As the one year anniversary of the war in Ukraine approaches, a group of Brighton Beach volunteers continue serving as the first stop for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war zone in need of relief aid.
Leading up to the war, Shorefront Jewish Community Council, a sister organization of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, began seeing a small trickle of Russian immigrants seeking political asylum, and looking to avoid participating in the coming conflict.
However once the war started, they were flooded with displaced Ukrainians.
There was originally a lack of clarity on the services the organization could give, Larisa Boas, the executive director for Shorefront JCC, and her team began by offering the basics — food, water and shelter.
“They were sort of in this constant state of worry about what was going to happen and trauma just from the journey, what was happening constantly,” Boas told Brooklyn Paper. “The people who came later on had witnessed so much trauma in their own country and thought that they could wait it out but then their children were being affected by just witnessing a war.”
As laws became clearer and refugee numbers grew, the team responded to the communities needs by establishing a food pantry, teaching ESL (english as a second language) courses and helping with immigration services, as well as financial counseling and job networking.
“As needs arise, we will respond accordingly but the needs are there,” the executive director said. “The demand for ESL services is incredibly high and really what we’re seeing now is that it’s such a foundational skill and even though many have gotten their work authorizations, it’s very hard to get them employment without strong oral skills.”
Since the war began, over 75,000 Ukrainians have fled the the United States, including over 14,000 that have landed in New York State, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration.
The Shorefront JCC has provided aid to roughly 1,500 households, according to a group spokesperson.
As they wait for permanent job opportunities, some of the refugees have joined the team of volunteers, helping new travelers adjust.
Olga Polubotko, who came to the Shorefront area in late September of 2022, has spent the last four months supporting the organization. Previously a teacher in her home country, Polubotko now works as an ESL instructor, teaching one of five weekly courses.
“More and more people come and everyone is given attention. People try to help,” she said. “When you are new in the country, many things are unfamiliar and this is really, really helpful.”
According to the volunteers, more and more activities have been organized including a health fair, where those in need have access to vaccines against COVID and Tuberculosis, as well as basic medical materials.
“People really appreciated having the service aid for free and it [being] a very localized,” Boas said. “It’s been very well attended, we often get people that are new to our organization. They’re hearing word of mouth.”
The executive director immigrated to the states in 1980 with her parents and grandparents — a vastly different experience for the people she is servicing.
Many of the Ukrainian refugees come with first-hand trauma effects of the war and facing uncertainty.
“They’re still living in this constant ‘what if’ scenario and not really knowing what the future will bring for them. It’s very unsettling,” she said.
Taking the frustrations and fears of the refugees, Boas plans to continue growing her team of supporters and help newcomers “navigate the climate” as they arrive in the states.
“They are really in survival mode, just taking it day by day. Trying to get through it,” Boas said.
In addition to volunteer organizations like the Shorefront JCC, the city government of New York is providing various resources to Ukrainian refugees, which can be found here.