In New York, home to more Ukrainian immigrants than any U.S. city, residents mobilize to send support

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New York City is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from Ukraine, the most of any U.S. city.
New York City is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from Ukraine, the most of any U.S. city. (Sasha Maslov for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — The Gatsby Social Club is a red-walled hideaway in Brooklyn where young Eastern European immigrants gather for mafia-themed role-playing games over coffee. But after an urgent appeal posted on social media this week, the club morphed into a factory churning out humanitarian supplies for Ukraine.

Volunteers skipped work and ditched classes to pack giant cardboard boxes with canned tomatoes and kidney beans, jars of grape jelly and boxes of latex gloves. Trucks bearing the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag whisked them away.

Elsewhere in the city, people sent flashlights, pain medicine and baby formula. Others dispatched first-aid kits, bulletproof vests and helmets for civilian defenders.

“Hundreds of people, they’re calling me asking what they can do, what they can bring, how they can help,” said Natalya, a 26-year-old Ukrainian immigrant and volunteer at the social club, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she fears Russia will retaliate against her family in Ukraine. “There’s nothing more important than this moment.”

New York City is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from Ukraine, the most of any U.S. city, and they have watched in horror as Russian forces bombard their native country and as deaths and devastation mount. Some U.S. residents have already left to fight alongside Ukrainians, while others are proudly donating money to the army and humanitarian aid groups online. But they also fear the invaders will soon overpower the nation of 44 million, and they feel helpless to stop it.

“There’s got to be more that can be done,” said Orest Temnycky, 59, the son of Ukrainian immigrants and chief financial officer of the Self Reliance New York Federal Credit Union in the East Village, an immigrant enclave that is home to a Ukrainian museum, restaurants and bars. He made the sign of the cross as he passed a sidewalk memorial outside St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, where a sign says “pray for Ukraine.”

“We are watching in slow motion the murder of thousands of people,” Temnycky said as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces continued their assault on several cities in Ukraine. “I don’t see how he is going to stop.”

More than 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants reside in New York City, according to census data, among nearly 355,000 nationwide, with significant numbers in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, Washington state and Illinois.

They are part of a much larger group of 1 million people of Ukrainian descent, mostly U.S.-born citizens who speak only English. Some families left long before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and others after Ukraine overwhelmingly voted for independence that year. They are computer programmers, babysitters, nurses — and even a New York City councilwoman, Inna Vernikov, a supporter of former president Donald Trump who won applause from her mostly Democratic colleagues last week for an impassioned speech against the invasion.

For many, the ties to their homeland remain tight.

Marina Shepelsky, 45, a Ukrainian-born lawyer in Brooklyn, said her fiance is a Soviet Jew who escaped persecution as a child and has flatly refused to return. Her family left Ukraine, fearing antisemitism, when she was 12, but her friends are there and her grandparents are buried there. And she believes the country had changed: President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish.

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“He keeps asking me, ‘Why are you so upset? We are fine here in America,’” Shepelsky said, her voice catching as she clicked through photos of her 2012 trip home, where she visited historic sites in Kyiv, sampled dumplings with cherries and sour cream, and strolled through Odessa, on the Black Sea.

“I keep watching the news and crying. This is my country,” she said. “You can’t take it out of me.”

The invasion upended her office in Brooklyn. Three remote staffers were in Ukraine; one fled to neighboring Slovakia, and the rest are in hiding. Another staffer is in Russia, but cannot get her wages because U.S. sanctions shut down the money transfers.

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More than 7,000 immigrants and refugees have called and messaged her office for help since the invasion began, some from the United States and some from Eastern Europe. One client in Ukraine found herself stuck there when her husband, a U.S. permanent resident, was conscripted into the army to fight the Russians. He had been waiting for her to get a visa to join him in the United States.

“The last few days have been insane,” said Shepelsky, who has been recording question-and-answer videos that people can watch online. “Nonstop, people are writing. They are asking me what to do.”

At a courier service nearby, Nelya and Ihor Andrusiv called customers to tell them to pick up packages to Russia because they cannot be delivered during the war. In between calls, they checked on Nelya’s younger sister, Mariya, who was hiding in a basement in the city of Kharkiv with her husband and 7-year-old daughter. The family had lost electricity and had some milk and bread, her sister told her on their most recent call.

“I hope it’s not the last one,” Nelya Andrusiv said, her voice cracking.

Immigrants said they felt buoyed by the outpouring of support this week in New York. An amusement-park ride on Coney Island glowed with the blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag, lines stretched outside Ukrainian restaurants for borscht and meatballs in the East Village and the Metropolitan Opera gave a rousing rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem and severed ties with artists who back Putin.

But many fear that attention will fade as the conflict drags on.

At Sly Fox, a dive bar in a fast-gentrifying part of the East Village known as the “Ukrainian Village,” the bartender switched off the loud music Tuesday night to listen to President Biden’s State of the Union address. As Biden blasted the invasion, a table of revelers drowned him out.

You guys, this is a Ukrainian pub,” a customer rebuked them. “There are people who are trying to listen.”

But in neighborhoods where more Russians and Ukrainians live together, many immigrants are worried about people in both countries. New York is home to similar numbers of immigrants from both countries, and they share social media sites, grocery stores and restaurants. Many Russian immigrants oppose the invasion.

“It’s not right,” Alex Saxon, 64, an immigrant who fled the Soviet Union decades ago, said as he strolled on Brighton Beach with his wife, Anna. He said the attacks reminded him of when the Soviet Union forced him to join the army and fight in Afghanistan. “We got no choice in that time, and actually people over there now, got the same thing. It doesn’t matter what side you are … the big guys decide. They just push you to do stuff.”

“I love Russian people. This is not about them. This is about the politics,” said Oleg Kostyuk, 31, a medical lab salesman and U.S. citizen originally from Ukraine, who is married to an immigrant from Russia.

But some tensions are emerging among the groups as the war intensifies.

Angel Carr, a 31-year-old busker, played a haunting rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem on his cherry-red electric guitar on Brighton Beach one night this week, one of many national anthems he taught himself to charm residents in this immigrant city. But he has stripped the Russian Federation’s anthem from his repertoire.

“I’ve had Ukrainians come up to me and be super angry,” he said.

Levan Chkhikvadze, 44, owner of a 24-hour tire shop in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, ordered a pair of giant antiwar posters featuring Putin’s face and the Russian word for “d--khead.” He is from Georgia, but his wife is from Ukraine, and she cannot stop crying.

He hung the posters facing busy Coney Island Avenue. But by Thursday morning, one had been torn away. Security camera footage shows a pale figure, cloaked in black, their face concealed by a black and white umbrella, snatch the poster at 4 a.m. and hurry away.

“Someone took it off in the nighttime,” Chkhikvadze said. “I knew some are not going to like it, too many people support Putin unfortunately. They’re quiet, but they do.”

As soon as he saw the damage, he ordered more signs.

Sasha Maslov in New York contributed to this report.

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