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An Attorney Who Never Says Nyet

An Attorney Who Never Says Nyet

An "accident" of fate recently brought a young Jewish girl from an orphanage in Ukraine to a new life with relatives in Brooklyn.

An accident, lots of hard work and an article in The New York Times.Irina Matiychenko, an attorney on the staff of the New York Legal Assistance Group (a not-for-profit law office that offers free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers) was reading Reklama, a Russian-language newspaper published here, about a year ago when a small report "accidentally" caught her eye. It was about Raisa Skakun, an 11-year-old girl in an Odessa orphanage. Skakun’s parents were dead; her only living relatives, grandmother Larisa Bebeshko and half brother Alex Krylov had immigrated to Brooklyn in 1990. Bebeshko subsequently adopted her granddaughter and sought, unsuccessfully, to bring her to the United States under a provision known as "humanitarian parole."

Matiychenko, a middle-aged native of Moscow who worked there as a prominent defense attorney for nearly two decades before coming to the United States in 1992 and who had just completed a similar humanitarian parole case, thought she could help.

She called the editor of Reklama, got Bebeshko’s phone number, called her and introduced herself. "She knew about me," Matiychenko says. Director of NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit, Matiychenko is a presence in New York City’s emigre press, a board member of several emigre organizations.

Bebeshko accepted the offer of pro bono help. That was the beginning of months of work for Matiychenko: interviews, depositions, phone calls, papers filed.

"The case was very unsuccessful," she says.The Department of Homeland Security denied the request for humanitarian parole. She requested "reconsideration," an appeal. The request was denied again. She appealed again.

Then the case came to the attention of Nina Bernstein, a Times reporter. An article last October, told Skakun’s story. "Every time I call her, she asks, ‘Grandmother, when are you going to take me to America?’ " the article quotes Bebeshko as saying. "I just give the phone to Alex, because I can’t talk to her: I just start crying."

After Bernstein’s article appeared, Matiychenko received offers of help from politicians, philanthropists, a prominent Washington law firm: even actor Sean Penn.

Several weeks after the Times article, Bebeshko received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security: Skakun had received humanitarian parole status.

In February, Bebeshko brought her granddaughter back to Brighton Beach.

There was a party at the airport and another one at NYLAG, where Matiychenko met Skakun for the first time. "She said, ‘A million thanks,’" Matiychenko says.

"It’s not only me," she says, deflecting personal credit. She cites the NYLAG staff and the people who worked both openly and clandestinely on Skakun’s behalf.

That’s Matiychenko’s modus operandi, says Yisroel Schulman, president of NYLAG, which receives funding from UJA-Federation of New York. It was standard procedure, says Schulman, for Matiychenko to take on a case simply because she had read about it in a newspaper.

"Irina never says no," he says. "She has a tremendous case load. She accepts the most difficult, complicated cases. She’s dedicated herself to helping others." Matiychenko, who usually deals with adjustment of status, naturalization, asylum and public benefits issues, says, "I am happy here: I want to work for people who are in need."

Matiychenko began working for NYLAG as a volunteer, shortly after she came to the U.S. with her husband, son, brother and aunt. Admitted to Fordham Law School, she graduated with honors, and worked her way up at NYLAG from paralegal to head of the Immigrant Protection Unit.

"It’s a tremendous American success story," Schulman says. "She has helped thousands of immigrants."

Matiychenko says her work with Skakun isn’t finished. There are naturalization matters, a green card, the typical legal procedures an immigrant faces.

"I’m calling them almost every day," she says.

Skakun is enrolled in a public school. "She’s doing very well," Matiychenko says.

Matiychenko shows a visitor an article about Skakun, headlined "Holiday of Freedom," in Vecherniy New York, another local Russian-language publication.

Reklama, where the attorney first read about the orphan, also covered Skakun’s arrival. "All the Russian papers wrote about it," Matiychenko says.

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