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In New York, a nonprofit helps Ukrainian refugees make a home

Tetiana Lytvynenko and her 9-year-old daughter Darina, seen at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City, are living rent-free with a family in Brooklyn, where they cook borsht and crepes for their hosts.
Jon Kalish
Tetiana Lytvynenko and her 9-year-old daughter Darina, seen at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City, are living rent-free with a family in Brooklyn, where they cook borsht and crepes for their hosts.

NEW YORK — One of the more daunting tasks facing refugees from the war in Ukraine who come to New York is finding a place to live. A Manhattan real estate executive has been helping to find them apartments at reduced rents with the help of two Ukrainian sisters who work for him.

Bob Perl, a real estate broker who owns properties in the neighborhood known as Little Ukraine in Manhattan's East Village, started the Ukrainian Habitat Fund because he was deeply affected by the plight of the refugees.

"I was spending too much time thinking about what I wanted to do to Putin," said Perl, president of Tower Brokerage. "I thought, 'I'm a landlord, let me at least help one refugee family.' And then it occurred to me, well, maybe I could help two refugee families and have each of them pay half rent."

More than 270,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. since the start of the war a year ago and tens of thousands have made their way to New York state.

So far the nonprofit fund has found homes for 15 families. There's a list of 80 more who have asked for help. In addition to subsidizing some rents, the fund will guarantee leases when landlords are reluctant to rent to refugees who are new to the city.

The fund also helps refugees adapt to their new life in America by organizing activities on holidays. It recently coordinated a workshop at the Ukrainian Museum attended by 10 children and their mothers who painted traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Among those in attendance were Tetiana Lytvynenko and her 9-year-old daughter Darina. The mother worked as graphic designer and brand strategist at a resort in Bucha that was destroyed by Russian bombs. She was one of 400 employees thrown out of work as a result. Lytvynenko's husband remains in Ukraine where he is serving in the military.

Missing home while making a new one

Darina said she misses her dad, grandmother, best friend and bear — a huge stuffed animal left behind back home in Ukraine.

Darina and her mother are living rent-free with a family in Brooklyn, where they cook borsht and crepes for their hosts. They'll have to find a more permanent home in two months.

Arthur Lande, 11, said he spent two weeks in an underground shelter when the war began. He arrived in the U.S. in March 2022 and now lives with his mother in a small studio apartment in Little Ukraine.

"When I just came here, I couldn't speak English at all," he said. "But now I learn it and I'm in good school. I'm pretty sure I want to stay here because I have a lot of friends here."

His mother Yana is an artist who was in Russia when the war started. She abandoned her car, she said, before catching a flight to New York. The apartment she owned in Odessa has also been abandoned.

In a break from the English language class she's been taking at an Upper West Side synagogue, Yana Lande said she considers herself very lucky.

"I'm understand who I am," she said. Her command of English is clearly not as advanced as her son's. "I'm a mother and I try to be happy even in difficult situation. I'm start my life from the zero. I don't think now I have bad life but I have very difficult life."

The difficulty of a new life in New York is something Gabriella and Lidiya Oros are well aware of. The sisters emigrated here from Ukraine in 2000 and now work for Bob Perl. They work directly with the refugee families on behalf of the Ukrainian Habitat Fund.

"I feel like I have so many children now — at least 25," Gabriella said with a hearty laugh. "You feel like you're a part of their family and they're a part of yours."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Kalish
[Copyright 2024 NPR]