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Vladimir Vishnevskiy knew that trust was going to be his biggest problem.
Vlad, as he is known, is the Immigration Services Director at Edith and Carl Marks Community House in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and he was anticipating, even as Hurricane Sandy was heading toward New York, the challenge government agencies and other voluntary agencies from outside the community would have reaching out to the Russian communities after Hurricane Sandy.
“Trust is crucial for this population, especially the seniors,” says Vlad.
Many of the tens of thousands of Soviet Jews who came to the U.S. after the Soviet Union opened its borders settled in the Brooklyn areas of Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay. Many of the older emigres are Holocaust survivors.
Marks JCH, as it is called, opened its doors in 1927 and has worked with more than 100,000 of these Russian immigrants, helping them find homes, jobs and schools for their children.
Three days after the storm, Marks JCH was up and running, providing food, water and other supplies to the members of the community, most of whom had lost power.
The extraordinary volunteer network throughout New York is lauded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will continue to work with the organizations for months to come to fulfill unmet needs.
“New York is a proud city of neighborhoods,” says Ian Becherer-Gerrie, FEMA’s Voluntary Agency Group Supervisor, “and as the winds calmed and the water receded, those neighborhoods came together. They identified needs, rallied assistance, and showed the world the power of that most fundamental American element –the volunteer.”
But when FEMA workers and volunteers went door-to-door in the high-rise buildings in the Brighton Beach area, which had no power and no working elevators, they were met with silence – even though many elderly people were living behind them, running low on food, water and medicine.
“This Russian-Jewish population remained tightly knit and often culturally and linguistically isolated even as they became U.S. citizens,” says Eric Phillipson, a retired U.S. Army Officer who served as an attaché in the former Soviet Union. As a FEMA planner deployed to New York to help with community outreach, he found that many in this population had been managing by themselves for weeks, rather than expecting the government to meet their needs.
“They continued to live in their communities much as they had in the Soviet Union,” says Phillipson, “insular and reliant on others who shared their Jewish heritage, and somewhat suspicious of those outside the community.”
Some of that trust was bridged when FEMA set up a Disaster Recovery Center in the gymnasium of the Shorefront YM-YWHA, a community and social services center in Brighton-Manhattan Beach. After Sandy hit, Shorefront Y managed over 900 volunteers and served 22,000 meals to storm survivors and responders.
“It’s a perfect synergistic fit. Residents are comfortable coming here because many of them came through here when they arrived in this country,” says Susan Fox, Executive Director of Shorefront. “We helped them get their citizenship, employment and even their apartments.”
Initially, FEMA workers at the DRC had to ask Shorefront for Russian speakers to communicate with visitors. But soon the agency hired translators and local Russian-speaking residents of the community. “Even though some of the visitors speak English, they are more comfortable having the various programs explained in their native language,” says Alex Krivitsky, a FEMA local hire who greets visitors and provides information at the front desk. Krivitsky emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, 20 years ago.
“Many elderly people with low incomes have been affected,” he says. “We are starting to see more people coming in who have damage, who have lost everything. Their neighbors are spreading the word about the center. They have to hear it from someone they trust – if I tell them something, they don’t believe me!”
Shorefront Y’s executive director points out that while many in the community may be wary of those they don’t know, “for the most part, we don’t deal with a shy, elderly population. Our residents are very aware of social services we provide,” says Fox. “Once they were informed about what FEMA does – after all, there is no Russian equivalent (in Russian FEMA is a man’s name) – they were willing to apply.”
For more information about Hurricane Sandy recovery in Russian, visit Ураган Сэнди.