Stuck in New York because of the war. “Napalm” podcast, Ep.8. Text version

Maria Zhartovska
Stuck in New York because of the war. “Napalm” podcast, Ep.8. Text version


“Napalm” is a series of podcasts about photographers, journalists, cooks, pharmacists, servicemen, doctors, saleswomen, and programmers. In short, this is a series of podcasts about Ukrainians experiencing war, about the everyday life of our country, heroically resisting the Russian invasion. We want to hear the voices of our citizens, their stories about everyday and not-so-everyday life, and we want our listeners to hear those voices as well. In March, US President Joe Biden promised that his country would welcome refugees from Ukraine "with arms open". But the hugs aren't felt: there are long queues of Ukrainians on the border with Mexico who want to visit their relatives in the United States. Those Ukrainians who found themselves in the United States at the beginning of the war are still awaiting temporary protection status, which allows them to stay in the United States for 18 months and work there. In this issue of “Napalm”, digital marketing manager from Kyiv Alina Dovzhenko tells what it's like to get stuck in New York and be (almost) a refugee in the United States.

Hello, this is Napalm, Iʼm Babel journalist Masha Zhartovska. Today our guest is Alina Dovzhenko, a digital marketing manager who lives in Kyiv but got stuck in New York on the eve of the war. Alina, tell us please, how did you end up in New York and what happened next?

Hello, Maria. I flew to New York on February 6 to visit friends. I was supposed to stay here on vacation for about two weeks and fly back on February 21. My ticket was from Lufthansa. And they began to postpone the flight. At first they canceled it, then postponed it several times, then canceled it again. And I turned to a guy from Kyiv who has his own travel agency. He helped me find tickets for other airlines. My last flight was Turkish Airlines on February 23 at 11:30 pm New York time.

I packed my things, said goodbye to my friends and to New York. Went to the JFK [airport] a little earlier ― I decided to drink a glass of wine. A grandfather from Alabama sat down next to me, saw a Ukrainian passport on my desk, and started asking about Ukraine. And I understood that when I returned to Ukraine, martial law would already be in effect. But no one thought that a full-scale war would break out. I talked to him, calmly passed the border control. And when I approached the boarding zome, an acquaintance who lives in New York wrote me: "Alina, if you have the opportunity not to fly to Ukraine now, please do not do it, because it seems not calm there."

I checked everything in Google ― there were no updates [on the situation]. I replied with absolutely calm thoughts that everything will be fine. Then I approach boarding gate. Its staff takes my passport, my ticket. They ask if my final point is Kyiv, I say yes. And something incomprehensible starts to happen from this moment. They start whispering, handing over my passport. I stand and donʼt understand what is happening, maybe I was confused with someone. And I start asking them what happened. At first no one answered me. And then they say with a completely stone face: "You canʼt go because of war in Ukraine." It was difficult for me to imagine then what they were put in these words. I called my mother, although it was very early in Kyiv. She told me that Kyiv was being shelled. Managers from Turkish Airlines said that I have exactly 2-3 minutes to decide whether to stay in the United States. And they recommended me: “If there is an opportunity, please stay in the United States. Or you can fly to Turkey and live there for three months, because a passport of a citizen of Ukraine allows this”.

I had a complete mental breakdown. But after all I decided to stay in America, here I have at least some acquaintances. Then for another hour and a half I waited for the luggage to be removed from the flight. I was accompanied by a dozen Ukrainians who found themselves in the same situation. These were people on business trips or on vacation, or elderly people who came to visit their family. I was the only one who had hysterical condition. A guy from Odesa gave me his water so that I could calm down.

Is your mother staying in Kyiv now?

Yes, my mom and dad are in Kyiv. I spent several weeks trying to persuade them to leave. But they said it is our land, our home, our city. At the same time, they say: "We are so glad that you are not here, so that we donʼt worry about you."

I will explain to the audience that Alina and I both love New York and tried to meet there in the summer. But then she just arrived, and I was already flying to Ukraine. My husband and I flew on February 1. And then all the time there were predictions that Russiaʼs invasion of Ukraine is possible. An acquaintance of mine offered to stay with her in Connecticut, but we flew back. It was unclear that something could start. And you stayed with your acquaintances?

Yes. It was the acquaintance who wrote to me five minutes before that phenomenal moment. When I decided to stay in New York, I had no plan or understanding of where and how I would live and what I would do. In a minute half of my life flashed before my eyes. And I thought if I fly to Istanbul now, I havenʼt been there at all, I have no acquaintances there. What if I canʼt get to Europe from there? I had a million thoughts in my head. And I decided that this was my tenth visit to New York ― a jubilee. I canʼt say this without irony. I understand how to live at the household level here, I have acquaintances. So I just wrote Katya about the situation. And she suggested by herself, just said: "Take Uber and come to us in Manhattan."

And now you are staying with them?


For almost two months already?

No. Life in New York is divided into vacations when I didnʼt live with them, and on other turns. In fact, Iʼve been living with them for over a month.

Itʼs easier for your parents that you are safe. For us, too, when we were there, it seemed that everything was very scary. You read all the news. And in Kyiv we somehow got used to air alarms. Maybe you think itʼs scarier here [than it really is].

I understand how this thing works. There is a trivial example: letʼs go back to the great times of the coronavirus. I flew to the USA last February, and it seemed to my mother that I would leave JFK airport and get the coronavirus right away and die here. Because the news showed that the situation with the COVID-19 in New York is very bad. Although in Kyiv it wasnʼt better then, maybe even worse.

I saw that you started volunteering, helped to distribute aid. There were a lot of pickets in New York, our diaspora became more active. How was it from the inside?

Very quickly, everyone became more active. The next day [after the full-scale war started], people began to rally in Times Square. Volunteer organizations became more active ― both well-known such as Together for Ukraine and small local ones, which began to raise funds and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. There was a lot of that. I was looking for different organizations that needed extra hands to pack humanitarian aid.

You are now on a tourist visa that does not allow you to work or rent a home, only to stay in the States for six months. On March 3, The White House announced a temporary protection status. But Ukraine is not on the list of countries whose citizens can apply for this status. In addition, the States did so only for those citizens who, as of March 1, found themselves in the United States, just like you. Did you learn about the conditions of this status?

So. I flew here with a B1/B2 visa, with a permission valid until August. But I canʼt do anything legally. And everyone was waiting for America to do something for Ukraine. On March 3, they released this temporary protection status. Itʼs very interesting, probably that day my feeling of being betrayed appeared. I understand perfectly well that no country is interested in doing too much for the citizens of another country, but the United States has promised a lot. And when they were preparing this protection status, it looked like they were about to issue a green card. But it turned out that they did nothing for Ukrainians who want to leave the place where the fighting is.

This status entitles you to stay legally in the United States for 18 months. With it you can apply for a work permit, social security, amber, advance parole, this is a certificate with which you can leave the country. But this does not change your status here, doesnʼt provide any preferences if you want to emigrate here. It also costs almost $600. When you win a green card in the lottery, collecting documents is cheaper than temporary protection status, which gives nothing. The United States is a big bureaucratic machine, nothing is resolved here quickly. But as of March 29, it is unknown when Ukraine will be added to the list. I have consulted with 12 lawyers during this time, half of whom donʼt understand how this will work at all. Even if this status is accepted, the waiting period is still about 6 months. It doesnʼt make any sense at all if I still wonʼt be able to do anything during this time.

So you canʼt work?

This moment is very critical. Also, I donʼt know if this status will hurt my tourist visa or hypothetical visa in the future? Will I have a piece of paper that will prove itʼs all in the process? Unfortunately, I didnʼt receive any specific answers. I understand that the lawyers themselves are shocked, they must either research how it was in the case of other countries, or to consult about what has changed now for Ukraine. I am still looking for migration lawyers who can provide more information.

Do you have to pay the lawyer something above these $545? For his services, for filing the application form.

To be honest, you can fill out the form yourself. But you have to be careful, because there are references to laws, and in them ― references to other laws. You have to understand migration law in America well. If you are good at googling, if you have a good nervous system, [you can do all this]. But, of course, itʼs better to use the services of lawyers. I heard different prices ― from $500 to $2,500 ― for filling out these forms. But Iʼve also heard that you can find lawyers who work pro bono and help for free. But it seems to me that where it is free, it will be filled in the same way as you would fill it yourself.

Do you somehow cooperate with the people with whom you were stuck at the airport then?

Good question, but when I was at JFK and I had a mental breakdown, I didnʼt think at all that these people needed to be contacted. I tried to look for people in the same situation in my community, but I couldnʼt find anyone. I found people from Europe. And most of all I found people who have the citizenship of the well-known neighboring country [Russia], who were here on vacation, but for obvious reasons now do not want to return there. It seems to me that if these people really want to stay in America, they will be able to do it easier and faster than the citizens of Ukraine.

I will add sourness, because I also follow these forums and see what Ukrainians are writing. The advice you want to hit people on their keyboards is to "apply for political asylum". Political asylum is when you have to prove that your country is threatening you. Ukraine doesnʼt threaten its citizens. And war, paradoxically, is not a reason for political asylum. In fact, Russians in the United States will be able to prove that Russia is pressuring them, and they have a better chance [to stay there on good terms]. And political asylum entitles them to help ― they can get money from the US government.

When you apply for political asylum, you hang out there indefinitely. But you immediately get work permit, social security [number] ― all these documents. Yes, now people with Russian citizenship are more likely to get political asylum and documents. Because they can find any photo with a poster [from a rally in Russia and that would be enough]. The [Russian] people I saw here were quite adequate and didnʼt support what Russia was doing. They quarreled with their parents who supported it [the war].

And youʼre right, I was very annoyed [by some posts in social networks from Ukrainians living in the United States]. People are different, people are selfish. They write: “Oh! Now you definitely need to move [here]." And I was very annoyed when people donʼt understand migration law, [but give advice]. They are beginning to deceive someone, to give strange advice on how to deceive the state.

The temporary protection status should work in several directions. The first is family reunification: if I have relatives in the United States, they can theoretically take me away. In fact, there are a huge number of such requests, people are forced to cross the border with Mexico, because there is a "green" corridor, but itʼs really three circles of hell. The second story is that certain groups may take people there, such as LGBT people or journalists, but it is not clear how this will work. And everyone is very much looking forward to this humanitarian parole, which was announced for 100,000 Ukrainians. Is this being discussed in the diaspora?

I didnʼt hear any details about the humanitarian parole. What I understand is the story when you came to the border without anything and ask for asylum. Honestly, I donʼt know the details, but this month two of my acquaintances from Ukraine, who have been living in the US for 5-7 years, managed to bring their parents here. But my friendʼs mom had a tourist visa, so he just bought her a ticket and she flew to New York. And another acquaintance took my mother from Kyiv first to Poland. There she obtained a tourist visa and flew to America a few days ago.

By the way, many Ukrainians are now trying to get US tourist visas in Poland. But as for the tourist visa, you have to prove that you will return to your country. This may not be the case now. In Poland, many denials of tourist visas. So people could be able to go to the States to visit relatives, but they find themselves in a situation where there is no mechanism to do that. Despite public promises that "we will welcome Ukrainians with open arms."

In the first weeks after it was announced, everyone was rejected en masse, and this added even more disappoitmet. Then came the wave when visas began to be issued. But there is a point, an unspoken rule: when you go in peacetime, you have to prove that you will return under any circumstances. If you have relatives in America, it was received even worse, because youʼll have there someone to cling to. This is what all countries do ― you are immediately perceived as a potential migrant. When the United States announced tourist visas to Europe, they said they would prefer those who have relatives with a green card or American citizenship. But at the same time you have to prove that you will return. It was a very strange decision to start issuing tourist visas, realizing that tourism is not the purpose of applying for a visa. Theyʼd better work on temporary protection statuses or family reunification.

One of the last questions I wanted to ask you. I saw on Facebook, when you write about your situation, there are accusations: "Why are you sobbing? Itʼs not so bad to get stuck in New York." But itʼs one thing when you fly to the States as a tourist going shopping and walking around the city, and quite another when you need to get some moey to live on and rent a house. Do you have plans for what to do next? Maybe you will prolong your tourist visa?

Until August, I may not be particularly nervous. Iʼm not breaking any laws just by being here. I have a individual entrepreneur status in Ukraine, can be hired as an independent consultant. The only thing that bothers me is an issue with housing, because I understand that it canʼt go on like this forever. I am very grateful to the people who accepted me, but I understand that this is an inorganic and abnormal situation. I will consult with lawyers and find out what the options for housing are. I will actively look for projects to work with my head.

Let me remind our audience that getting stuck without any status is not tourism at all.

Even in quiet times, people have always said that emigration and tourism are different things. I have acquaintances who have moved here very nicely ― with work visas, a bunch of documents, totally legally, with family and work for very large salaries. And even they fell into a state of depression, because they could not cope with the change of the picture, with completely new rules. And Iʼm all alone here, I donʼt have a husband, I donʼt have a work permit. But I donʼt have much time to worry, I have to take matters into my own hands.

Zelensky and Biden are to have another conversation today about helping Ukraine in this war, and maybe there will be a new promise for us.

Yes, even warmer hugs. I took the position of a realist, but with a negative connotation. A few days ago, my mother called me and said, "Here, Alina, Iʼm watching Bidenʼs speech, now something will probably be cool, now it will be easier for you to live." And I think to myself: should I please her or just keep quiet?

All right, hold on. Thank you very much.

Thank you. I hope that everything will end soon, we will win. And we remember all those who supported us ad those who didnʼt help.

Good luck to you. This was Napalm, subscribe to us.