As tornado sirens sounded off, Denys Zaitsev knew he wasn’t in Ukraine anymore.
Zaitsev, 26, had moved to Tornado Alley — Dallas, specifically — in the fall of 2019 to see a new part of the world and learn about the U.S. real estate market as a business intern, and now realized that sheltering from some of the country’s most extreme weather was also part of the bargain.
As other real estate agents in the Engel & Völkers office owned by license partner Roxann Taylor jumped into their cars to hurry home before the storm hit in full force one evening in March, Zaitsev and Taylor closed up shop, locked the doors and prepared for an anxious vigil as hail and lightning descended.
When he arrived in the U.S. in 2019 as part of an international internship program, the Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, native was only planning to stay in the country on a six-month visa. Fast as small-town gossip, as they say in Texas.
But after those tornados, the invasion in Ukraine by Russia, a global pandemic and even a well-intentioned marriage proposal, all that changed. And it was Taylor, a motherly, warm and fiercely protective Texan, who helped shepherd Zaitsev through his fish-out-of-water ordeal.
“Anything for Denys,” Taylor said recently.
Little did Zaitsev know the impact Taylor would have on his life after acquiring his master’s degree in business management from Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski Krakow University in Poland and embarking on his American adventure.
It’s been just shy of three years since Zaitsev has been home. But during that time, he’s built an unbreakable bond with Taylor, a fierce protector of the ambitious student, who, in her dedication to keeping his visa alive, once proposed marriage to Zaitsev. All the while, the aspiring real estate agent has found his place in Dallas’ luxury real estate market.
“I keep praying every day that some nice woman will walk in,” Taylor told Inman during a recent call from her Dallas office. “I think he’s only 26. I wish he’d meet somebody and he would stay and at some point that his parents would come.”
A friendship is born
The two have spent three Thanksgivings and Christmases together, Zaitsev recently reminded Taylor, and endless hours at Taylor’s Engel & Völkers shops.
During pandemic lockdowns, Taylor said the young Ukrainian became a fixture at her Flower Mound and South Lake shops, because, unlike many who veered away from working in the office during the height of the pandemic, Zaitsev preferred to stay industrious in the shop, rather than holed up in his small apartment in Grapevine with his roommates.
“So as we sheltered in place, he became my mainstay because he didn’t want to stay at home in his garage apartment — he’d rather come in, and he’s been that way his whole stay [in the U.S.],” Taylor said.
“This is my second home,” Zaitsev added. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen my roommates because I’m never home — I’m always here.”
As tornadoes ripped through Dallas in late March, the two spent an evening hunkered down in one of Taylor’s shops because Taylor doesn’t like to drive in the dark, and Zaitsev usually Ubers because he doesn’t drive [most major Ukrainian cities have robust public transportation systems and it’s not unusual for people to forgo driving]. No Ubers were to be found as tornado sirens began to sound, so they found themselves waiting out the storm together.
“It was just he and I in the shop waiting for the tornadoes to come,” Taylor said. “We’ve gotten kind of close.”
Troubles at home
An only child, Zaitsev speaks to his parents weekly, and Taylor said as pandemic circumstances evolved and he considered returning, his parents urged him to wait until disruptions at the Ukrainian-Russian border eased.
“Starting probably about halfway through 2021, his parents started telling him, ‘Don’t come home,’” Taylor said. “‘There’s lots of skirmishes going on around the border — they’re actually checking in with us to see when you’re going to be back. So we know that if you come back, the military’s going to take you and you’ll probably go to the front line … .’”
“The last couple of weeks have been challenging, for sure,” Zaitsev told Inman. “My family is still safe — they’re eight hours away from the border of Russia, seven hours away from Kyiv, and there is nothing going on in my hometown … my family is still safe, but the people of Ukraine, they’re scared. A lot of people are fleeing the country.”
Navigating U.S. immigration
Amid waiting out the pandemic and now the war, Zaitsev and Taylor have also battled with visa renewals and searching for new ways that Zaitsev can legally remain in the country.
“The immigration system here is just super complicated,” Zaitsev said.
Taylor hired an immigration attorney to help them strategize, which led Zaitsev to apply last year for a lottery in which foreign nationals whose visas have expired and want to remain in the country could be eligible for an extension. Unfortunately, Zaitsev wasn’t chosen. At one point, Taylor said, she even offered to marry Zaitsev so he could have a path to citizenship, but Taylor said he politely declined.
“He would never marry unless it was for love,” she explained. “He’s very, very principled.”
Within the past few weeks, however, another visa option came through — Zaitsev was accepted to an educational program that provides training to become an English translator, which includes an 18-month visa. So Zaitsev plans to focus on his online translator training throughout the week, and spend more time working at Taylor’s shops on the weekend.
As for his real estate career, Zaitsev said he aspires to get his license, but he’s not sure when because his priority is keeping his current visa viable by completing the translator program.
Finding his place in Dallas’ luxury market
Although he’s been separated from his home country and family for such a long time, anyone who hears Zaitsev’s story might think it a success. What should have been a six-month internship with a globally established luxury brokerage — one that netted $1.44 billion in total commission revenues in 2021 across its more than 1,000 locations on five continents — turned into a three-year stint where he’s now a fixture of the company’s local offices.
Zaitsev helps create marketing materials for open houses, onboards new agents to the Engel & Völkers website, manages and inputs data, and generally helps keep things organized in Taylor’s shops, among other miscellaneous tasks.
“He’s very statistically oriented,” Taylor told Inman. “Very organized and helps me with a lot of my numbers and charts I need to make, and other business applications.”
“He already does a lot of [the business] except go out and list homes,” she added. “He talks to the clients.”
Integrating into the Dallas luxury market as an outsider is also nothing to sneeze at. High net worth individuals who reside in the area have made fortunes through oil, as heirs and heiresses, and building their own companies as entrepreneurs. They include the likes of Shark Tank star Mark Cuban, the daughter of the founder of Walmart, Alice Walton, and oil wildcatter and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, among others.
In 2021, 10 homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth market sold for $10 million or more, according to a Compass report, which was a 66.7 percent increase from the year before. Sales volume for homes sold in that price category also increased 69 percent year over year to $115 million in 2021.
Hopes for citizenship — and peace
Taylor hopes that one day Zaitsev will decide to settle down in the area and make Dallas’ luxury market his permanent home — and that his parents will eventually move there too. It’s his hope to one day become a U.S. citizen, but it’s just a matter of navigating the country’s complex immigration system to find the right path to citizenship for him.
But for now, Zaitsev can only watch and pray for his people from afar.
“I have a couple of friends who live in Kyiv and they’ve been staying in a bomb shelter,” he said. “It’s just been heartbreaking to see what’s been going on. I’m really hoping it ends soon, but who knows what’s going to happen next. I’m just praying for the people of my country and hoping for their safety.”