Emigres from former USSR struggle to recover after apartment fire in S.F.

More than an hour from San Francisco, Latvian emigre Aida Levin retrieved her father's urgent message from her cell phone: Her Richmond District apartment was burning.

Levin immediately pointed her car homeward. "I just drove. I made a couple calls from the car, and the fire department said [my] floor was pretty bad. By the time I got there it was done," she said.

Inside of two hours, all that remained of the life that Levin had built for herself since emigrating was her car, the cell phone and the clothes on her back. Levin now lives in a neighborhood motel room with her 8-year-old, Hannah, who was with her that night.

Three other ex-Soviet families also lost their homes to the fire that ripped through the building at 404 20th Avenue at around 10 p.m. Saturday. None of the emigres was injured, although another resident was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation, San Francisco firefighters reported. In all, 15 residents were displaced by the fire, which caused approximately $300,000 in damage.

Citing no evidence of foul play, Lt. Edward Campbell of the S.F. Fire Department said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The American Red Cross directed some of the victims to the YMCA for several nights before giving motel vouchers to those who couldn't find lodging with friends and family.

The Red Cross also provided some toiletries and $95 for groceries. Despite the assistance, several emigres said they had few other resources to get back on their feet.

Victor Brylovsky and Yuzya Selyitskaya and their grown daughter, Dina Bruk, could barely afford their two-bedroom apartment in the complex when they first arrived a year ago from Latvia. Now that rents have shot up and the entire family is unemployed, they are skeptical about their prospects of finding an apartment.

"We can't even afford a studio…We called [about subsidized housing] after the fire. They told us the wait is a year," Bruk said. "We should go to Golden Gate Park [to live]."

Bruk was a sales manager for an electronics firm in Latvia before she, her parents and grandmother decided to leave behind "a tough life" in the former Soviet republic.

After a year in San Francisco, she has been unable to secure a job because of her limited English. Her mother receives welfare and her father, who is disabled with a heart condition, relies on Social Security.

All three have been taking English classes, although Bruk quit her studies temporarily to nurse her ailing grandmother. The grandmother died the week before the fire.

Levin, a six-year resident of the building, worries about how her daughter will cope with the loss. The landlord of the burned building has promised Levin an apartment when she rebuilds, but that's at least a year off. In the meantime, Levin will seek temporary housing and begin the task of replacing her lost household one item at a time.

At the drug store Tuesday, the enormity of that task finally struck her. "You just walk around the aisles and put stuff in. You buy nail polish remover, but then where do you put it? I started crying for the first time."

She added, "I want Hannah to come home from school and do her homework and have a desk to sit down at."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.