After finding a place to stay, my young Ukrainian friend Viktor began walking New York City streets stopping into places looking for work. He went into DSK, the biergarten, and the bartender, a woman who was born in Poland, said that the place needed a dishwasher. Viktor, who has a master’s degree in marketing from the Ukraine, immediately accepted, and he is very grateful to the establishment for allowing him to work there.
After accumulating a bit of money, he moved out of the “savior’s” place. Viktor asked what he could do to repay him. “Nothing,” was the reply. “Just pay it forward.”
Viktor in a timely fashion applied for asylum on the basis that he is gay and will be persecuted in Ukraine. He had managed to avoid mandatory military service there, and if he goes back will be sent to jail.
Viktor does try to pay it forward and had taken in two gay Russians who sought asylum. Those two came after asylum decisions had been put on a faster track than when Viktor applied. Viktor, both happily and bitterly, reported that each had their asylum requests granted within short order and now have green cards. Viktor, who had applied for asylum three years before they did, was still waiting for a decision.
I am like many Americans who, on occasion, voice opinions about our immigration system but have little idea about its workings. I suggested that the delay in Viktor’s decision sounded abnormal, but he has an attorney and he said that he is content with him. “I have to be. I don’t pay him.” He got the lawyer through an LGBT organization. His lawyer’s firm mostly does copyright work, and Viktor was their first immigration client. Viktor proudly reported that they now represent1,600 immigrants.
Viktor still talks daily with his mother. At some point, he told her that he was gay, something he had not acknowledged when he left Ukraine. He said that she had looked shocked, but since that one conversation, the two had not discussed his sexuality. He does not know if she accepts it and does not know if she has told his father and, if so, his reaction.
He can’t leave the US while his asylum petition is pending, and when he told me about his asylum request, it had been four years since he had been home. He missed his parents and wanted to talk to them face-to-face about his life. It was clear that he was homesick. He told me that he looks at webcams from his hometown regularly.
I told him that I had not been to my boyhood hometown in four or five years, but of course, I said, my situation is different because I was not prevented from going. I told him that a mini-high school reunion was coming up, but that I had not decided whether to go. He said, “You should go.” He paused and said, “You should go for my sake.”
However, Covid came and that ended the possibility of the reunion. Covid also ended my appearances at the bar and my conversations with Viktor. The bar had outside service, and sometimes when I walked past the place, we would see each other. Viktor would shout, “My friend.” I would respond, “My young friend.” We would hug, but he was working, and it was not a time to talk.
Recently, the restrictions on indoor dining and drinking have been relaxed in New York City, and I have sat at the DSK bar again a few times. I asked an owner who was busy pulling beers if Viktor still worked there. She said that he had another job. I asked about his asylum petition, and she said that no decision had yet been rendered. And I thought, “Another story left uncompleted by the pandemic.” And I wondered what it was like to live in Viktor’s limbo and what he would do if he had to leave this country.
With those thoughts, I returned to my book as I sipped an Oktoberfest beer, but then the owner joked about a model of a water tank on a display shelf next to the bar. I had won that model in a trivia contest about Brooklyn several years ago. A young man on my left asked what the owner and I were talking about. After I satisfied his curiosity, I asked where he was from. He told me that that he was from Turkey, but then he added that he was Kurdish. I said that I had enjoyed my trip to Turkey, but I had not been to anywhere near his home in the Kurdish parts of Turkey near Syria. I told him that I had hoped to go back to Turkey, but after Erdogan got power, I no longer wanted to do that. He, of course, was not an Erdogan fan. I asked if he got back to his home country regularly, and he said that he could not go there. He had asked for asylum in this country and was waiting the outcome of his petition. I said that perhaps it was none of my business, but had he thought about what he would do if he was turned down for asylum. He said that he had relatives in various parts of Europe who would take him in.
Viktor does not have relatives outside of Ukraine.