately over each hand as she’d seen us do.

Ivan arrived the following week. He is an introvert to Vira’s extrovert. “I don’t know how you people live in a city like this,” he said as he walked in the door. Vira explained that this was Ukrainian humor.

Ivan picked pieces of onion out of the soup I cooked. “They remind me of my childhood,” Ivan said. “My grandmother used to make soup with pieces of onion—that’s all it was, water and onion.”

“They were very poor,” Vira added. “This was after the fall of the FSU [former Soviet Union] and there was no food to eat.”

In mid-September, about two weeks into their stay with us, I realized I should prepare them for our observance of the Jewish High Holidays. “We have a lot of holidays coming up,” I started, “and I thought I’d tell you about them so you know what’s up.”

Ivan, without missing a beat, asked if I meant the new year, and in response to my look of surprise, Vira jumped in to explain: “His grandmother who raised him is Jewish. Everyone in Ukraine is Jewish.” (Several months later she asserted that everyone in Ukraine is Christian—both are probably true.) I was shocked that this was the first time Ivan and Vira thought to mention their connection to Judaism; how could they think it was irrelevant? But this small piece of a shared heritage strengthened our sense of connection to the Kovalenkos and deepened our trust.

I practiced blowing shofar before the holidays. Ivan gave it a try, turning red-faced and laughing as he failed to make a sound. We hung drawings Anna made in school from the bamboo that covered our sukkah. The construction paper fluttered over our heads as we enjoyed the borscht that Ivan prepared, not unlike the one my grandmother used to serve.

In the first several weeks they were with us, Vira and Ivan spent hours on their computers, searching for and applying for jobs. Vira wrote a strong cover letter, agreeing with reluctance to describe herself as a refugee, only as an explanation of her work history. “I hate that word,” she said. Ivan was more sanguine, confident in his experience as a software designer, but more impatient with the process of resume writing. In the end they both found jobs within a month of each other, Ivan as a front-end software designer for a kitchen appliance outfit in Brooklyn, Vira as a case manager for a faith-based social service organization for other Ukrainian parolees. They were happy to hire someone who speaks Ukrainian, Russian, and English and who was obviously completely overqualified, and they didn’t know that Vira was also a parolee with expiring authorization to work. Ivan’s employer did not know, either.

The Kovalenkos are living with us. We fall into a routine; summer becomes fall becomes winter.

Anna’s toys are now scattered across our living room. The closet is stuffed with extra coats and smells vaguely of Ivan’s cigarettes, and the fridge is packed. A stroller is collapsed in our front entry way next to a miniature plastic Mercedes, a replacement for the one Anna had in Kharkiv. Vira’s and Anna’s matching white sweaters hang on the drying rack in the laundry room, and Ivan, now given license to work from home, sits at our dining room table working on his laptop.

When I come home from work, the smells of newly cooked food greet me, sometimes the sweet cinnamon of cheesecakes or blintzchikis, sometimes the unmistakable scent of baked fish. Ivan cooks with his sense of smell—lifting lids and sniffing at the rising aromas to determine what’s inside. He hovers as I cook, asking me the names of things and how to tell the difference between the words “pour,” “pure,” and “poor.” I’m tired after a long day at work and these English lessons require more patience than I can easily muster. But then, Anna comes through the door from the Russian-speaking day care that has waived her fees. She is stuffed into her snow pants and down jacket with a powder pink knit hat tied beneath her chin. She waddles toward me with her arms outstretched. “My Rachel!” she shouts with pleasure and falls into my lap for a cuddle.

I love this little girl.

There are also the mornings that we awaken to the sounds of urgent conversation in Ukrainian: Vira’s parents are locked out of the car in the mountains in Bulgaria, delaying their efforts to immigrate to the Czech Republic. When they eventually arrive, they are told that there is no longer a program to absorb Ukrainian refugees, and they will need to return to Bulgaria. Vira and I cry together in the kitchen, overwhelmed by the challenges she and her family face.

This is what it is like to live with another family at a moment when their lives are in upheaval, when they are trying to orient themselves in a new city, learn a new language, parent their small child.

The Kovalenkos move out on Jan. 15. A neighbor’s family is on sabbatical for six months and offers to rent their home at a rate significantly below market. It’s a sacrifice for them, and a stretch for the Kovalenkos. Vira is very anxious about taking on monthly rent when their futures are so uncertain. I share her concern and I am truly sad as they stuff all the toys they’ve accumulated into FreshDirect bags. I will miss them and yet I feel it’s time for them to reconstitute themselves as a family, to have their own space and privacy. And of course, my family is relieved to return to the normal routine of our own lives. And yet I wonder: What will it be like for them to be back together as a family, without us there as caretakers, translators, and witnesses? And what will it be like for us to come home to a house without a warm oven, without a little girl bursting through the door, calling us her own?

Vira curates a beautiful Instagram feed. As I scroll through her feed, I see images of her life in Kharkiv before the war. There she is dressed to the nines pushing a Cadillac of a stroller. There they all are, framed by bouquets of silver balloons celebrating Anna’s first birthday. There she is, a newly minted Ph.D., posing outside a university building in Kharkiv. She looks chic in her over-the-knee black suede boots. All of her Kharkiv photos from before the war are captioned with the hashtag #NYC, where she dreamed of someday going. Now it is where they are building a new life.

They have gumption, smarts, and relentless optimism.

When I ask Vira what she misses, she answers she is glad the three of them made it out with their limbs intact. Their apartment building is still standing, though bombs have eviscerated the neighboring buildings. Their wedding album and other prized possessions were rescued from the apartment by friends who tucked them away in closets and under beds. “When we are more sure of our status here,” says Vira, “we will ask them to send these things.” I think of the ways that the address in Odessa on the back of my grandfather’s photo somehow connected us to the Kovalenkos across generations and geography. My heart breaks for all they have lost—not just their jobs, their friends, their community, but the material objects that can unlock family narratives for generations to come.

The family has lawyers working pro bono on their case, and we have spoken with our representatives. As the expiration of their work and residence authorization nears, Vira is circulating a petition calling for the Unites States Customs and Immigration Service to fold the Ukrainians who arrived during the mid-April gap into the Uniting for Ukraine program. She has started a WhatsApp group for others who share her liminal status. It has more than 2,000 members.

We have settled into a new routine: stopping by their home to bring pizza and play with Anna, sending photographs throughout the day and updating one another, with increasing apprehension, of their options come April 10. I am unsettled that despite our efforts and the strong conviction that how we responded reflects our heritage and values as both Jews and Americans, that the Kovalenkos will be forced to give up their jobs and leave the country. When Anna comes to visit she crawls into my lap and holds my face in her hands. “My Rachel!” And I feel I am her Rachel and also Morris White’s great-granddaughter, honoring both his legacy and the efforts of those who helped him make a new life in this country.

*Names have been changed

Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield is executive vice president at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.