They Fled Danger for New York. When Will Their New Lives Start?

The New York Times Magazine

Nothing about moving to New York is easy — especially for those fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan. But locals do what they can to help.

“Housing is a problem.”

A man named Bob Klein was standing in the courtyard of a red-brick apartment building in White Plains, N.Y., in late April, looking vaguely in the direction of New York City. He was smiling with the corners of his eyes, trying to set the expectations of the couple standing in front of him. Klein, who is in his 70s, is an architecture-and-design consultant and founding member of the six-year-old Neighbors for Refugees, a Westchester-based organization dedicated to helping resettle refugees around New York. He was there to ensure the pair — evacuees from Afghanistan — did not arrive in the city without support. But he was also offering them a gentle warning: There is only so much he can do.

Farhad Khurami and his wife, Farzana Jamalzada, fled Afghanistan in August 2021 and were among the more than 76,000 evacuees who arrived in the United States in a period of about three weeks. They had been married one month before the fall of Kabul. “If we had known,” Jamalzada told me, “we wouldn’t have bought so much stuff.” They had been shuttled to Qatar, to Washington, D.C., and on to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin (where they spent months in limbo), all the while chasing documents, waiting in lines and grasping at wisps of information. They left everything they owned; their donated clothes were too big; they had no family and no friends in the city; but the couple had made up their minds — they wanted to come to New York. And it was Klein, along with a network of community groups, donors and volunteers, who was going to make it possible.

Jamalzada and Khurami, each in their mid-20s, are part of a generation of Afghans who came of age with United States soldiers in their country. Khurami finished his university degree in India and Jamalzada was accepted to Kabul University, one of four women in her graduate program. She earned a master’s in business administration by attending night classes against her parents’ wishes. She worked for U.S.A.I.D., the U.S. government’s international development agency, promoting women’s interests, and then found a job in the presidential palace working in development. She also ran a side business selling Afghan-made jewelry. The pair met online and persuaded their parents to forgo arranging marriages.

Both Jamalzada and Khurami have spent their lives being told not to do something and going ahead with it anyway. There was no reason, Jamalzada thought, that making a place for themselves in New York City should be any different.

That morning, the couple saw two apartments on the edges of the city. Both would cost them around $1,800 a month, and Klein was doing his best to explain that this, in fact, was a very good deal. “Everything is expensive in New York City,” he said. Everything, he added, is competitive.

“Don’t worry,” Jamalzada said. “We get a lot of that. People tell us not to come. They say that New York is like a black hole. You will not come back.” She grinned at him. None of this scared her. “If you can make it here,” Klein started, joined midway by Jamalzada, “you can make it anywhere.”

For centuries, New York City has built its reputation on, and been built by, arrivals from all over the world, people who have landed on the city’s shores, earned money and sent for their relatives. Jamalzada and Khurami, however, have arrived at a difficult moment. The city is in the middle of a housing crisis, with inflation driving up prices and a job market that is still recovering from the pandemic.

The country’s immigration bureaucracy, too, remains backlogged post-pandemic, and many of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies have endured. While countries like Germany and Canada have streamlined programs for asylum seekers and refugees — offering housing, food, work authorization and a monthly stipend to asylum seekers — the United States has strengthened enforcement at the border, while processing times for asylum applications have increased from weeks to months to years. From 2016 to 2020, the number of refugees arriving annually in the United States fell to less than 12,000 from 85,000. In roughly the same period, as budgets were slashed, 134 resettlement sites shuttered their operations, significantly reducing the country’s capacity to place refugees into new homes and neighborhoods. And then, as borders closed with the spread of Covid-19, immigration to the United States continued to drop.

The fall of Kabul in August 2021 tested the limits of a shrunken system, pushing large numbers of evacuees into the United States — a rush of new arrivals of a magnitude not seen since the end of the Vietnam War. As the government struggles to piece together an effective nationwide system of welcome and support, civic groups like Klein’s have created their own patchwork response, straining their resources to fill in the gaps between federal aid and the needs of arrivals.

Standing in the sun in White Plains, Klein was hopeful that Khurami and Jamalzada would quickly find their footing. The goal, Klein explained, was to ease people into their new lives and make them self-sufficient. His group is looking to leverage the money they have to help as many people as possible. The crisis in Afghanistan has been followed by war in Ukraine, and more immigrants arriving in the city with very few resources. “We try not to dwell on the big picture,” Klein told me. “Because, yes, we’re helping this one family, but there are millions of others.”

Since its founding, New York City has been a gateway for immigrants, with waves of arrivals ebbing and flowing alongside global events and national policies. The city’s reputation as a sanctuary for huddled masses solidified in the latter half of the 1800s, with an influx of Irish refugees who were fleeing political persecution and, later, famine. They arrived in the streets of New York in such great numbers that residents feared the city could not support them.

Civic organizations sprang up to assist the migrants. Church groups established teams to greet people as they disembarked from boats, pre-empting the predatory “runners” who prowled the docks. In 1841, a group of Irish merchants and clergy formed the Irish Emigrant Society, which published a guidebook on city life and established a “labor office” that connected new arrivals to jobs. William M. Tweed, known as Boss Tweed, the famously corrupt and domineering New York politician, helped immigrants find work, housing and medical care (sometimes in exchange for votes). In 1855, it was the city, in partnership with New York State officials, that created the nation’s first immigrant-processing center in a former fort and theater called the Castle Garden.

The steady clip of arrivals continued at the turn of the century, as Italian immigrants fleeing poverty eventually outpaced the rush of newcomers from Ireland. Jews also started coming to the city, escaping persecution in Central Europe. Ethnic enclaves in Manhattan swelled and then thinned out with the implementation of a series of restrictive policies that culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924. (Exceptions were made for the hundreds of thousands who came from Germany and Austria in the aftermath of World War II.) The numbers of new arrivals started to rise again with the passing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which aimed to combat racial discrimination and put an end to quotas based on nationality. In the 1970s, immigrants came from the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean and China, revitalizing neighborhoods and pushing the city toward economic recovery. The United States established a formal refugee-resettlement program in 1980, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people from the collapsing Soviet Union flowed in.

The resettlement system was designed to approve new refugees before they entered the United States. The program would then place people with an agency able to assist with finding housing and accessing social services, and provide them with money for their first three months in the country. But in 2021, as an emergency measure following the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration allowed Afghan evacuees to enter the country with expedited processing under humanitarian parole — a legal status that does not include a path to citizenship. Once here, evacuees were offered resettlement services, a total of $1,225 in direct aid and could apply for expedited work authorization, which is not available to parolees from other countries.

“The first year of the Biden administration, there wasn’t a huge bump in refugee arrivals partly because of the pandemic and partly because we’re building back capacity,” said Alex Caudill, the assistant director at the New York chapter of HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the oldest refugee-resettlement agency in the country. “The crisis with Afghanistan put everything else on hold. It really challenged the refugee-resettlement system.”

To accommodate the numbers, Biden made it possible for community organizations or groups of at least five individuals to sponsor an evacuee, but they would have to raise resettlement funds themselves. Agencies across the country also started leaning more heavily on community groups. Local organizations help pay rent and find doctors and place children in schools. And for the most part, the assistance they offer extends past the initial three months of resettlement aid.

New York City has continued to provide services for new arrivals even as national policies have made it more difficult. Immigrants of any status are entitled to New York City IDs, which can be used to apply for benefits and to access city services. But without a formal network to help them apply for health insurance, food-assistance programs or preschool, many immigrants simply don’t find out about those services. “Sometimes it’s really hard to talk to newly arrived refugees about health care,” said Anya Shvetsova, co-founder of a group supporting Ukrainian immigrants to the United States. “If you go to a hospital, it will cost you a literal fortune. We’re talking about the really complex systems of public support. They don’t make it easy to access.”

The fact that Khurami and Jamalzada were able to land in New York with a network of people and resources was the product of what Khurami calls “chance and destiny.” At first they followed an acquaintance to Rochester, N.Y., where hundreds of evacuees had settled. Khurami’s passport had expired, and he was still wearing borrowed clothing. Their work authorization was delayed by a clerical error. They relied on community support and resettlement money to make ends meet. It was through their own volunteer work for a Rochester-based resettlement group that the couple met Holly Rosen Fink, co-founder of Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration. The three of them went out for coffee, and it was clear, Fink said, that Khurami and Jamalzada wanted to move.

“We loved Rochester,” Khurami said. “But for big dreams, you need to go to a big city.”

Fink helped found Neighbors for Refugees in 2016 and then started the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration three years later, aiming to mobilize volunteer groups and sources of funding. “We are very much a connector,” she said. The group paired with another refugee organization in the Bronx to help Khurami and Jamalzada find an apartment, and Fink contacted Neighbors for Refugees. Many landlords in New York City require proof that a tenant makes an annual income 40 times higher than the monthly rent. Neighbors for Refugees would not only co-sign the lease; they would also help the couple pay rent during their first few months. Now, nearly 10 months after fleeing Kabul, Khurami and Jamalzada could finally settle down.

Across the city from where Khurami and Jamalzada were selecting their new Bronx apartment, Tetiana Arsirii was living in a studio with her parents and her 10-year-old daughter, Karolina. She and her daughter arrived in New York on March 15 after fleeing from their hometown, Ivano-Frankivsk, in Western Ukraine. As they drove to Poland against a soundtrack of air-raid sirens, Arsirii, who is 32, told her daughter that the Ukrainian military wouldn’t let the bombs hit them. She repeated it enough times that she almost believed it was true.

In Poland, Arsirii discovered online that she could travel to Mexico without a visa and cross the border in Tijuana. In the early weeks of the war, there was no United States policy on Ukrainian arrivals. People were finding their way into the United States on tourist visas, if they already had one, or through Mexico. On April 21, the Biden administration announced Uniting for Ukraine, a policy allowing Ukrainians to apply for entry into the United States if they had the sponsorship of a U.S. citizen or an NGO. Those trying to cross the border from Mexico, however, face the same challenges as other asylum seekers. In Tijuana, thousands of Ukrainian refugees are living in a camp, awaiting entry.

‘Here, we are getting used to another rhythm. Everything is moving quickly, quickly, quickly.’

Like Afghans, Ukrainians who make it into the United States are offered humanitarian parole. Afghan refugees like Khurami and Jamalzada were given priority for work permits and help from resettlement agencies. Uniting for Ukraine, however, does not offer initial resettlement support, and it is unclear whether applications for work authorization will be prioritized. Where authorization used to be processed in a matter of weeks, it now takes anywhere from eight to 15 months. “These policies are reactive — that’s why you see everything looking a little different,” said Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president for global public affairs at HIAS, referring to the discrepancies between policies for Afghans and Ukrainians. “This is a new way of doing resettlement.” A reliance on sponsors has the positive effect of building community support for new arrivals, she said. “But,” she added, “it is not the refugee program. It is not the same.”

Arsirii’s parents, who moved to the United States years ago, helped book her a ticket from Poland to Cancún, and an aunt, also in the United States, donated additional money for the trip. From Cancún, Arsirii purchased a ticket to Tijuana, where she met a group of Ukrainian Americans who offered to drive her and Karolina to the border. Information came in disordered chunks, one fact at a time, like a puzzle she was expected to solve without having all the pieces. At the U.S. border with Mexico, she was detained for a night and then let out on humanitarian parole with her release papers.

Arsirii then flew to Brooklyn, joining her parents in their studio apartment overlooking Avenue X. She and her daughter slept at one end of the studio, her parents at the other. They fell asleep and woke up every morning gazing at each other from across the room. “It took me two weeks to even realize where I was,” Arsirii told me through a translator. “My mother encouraged me to leave the house. She took me walking in Brooklyn. We went to other neighborhoods.”

A family friend introduced Arsirii to an immigration lawyer, who helped her apply for temporary protected status, a designation that comes with a work permit and can allow a migrant to stay in the country for up to 18 months. A volunteer was also translating documents to help Arsirii enroll her daughter in school. But pieces of the puzzle were still missing.

“I know that health care is very expensive here,” she told me. “But I don’t know how it works. I know there are organizations to help. But what organizations? It’s the information that is important — and where to get the information. Information is crucial.”

Arsirii had long dreamed of coming to the United States under different circumstances. She would have liked to walk around the city, to take its measure and decide whether it was the place for her. “There is a very specific rhythm here,” she said. In Ukraine, she explained, people have more time to talk. She would get home from work and have tea with friends. Her daughter could play in a central courtyard while she occasionally checked in from her apartment window. “Here, we are getting used to another rhythm,” she said. “Everything is moving quickly, quickly, quickly.”

She spends her days cooking and cleaning to help her parents. She follows the news from Ukraine and worries about her brother, who is still there. Without the papers to enroll in school, her daughter is getting bored. Her parents — one a home health-aide worker and the other in construction — found a two-room apartment through a local broker that they can afford. In that way, Arsirii said, she has been lucky. She and her daughter will have a little more space.

No one knows exactly how many Ukrainians have arrived in the city since the war started in February. But the incoming flow of people can, in some ways, be measured by the overwhelming number of requests made to neighborhood and civic organizations. When the Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach scheduled an information session for Ukrainian immigrants, 300 people signed up in advance, and many more came on the day of the event. Michael Levitis, a local Russian-language radio personality on Freedom FM 104.7, has been hosting call-in programs with immigration lawyers. Schools and day care centers have been working to open spots for Ukrainian children.

In a cubicle located in the back of the Brighton Beach Chase Bank building, along Brighton Beach Avenue, a woman named Yelena Makhnin has been fielding an endless stream of requests since early March. Makhnin is head of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. “I am a referral service, let’s put it this way,” she told me. “Everyone has my cellphone number.”

Makhnin, who was born in Ukraine, arrived in New York in 1992 speaking little English. She took classes at the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), a refugee-resettlement agency that was founded in 1949 to serve Jewish refugees, funded with a mix of donations and federal grants. NYANA earned near mythic status for those who arrived in the 1980s and ’90s. In its heyday, the association was serving more than 50,000 immigrants a year and had an operating budget of $90 million. Makhnin received six months of assistance from the association as well as a Pell Grant, which helped her attend business classes. She has been running the Business Improvement District for nearly 20 years.

“When I first came to Brighton Beach, there were the American-born babushkas,” Makhnin said. “There were a few stores whose owners and relatives came over in the 1940s. Those stores were like clubs.” Makhnin’s babushkas spoke Yiddish to everyone who arrived, offering them advice and helping them understand their new home.

The neighborhood has changed since then. The babushkas are long gone, and Makhnin wishes new immigrants had the same level of support. “I came differently,” she said. “I came as a refugee. We had NYANA. NYANA provided English classes; NYANA provided some financial help. I was in a different category. When they took us as refugees, they took upon themselves some kind of responsibility.” The arrivals Makhnin sees today are staying with friends and family members, packed in small apartments, unsure of how to build new lives. “What is next?” she asked me, raising her eyebrows.

Makhnin is among a growing number of community volunteers struggling to fill the needs of the city’s most recent arrivals. Anya Shvetsova started Communities for Ukrainian Refugees in March with her mother, Yuliya Zolotarevsky, who works at the Brooklyn Public Library. Zolotarevsky had noticed Ukrainian immigrants coming into her library branch, looking for information on housing, on health care and on their immigration status, asking her questions she couldn’t answer. The group has been working to place Ukrainians with host families with spare rooms so they can have some privacy from the strangers who are housing them.

A network started by Temple Sinai of Roslyn and the Islamic Center of Long Island, called Upholding Humanity, is doing the same thing for families in Long Island and Queens. “One volunteer will bring a microwave; one will bring a rug — hundreds of volunteers will bring one thing at a time,” said Ilana Schachter, a rabbi at the temple. Isma Chaudhry, an adjunct associate professor of population health at Hofstra University and co-leader of Upholding Humanity, said: “The needs are immense. There was one family who needed a dentist immediately. There was the baby who had an ear infection, and my husband is an ear, nose and throat physician.”

Makhnin has been purchasing food for families with her own money while taking donations from local businesses. “We are not talking about anything fancy schmancy,” she told me. “But they need sugar, some oil, some cold cuts.” She will translate letters if needed. She has collected clothing for a Ukrainian family that lost its suitcases while fleeing the war. She works with Sue Fox, the executive director at the Shorefront Y, to enroll students in English classes, get children into day care and connect people with pro bono immigration lawyers. But Makhnin has found herself hitting a wall. She can help a family enroll their children in local schools, for example, but that school might not have a counselor who speaks Russian or Ukrainian. “We can help one or two people,” she said. “Maybe seven. Maybe 10. But it is not enough.”

“It’s very frustrating,” Fox said. “We have no additional staff. There are still only 24 hours in the day.” Fox was accustomed to helping people arriving in the city. She saw the neighborhood through Superstorm Sandy. But she met those challenges with resources and information. She had phone numbers and people to call. “We are used to having answers,” she told me. “But now there are no answers that we can give.”

Nearly two months after arriving in the United States, Arsirii was busy helping her family move to the new apartment while also waiting to hear about her temporary protected status application and work permit, which she hopes will be processed quickly.

Some Ukrainians are applying for asylum, a process with a backlog of nearly 700,000 cases. Others continue to arrive without legal status, moving in with family or friends, stretching their resources to gain a foothold in the city.

Khurami and Jamalzada have been waiting for many months to hear about their application to receive a special immigrant visa, which would grant them permanent residence in the United States. Jamalzada started the process when she worked for U.S.A.I.D., nearly two years before she was forced to flee Kabul. “We had to email the International Organization for Migration many times and call to get our documents,” Khurami said. “Imagine how difficult it might be for people who do not speak English.”

Khurami and Jamalzada believe in fate. When Jamalzada was first filling out that special immigrant visa application, she was asked to name a destination. She wrote “New York City.” “And now, here we are,” she said, smiling. They have painted their apartment and Khurami has clothes that fit. They are both applying for jobs and mapping out their pathway into Manhattan on the subway and bus. “We are dreaming,” Jamalzada told me. “For us, we want to do something for our lives, for our careers.”

In May, Khurami emailed me about the couple’s progress. “We got some offers,” he wrote. “But their payments are low.” There are jobs available with refugee-resettlement agencies, but those positions are all temporary, lasting about three months. So Khurami and Jamalzada are trying to hold out for something better, their $1,800 monthly rent in the back of their minds. Jamalzada hopes that Khurami can eventually pursue his dream of getting another graduate degree. “And then, maybe when things are more settled, I can start my own business,” she said.

“We are idealistic people,” Khurami told me. “We don’t want to just survive.”

Additional reporting by Anna Kambhampaty.

Lauren Hilgers is a writer based in New York. She is the author of “Patriot Number One: A Chinese Rebel Comes to America.” Joshua Rashaad McFadden is a visual artist and photographer and an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Their latest book, “Joshua Rashaad McFadden: I Believe I’ll Run On,” chronicles the intimacies of Black life in America.

A version of this article appears in print on June 5, 2022, Page 46 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: A Safe Harbor
They Fled Danger for New York. When Will Their New Lives Start?