I sponsored a Ukrainian family and had them come live with me in New York City. I've taught them how to ride the subway and they've taught me how to be open-minded.
- I decided to sponsor a family from Ukraine and have them come live with me in New York.
- I lived in Kyiv for five years, where I met them.
As a 35-year-old Jersey girl living in Manhattan, I had no idea what I was signing up for when I decided to sponsor my Ukrainian swim coach, Katya, and her son, Dima, and have them come to New York as refugees.
I had lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, for five years, from 2014 to 2019, working as a preschool teacher at an international school, but upon their arrival to New York on February 2023, I quickly realized that in the three years since I'd relocated back to the US from Eastern Europe, my Russian had gotten rusty. On top of that, my pandemic-era athleisure work-from-home vibe was not jibing with my elegant, feminine swim coach's expectations of what a young woman should look like.
I'm helping them navigate a new culture
"Clarochka, can't you just wear some blush?" she said to me in Russian as we walked around midtown Manhattan shortly after she arrived. "Makes your cheeks all pretty. Maybe add some mascara and lipstick?"
I laughed to myself, remembering how several of my Ukrainian friends encouraged me to laser off my dark arm hair, dye my eyebrows, and wear more makeup. As someone more comfortable in jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, I've always felt like my sporty style never quite fit with the ultrafeminine Ukrainian aesthetic. I always wondered how Ukrainian women could wear 5-inch high heels on icy streets and guessed that their stilettos doubled as secret ice picks.
While I knew Katya's advice was meant more as motherly guidance, it reminded me of how when I was living in Eastern Europe, I was constantly code-switching, attempting to adapt to a new culture, language, and country. Now I'm helping Katya and Dima through the same undertaking, only in rewind.
I am their designated translator and emergency contact
I remember how proud I was when I started making sense of the Cyrillic letters and constructing meaning from what I was seeing in my new environment. The first two words I recognized in Kyiv were apostille and notary.
I continued to learn all I could about Slavic culture, taking Russian classes after work, checking out books by Ukrainian authors and poets from the school library, and watching classic Soviet movies on my laptop at home. I prided myself on my ability to adapt to Ukrainian culture.
Yet despite my best efforts, I was still an American girl from the suburbs of New Jersey, and cultural blunders were inevitable.
During a secret-Santa gift exchange, I accidentally wrote on a card, "XOXOXO, CC" and worried all week that I had so easily given myself away. Yet I was shocked to learn that my colleague had read my message as "Ho-Ho-Ho, Santa Clause" and that my mistake had somehow worked in my favor.
Fast-forward five years, and I was coaching my coach on American life. Over the first six weeks of their relocation to New York, I showed them how to navigate the 26 metro lines, refill their laundry cards, shop for produce at the grocery store, and sign up for health insurance. One afternoon, while I was walking in Riverside Park with Katya, she suddenly pointed to a sign and said in Russian, "Clare, do you see that word? Is it Hudson?"
"Yes, Hudson," I replied, thrilled that Katya was beginning to feel comfortable with the city.
"Only it's with an H sound, not a G sound," I added in Russian. "You make the sound like this: ha, ha, ha, ha," I said as I showed her how to laugh from her diaphragm.
"Ha-ha-ha-Hudson," Katya said.
"Awesome, you got it," I said as I gave her a high five, excited that the English classes I'd introduced them to were working.
While I tried to give my Ukrainian friends as much agency and autonomy as possible as they adapted to life in New York, I was still their sponsor, meaning I was their designated translator and emergency contact, even on hospital forms. That meant miscommunication was inevitable.
"Could I please speak to Dmytro?" the voice on the other end of the line asked. "This is Elmhurst Medical Center. We need to resolve an insurance issue before his appointment tomorrow."
"I'm not Dmytro. I'm his sponsor," I quizzically responded. "Let me see if I can get him on the line."
Scrolling through WhatsApp, I called Dima and plugged him in on the call.
"Yes, I Dima," he said in his percussive Slavic accent.
"What language do you prefer?" the medical staffer said.
"Russian," Dima said.
"Please hold for translation," she said before the call produced several whirls, beeps, and clicks. Then suddenly, five people were on the line: the translator, the insurance representative, the receptionist, Dima, and myself.
I found myself lost for words, between rapidly spoken Russian and English, with Dima robotically responding to repeated instructions. It was impossible for me to track what was taking place. I could tell Dima was getting increasingly frustrated. My phone buzzed, and I saw that he had just texted me an expletive on WhatsApp that I didn't recognize. My head started throbbing. When the call abruptly ended, my phone rang again.
"Did you just text me 'hoo-haw' in Russian?" I asked.
"Yes," he said laughing. "Google translator not work. That was big-ass call."
"Agreed," I said, chortling. "You good for your doctor's appointment tomorrow?"
"Maybe. You can come?" he responded.
"I'll try," I said. "I'll be available by text just in case," I added as I started to rub my tense neck and realized that I needed to put on sunglasses. "Talk soon," I chirped as I hung up, desperate for a Diet Coke and Nurtec.
Despite all the craziness of doing paperwork for the Uniting for Ukraine visas, the hasty relocation, and ensuing resettling pains, I'm thankful that I can help my friends and support a family in need.
This experience has taught me to be hyperflexible, open-minded, patient, and adaptable as we continue to adjust together to the traffic jams of life. And if all else fails, at least Google Translate is readily available, even if it isn't perfect.
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