Volunteer translator Zhenya Leonov (right) helps volunteer attorney Nick Keats (center) talk to a woman who recently arrived from Ukraine at a legal services clinic at JFCS San Francisco in 2022.
Volunteer translator Zhenya Leonov (right) helps volunteer attorney Nick Keats (center) talk to a woman who recently arrived from Ukraine at a legal services clinic at JFCS San Francisco in 2022.

Former refugees in Bay Area pay it forward by helping new Ukrainian arrivals

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When newly arrived Ukrainians turn for help to JFCS in San Francisco or the East Bay, they often find themselves speaking to staff or volunteers who speak their language — literally.

That’s because many of those offering to help were once immigrants themselves, from the former Soviet Union. Many came from Ukraine, and from the same cities now under Russian bombardment.

“The local Jewish community of Ukrainian origin has been very engaged, wanting to help,” said Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, whose own husband immigrated here from Soviet-era Odessa. “They identify with the population and understand what it’s like to be uprooted.”

Masha Rumer
Masha Rumer

One of those volunteers is Masha Rumer, who arrived in the Bay Area from Leningrad as a refugee in 1992 when she was 13. She and her family were part of the big wave of Jewish immigrants who poured out of the Soviet Union in its final days, some 20,000 of whom ended up in the Bay Area.

Now in her early 40s, she is a journalist and the author of “Parenting with an Accent,” which came out last year.

“Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Bay Area community really helped my family,” she told J. “It was hard for me. I knew a little English — British English. I took some classes and tried to translate Beatles lyrics. My uncle wrote them down for me; he was recently jailed in Russia for protesting the war in Ukraine.”

When Rumer’s family arrived, JFCS sent a volunteer to help them practice English at home, provided English classes for the parents, job training and plenty of advice.

“It was tough,” Rumer recalled. “Obviously we didn’t have any money when we came. We used most of it for plane tickets. Then my father got a job — it’s a common story.”

Also common is having family in more than one country. One side of Rumer’s family is from Ukraine and the other from Belarus. Some were living in Kyiv when the war began and had to evacuate.

“The connection to Ukraine is very personal,” she said. “It’s been horrifying. Like every person born in the FSU that I’ve spoken to, we were in disbelief and shock at the invasion, and still are.”

Rumer began volunteering with JFCS late last year. At first she helped new immigrants practice English for their citizenship exams, but when refugees from the war began showing up this spring, she pivoted to translating for the pro bono attorneys at the Friday legal clinics. So far she’s worked with two families from Ukraine.

“I cried afterward,” she admitted. “I didn’t show them my tears. It’s not our turn to speak.”

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A lot of what she does is simply talk to the new arrivals, listening to their stories. They are heartbreaking, she said. Most didn’t bring anything with them. One man had just bought an apartment and had to leave it behind.

“They have so much dignity, and it’s important they be treated with dignity. These people have had their livelihoods stripped away. Some of them have trouble even asking for the waiver of the $410 fee” for applying for a work permit. “They keep saying, we’re not here for handouts. We want to work, and hopefully go back.”

Zhenya Leonov is also a volunteer translator for JFCS in the legal clinic. Born in Kishinev, Moldova, he arrived with his family in the United States in 1991 when he was 9. Now 40, he lives in San Francisco where he works in high-tech “like all the other Russian-speaking people,” he jokes.

Leonov had never volunteered prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. But most of his friends are from the former Soviet Union, and when they heard the news about refugees showing up at the Mexican border, they sprang into action.

“Some of my friends set up organizations, like Cash for Refugees. Some went to the Ukrainian border to volunteer. The founders of [San Jose-based] Hearts for Ukraine are my friends. We all know each other, we are all trying to help.”

At the beginning of the war, before any protocols had been set by the government, Leonov and his friends exchanged news and questions on social media. How could the refugees get into the U.S.? What were the needs at the border?

“It was very organic, and everything happened really fast,” he said.

Zhenya Leonov
Zhenya Leonov

Some in his cohort went to the Mexican-U.S. border, where, along with the Ukrainians trying to find refuge in the United States,  Russians opposed to the war were asking for political asylum.Tensions were high, Leonov says. Finally the Mexican government told aid groups they could use a gymnasium as a refugee camp.

In April, Leonov went to volunteer for a week in the camp. Mostly he was a driver, picking up people at the airport. He also helped maintain order in the lines of people waiting to talk to border officials, putting up signs and telling them where to go. “Most of them were younger, mothers with children, but there were also elderly people, and sick kids,” he said. Soon he found himself at the camp’s legal desk, translating birth certificates and other documents.

Upon his return to the Bay Area, Leonov stayed involved. In addition to serving as a volunteer translator at the JFCS legal clinic, he is active in several networks reaching out to the new arrivals and sending money to Ukrainians back home. “There are still volunteers at the border, we are still helping to process people,” he added.“I just want to do something more than donate money. There’s instant gratification in helping someone directly.”

Leonov’s circle includes immigrants from all parts of the former Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter where you come from, he insists, noting that he is Moldovan and his girlfriend, a lawyer, is from Russia, but half her family is from Ukraine. They’re all united in their opposition to Putin’s regime.

“The FSU/Eastern European diaspora here is very like-minded about Russia,” he said. “We see current Russia becoming former Russia, becoming what my parents ran away from. There’s a lot of angst about it.” Some of his friends who had left as children went back as adults, to work and live. “They’re all leaving now,” he said.

Rumer, on the other hand, says she does feel that her Russian heritage is a bit of a scarlet letter. She said some of the new arrivals commented on it when she spoke to them in Russian.

“I wouldn’t tell them I was from Russia, because I’m ashamed of what the government is doing, even though my family left because we suffered such abuses,” she said.

As for feeling estranged from the new arrivals because of religious differences, however, Rumer and Leonov say absolutely not.

“It makes no difference that they are not Jewish,” stated Rumer. “These are people attacked in their own land for no reason.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].