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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New York Life Led to Russian's Suicide




NEW YORK -- Trained as an engineer in Russia, Michael Kurchak mopped floors and cleaned toilets the United States. He slept in a small room at the private Hasidic academy where he worked in Monroe, New York, hoarding his weekly $184 janitor's check, telling at least one student that he would soon be going home.


And so he will, though not as intended.


Kurchak committed suicide March 2 after three confusing days in which he abruptly left his job and fled to New York City. Because there was not enough money for a coffin, Kurchak was cremated, and his ashes were delivered last week to the Russian Consulate in New York, which will soon forward them to his wife in St. Petersburg.


His death, so horribly public and desperate, evoked the tragedy and bitter irony of a Russian novel: Kurchak, 51, threw his body through a plate glass window at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in lower Manhattan. He fell nine stories as office workers from Federal Plaza ate lunch outside on an unseasonably mild day.


As immigrants inside the building were navigating the paper trail toward citizenship, Kurchak apparently jumped because agents would not deport him home.


"Why did he do this?" his wife, Zinaida, asked pleadingly in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg. "Why? Why? Why?"


Perhaps, as his wife believes, Kurchak simply was not hardened enough for the United States, a place she regards warily. In New York City and its environs, where officials estimate the number of illegal immigrants at 450,000, Kurchak survived beneath the safety net, however flimsy, of private agencies and federal benefits available to legal immigrants.


Police officers found less than $80 in his pockets. They also found crumpled receipts from a deli at Kennedy International Airport, suggesting that perhaps he had tried to catch a flight home.


Only a momentary blip in the media swirl of New York City, Kurchak's death has attracted greater attention in the Russian press. Izvestia newspaper covered the story, while the Russian-language newspaper in New York, Nuva Russya Slava, published an appeal for funeral donations as Kurchak's body lay for days in the city morgue.


Citing privacy concerns, immigration officials will say little publicly about the case. Privately, they said they knew nothing about Kurchak when he appeared at the offices. Though rumors occasionally circulate among new immigrants that the INS will fly someone home free, officials say only seven people nationally have been granted such voluntary deportations in the past two years.


"This poor fellow showed up and said, 'Send me home,'" said Maria Mejia-Opaciuch, a New York immigration lawyer. "He may have been given the wrong impression by someone out there like, 'Oh, go to Immigration, and they'll send you home.'"


Inconsistencies exist between accounts of what happened inside the INS building in the minutes before Kurchak slipped into an empty room and jumped through the window. Agency officials said Kurchak complained that his passport had expired and that he needed to return home. They also acknowledged that a Russian-speaking agent told Kurchak that he must schedule a later appointment to discuss deportation.


"There was some indication of stress, though that is not unusual for anyone coming into this building," said Mark Thorn, an INS spokesman. "But there were no signs of any abnormal behavior. He was quiet."


Pat Singer, a civic leader in the Russian immigrant enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, blamed the immigration agency for failing to recognize Kurchak's distress. In a building that sees 1,200 immigrants every day, she said, Kurchak was overlooked.


"They didn't have time to deal with him," she said. "He fell through the cracks. They didn't look into his eyes and see that this man was hurting. He was disturbed."


Kurchak came to New York in November, arriving with a tourist visa that he quickly violated by taking a job with United Talmudical Academy, a private school operated by the Satmar sect of the Hasidic Jews in Monroe, in Orange County.


In 1994, Zinaida Kurchak said, she came to New York looking for work after she lost her job at a Russian defense company. She found work in Monroe through an advertisement in the Russian-language newspaper, and her husband joined her in 1995, taking a cleaning job at the school.


Zinaida Kurchak said they never intended to stay in the United States. They saved enough to return in 1996 to Russia, where they each found work. But Zinaida Kurchak said her husband's family in Ukraine began to pressure him for money. The standard of living in Ukraine is well below that of Russia, where the average monthly salary is only about $150.


Zinaida Kurchak said her husband returned reluctantly to the United States and found work at the same school.


"I tried to convince him and begged him not to go," she said. "For him, America was not a welcoming country. It was very hard for him when he went there."