(New York Jewish Week) — A year ago, Diana and Vitalii Nakonechnyi never expected that they and their two young kids would be living in Riverdale, a leafy neighborhood in the Bronx. Then again, they also never expected a war would force them to evacuate their hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
“We heard it was a possibility, but we never would have expected this to happen in our lives,” Diana told the New York Jewish Week via a translator. “And we never thought we’d ever live in as big of a city as New York.”
The Nakonechnyis, a family unit of five — including Vitalii’s mother — are among the nearly 100,000 refugees who have fled Ukraine for the United States since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
They first went to Poland, then stayed in Germany through the summer. There, they heard via Telegram, a global messaging service, that HIAS and other refugee resettlement agencies like it were helping bring people to the United States. HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was created in the 1880s to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe. In recent years, however, HIAS has pivoted to resettling non-Jewish refugees, as well as mobilizing the American Jewish community around advocating for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
As it turns out, the Nakonechnyi family were not resettled directly by HIAS or another refugee resettlement organization — a process that can often take years due to bureaucratic red tape. Instead, they were among a growing cohort of arrivals who were greeted at the airport, set up in new homes and introduced to life in the United States by trained “Welcome Circles,” a private sponsorship group, enlisted by HIAS, that consists of everyday Americans who volunteer to help resettle a refugee family. Within the span of just a few weeks, with the assistance of local community members, the Nakonechnyi family settled in the Bronx at the end of November 2022.
“Nobody really believed that there would be some help on the other side, that everything would be taken care of with housing and airline tickets,” Diana said. “Little by little, we are adjusting.”
The Northwest Bronx Coalition — the Welcome Circle of around 10 individuals that has helped welcome the Nakonechnyis in Riverdale — is largely made up of members from local congregations: Riverdale Temple, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Congregation Tehillah. It’s the latest iteration of how Jews, once refugees themselves, are now using their expertise and experience to resettle others.
“Ukraine is so pivotal in so many of our own histories and our own refugee stories,” said Holly Rosen Fink, the president of the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration who, working with HIAS, helps organize and mobilize Welcome Circles. “Nine times out of 10, when you ask [Jewish] people in Westchester where their families are from, it’s usually that part of the world. So it stirred a lot of people’s hearts.”
Welcome Circles like the Northwest Bronx Coalition are made up of five to eight community members who have committed themselves to accommodating and resettling a refugee family for the first six months of their time in the United States. These volunteers handle everything a resettlement agency would: helping secure housing and employment, organizing medical appointments and bills, and smoothing over any other logistics required in the transition to a new country. The groups commit to raising a minimum $2,275 for each person they are going to help resettle, though in many cases the amount is far higher.
Leading the Northwest Bronx group is Irina Kimelfeld, who came to the United States when she was 13 as an emigre from the Soviet Union in 1988. “I did feel that I was in more of a unique situation to help because I have the language and some degree of commonality of experience right from that same region,” Kimelfeld told the New York Jewish Week. “But it really came from feeling so helpless about the war and needing to be able to do something.”
Kimelfeld, an accountant, has been translating for the Nakonechnyis, helping them find and furnish an apartment, guiding them through public transportation, finding a house of worship (the family is Ukrainian Baptist) and showing them around the city. She’s also helped with social and medical services for Diana, who is eight months pregnant, and her son Filipp, who has special needs.
For Rosen Fink, resettling non-Jewish refugees is undoubtedly a Jewish issue. “After visiting Auschwitz during the Syrian refugee crisis, I returned home determined to not let this kind of upheaval and trauma happen again to anyone” she said. “We help refugees of all faiths and ethnicities from anywhere in the world because we are Jews. It is our duty and responsibility.”
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
Rosen Fink operates as a liaison between HIAS and New York Jewish communities, encouraging members to join these Welcome Circles in honor of their Jewish values. “We’ve been going into the community, finding the people that want to step up and giving them the tools and the resources and funding to connect with HIAS and start hosting a family,” Rosen Fink said. “We inspire people to do this work because we see this through a Jewish lens because of our history and values.”
Until recently, Welcome Circles such as the Northwest Bronx Coalition were considered part of an emergency government response towards the Afghan and Ukrainian refugee crises, and not an official resettlement policy in the United States. But as of Jan. 19, the Biden Administration announced the implementation of the “Welcome Corps,” a federally backed private sponsorship program in which refugee resettlement agencies will be able to train American citizens to help resettle refugees on a long-term basis with route to citizenship — a departure from the emergency response programs which only offered short-term, humanitarian parole.
The Welcome Corps, which the New York Times called “most significant reorientation of the U.S. refugee program since its inception more than four decades ago,” will allow an increased number of refugees to resettle in the United States for less of a cost to the government.
As such, programs like HIAS’s Welcome Circles will become an even more common way to resettle more refugees more quickly. In the last 18 months, HIAS has helped establish 80 Welcome Circles in 17 states. In New York City and Westchester, 15 of HIAS’s Welcome Circles have assisted in the resettlement of more than 50 refugees.
“It’s an exciting program that’s is opening up the opportunity for many more volunteers on the ground to get involved with supporting refugee resettlement in areas where they might not have resettlement agencies, or where resettlement agencies do not have the capacity to bring in the people themselves,” said Isabel Burton, the senior director of community engagement initiatives at HIAS.
For now, the Nakonechnyis are still getting used to the city, which is a lot bigger than their hometown (Kharkiv’s population is approximately 1.4 million). They’re not sure yet if New York will be their permanent home — the idea of planning for the future, Diana said, feels like it has been taken away from them.
“You do feel helpless — and this is something you can do,” Kimelfeld said. “You can’t help everybody but you can make a difference for one family.”