Escaping “Happiness:” Refugees in New York’s Little Ukraine Find Community in Orthodox Church

The pensive silence of the Orthodox Church service was broken by a violent, rhythmic clatter on Great Friday this past spring. The unsettling sound came from the balcony, where a man cranked a large wooden box with a meticulous arrangement of small oak hammers called the crotalus. The sound, symbolizing the death and burial of Jesus in the Easter story, was a highpoint of the Great Friday service this year at St. Nicholas of Myra Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, located in an area of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village known as Little Ukraine.


In the days leading up to the procession, Oleksandr Nosov and his family, recent refugees from the war in Ukraine, volunteered to prepare the church for the holiday. They cleaned pews and organized the church’s liturgical books. They offered their help in gratitude to the church, which has been their home ever since they escaped Ukraine a year ago. The pastor of the church, William Bennett, gave the family a place to live: a three-bedroom flat, separated from the entrance to the church only by an oak door and a short, dark corridor.


Today, that support is more important than ever, as the Russian occupation has reached a new level back home in Luhansk. As of early June, residents there are now forced to obtain Russian passports. Only those who have registered in a Russian bank (and thus have a Russian passport) can receive their salaries. 


Nosov’s 14-year-old daughter Daria is delicately built, with a bright complexion and light eyes. She was born in Shchastia, in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. The name of the village translates to “Happiness.” Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military–Civil Administration, posted on Facebook WHEN that 80% of “Happiness” had been destroyed. The war in that region started not in February 2022, but eight years earlier, when it came under the control of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic, an unrecognized Russian republic with Luhansk as the capital.


Nosov’s wife, Tetiana Buria, made the decision to leave Shchastia last year because she was perpetually afraid for the safety of her daughter. It is also a year ago that the war reached Schastya and finally persuaded the family to leave. 


“The first day she went to school was the first day of war,” she says. The family packed modestly, leaving so much they loved behind: “plants, parrots and dogs,” Buria remembers. They left a town where schools, hospitals and bridges were bombarded by Russian forces, Buria said.


The family, back in Ukraine, led a life that they described as “religious,” attending their local Orthodox churches for weekly masses and holidays. Here in New York, their lives are better than they were in Ukraine in many ways. They have more than enough room to live comfortably. The parishioners know them, providing them with a sense of community. The church is one way in which they can experience a sense of cultural continuity from their previous lives. Living in Little Ukraine is another. But this past Great Friday, Buria could not attend the important ceremony — she had a long shift at Vaselka, a Ukrainian restaurant that surged with support when Ukraine was invaded. Buria, who worked as a lawyer in Ukraine, now makes pierogi at the famous restaurant, where she doesn’t even need to speak English, as just about everyone around her speaks either Ukrainian or Polish. But the job is exhausting. “When I return to Ukraine,” Buria said, “I will never make pierogi and I will never eat pierogi again.” It is still unclear when that will happen, and everyone in the family seems to have a different date of return in mind. 


But the worry is not over. Buria is anxious whenever she reads the news and talks to her friends in Ukraine. She misses everything about Schcastia: her house, her bed and her dog. Her daughter misses Schastia’s forests and the mushrooms that grew in them. Much of Shchastia is pro-Russian, Buria says. In many ways, the family lived among enemies. Nosov, Buria’s husband, owned a car repair and mechanic business. He supported the Ukrainian army by funding and fixing their vehicles and machinery. Before long, someone turned him in, and the Luhansk People’s Republic denounced Nosov as an enemy of the government, he said. When asked who the “snitch” was, Buria looked at Daria and whispered, “It was our neighbors.” Her daughter’s eyes widened in disbelief.


Through a chain of acquaintances that Buria says is too long a story to tell, she found out about the Rev. William Bennett, pastor of St. Nicholas. Bennett is a cheerful, enthusiastic, and articulate man. Born in New York, he has Hungarian and Czechoslovakian roots to which he owes growing up in Orthodoxy. Following a brief period in culinary school, Bennett decided to become a priest. Soon, he met his wife, a tall and direct, dark-haired woman named Prezbitera Ileana. They have three children, including two identical twins, David and Joseph. The Nosov family is a perfect fit for the church, Bennett said. 


“The family’s positive and can-do attitude has been infectious, and their willingness contagious,” Bennett said.


Tetiana Buria, Daria Nosova and Oleksandr Nosov next to the staircase leading up to their home (Credit: Ania Gruszczyńska)

Tetiana Buria, Daria Nosova and Oleksandr Nosov next to the staircase leading up to their home.


The liturgies at St. Nicholas are woven from two languages: English and Church Slavonic, a sacred liturgical language originating from Slavic countries, and used exclusively in the ceremonies of the Orthodox Churches. Most of the parishioners are Americans of Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Polish, and other Slavic origins. Some families have attended the church for generations, ever since it acquired the former Anglican Church’s lease in 1925. Hence, the architecture is not Orthodox, but the decorations are. Most surfaces of the altar are adorned with Orthodox icons, like the holders around the altar designated for long and thin beeswax votive candles that parishioners burn for the living and the dead. Dozens of crucifixes with the lower beam crossed (a uniquely Orthodox sign) can be spotted.


For many believers, the liturgical year is not a schedule of holy days, feasts and celebrations. It is also an ever repeating cycle which grounds those for whom everything else has changed.The events around Easter are the holiest of the year, fueling their spirits for the months to come. As the sun set on Great Friday, the church fell into darkness. The space was illuminated only by the timid, crimson flickering of candles held by parishioners, and a large painting of Christ on the cross drowned in red light. The church became a chiaroscuro painting.


Bennett, dressed in a marvelous black and gold chasuble, led the ceremony, alternating smoothly between singing in English and Church Slavonic. Much of the liturgy was a dramatized recitation of the New Testament’s record of the crucifixion. A lyrical dialogue oscillated between the altar and the upper balcony, where two men stood singing in captivating harmony.


At once, everything became silent. A procession assembled at the altar with Bennett at the rear, holding the Plaschanitsa, or an Epitaphios, over his head. The priest carried it as one would carry the body of the dead to the tomb. The ringing of bells, a typical accompaniment to a pivotal ceremonial moment in the liturgy, is too cheerful; it is thus a tradition to bring about a different, more harrowing sound into the aural space. That is when the man on the balcony sounded the crotalus.


After the ceremony on Great Friday, a small commotion erupted at the communal sacristy. A couple of hammers on the crotalus were loose. Dawn Kryzyanowski, whose Slovakian great-grandfather Yuraschyk built the instrument for the parish in 1937, looks inside it. Soon her father, Paul, appears and begins examining the noise box. “They must be glued on!” he announced. Nosov emerged from the corridor and took the instrument into his hands. “I’ll do it,” he said with a smile.


The family is conflicted as to when they will return to Shchastia. Buria dreams they will stay in the United States for three years so that Daria can finish her education at Manhattan International High School without having the Russian curriculum and language imposed on her and the military looking over her shoulder. Nosov says they’ll come back in two months. “If we were to return to Ukraine,” said Buria, “we would have to start from zero.”  

About the author(s)

Ania Gruszczyńska is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, with a BA in political philosophy from King’s College London.