by Gosia Wozniacka, The Oregonian
Saturday September 13, 2008, 10:15 PM
Mariya calls her children’s schools almost daily, or comes to school crying. Her three teenage sons smoke and drink, even in front of Mariya and her husband. They go out at night, don’t return home until morning and sometimes disappear for days. Her oldest dropped out of high school last year; another son did the same a few months ago. Her preteen daughter ran away from home.
Mariya, a religious refugee from Ukraine, feels she has nowhere to turn with her despair.
Part One: They came to the Portland area from the former Soviet Union — Christian refugees seeking freedomPart Two: The church — traditionally the center of an often-isolated Slavic community — has struggled to address troubled youths
Yet her story is becoming common among the estimated 100,000 evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union living in the Portland area. As their numbers grow, second-generation Slavic teens and their parents are increasingly clashing in both private and public ways.
Some parents don’t want to assimilate or learn English. In the Soviet Union, they isolated themselves to sustain their faith and survive, because evangelicals were fined, jailed or held in mental asylums.
But in Oregon, old-world survival skills can fracture families. As parents cut themselves off from the mainstream, communication with their English-speaking, American-raised teens breaks down, say community leaders, schools and police liaisons.
The kids balk at authority, live double lives, drop out of school and get snared in drugs, gangs or prostitution. And the parents, who sought America and its freedoms as religious refugees, now see those freedoms entice their children to reject their way of life.
Although many Slavic families are successful, with well-adapted teenagers who excel in school and in the community, those who aren’t struggle alone.
Few services are available for Slavic families. And shame in the community is a barrier to seeking help. Mariya, for instance, didn’t want her or her family’s real names used for fear of retaliation and stigma.
Significant immigration to the Portland area from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet republics began in 1989, when the United States enacted the Lautenberg Amendment.
The change lowered the burden of proving refugee status for certain categories of individuals, including Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union. It declares that they are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution.
The 2005 American Community Survey estimated 43,000 Russians and Ukrainians reside in the Portland area, based on first ancestry reported. An estimate by area churches and the Slavic Coalition puts the current number at 100,000.
Most in Oregon are evangelical Christians, unlike the majority in the former Soviet Union. Their immigration is sponsored by churches, resettlement agencies and family members.
The immigrants are Slavic, part of the ethnic and linguistic group living mainly in Eastern and Central Europe. They speak Russian (used by schools and governments in most former Soviet republics). Many speak Ukrainian, but some — who lived on the border with Romania or in Moldova — also speak Romanian, a Latin-based language.
A small number of Russian Jews or nonreligious Russian speakers also live in the Portland area.
— Gosia Wozniacka
«Many of the older people in our community were in jail because of their faith. And now their kids are in jail in America for real crimes,» says Pastor David Klassen of the Home of God church in Gresham. «For the parents, it’s really heartbreaking.»
Mariya, a stay-at-home mother, and her husband, Victor, arrived in Portland six years ago from a small Ukrainian town on the Romanian border. They hoped for a better future for their children — now 12, 14, 17 and 19 years old — but face a grim outlook. They blame U.S. schools and American mores.
«The school gives the kids too much freedom,» Mariya says. «They have too many choices in America, and they are taking advantage of that.»
In Ukraine, she says, she never had trouble with her children. Now they refuse to go to church or eat the Ukrainian food she prepares. They tell Mariya they will call the police if she disciplines them. «I have no more hope that anything will change for the better,» she says. «In this society, you basically have to do what your kids say.»
The husband and wife speak almost no English. Mariya, a round woman with red cheeks and a paisley kerchief head covering, spends her days reading the Bible, cleaning and cooking. Soft-spoken Victor works long hours in construction. Neither has a driver’s license, and the family doesn’t own a car.
They can’t handle the children because they fear that their preferred method of discipline — physical punishment such as spanking, slapping or using a belt — cannot be used in the United States.
«Our hands are tied,» Mariya says, clenching her fists on the table in front of her. «I wish the school would punish our kids; I wish we could punish our kids.»
Twice her oldest son promised to change: once in front of the congregation at the Philadelphia Romanian Pentecostal Church in Southeast Portland, which the family attends, and again at a Ukrainian church. He enrolled in the Job Corps but continues to drink, smoke and flout rules, Mariya says. Recently he was caught on the MAX carrying beer. Now his siblings are copying his behavior.
Mariya is also frustrated with church pastors. Many parents have similar problems with their kids, she says, but the church doesn’t know how to openly address them.
«The parents write to the pastor asking for help. But what can he do? He has a stack of requests for prayer this thick,» she says, showing the width between her fingers.
Several years ago, a Russian-speaking caseworker came to help with Mariya’s boys, she says, but stopped coming. She hopes similar services can again be offered, somewhere. For now, Mariya says, she prays daily «for a miracle that would make my kids go to church and obey.»
Teenagers and parents often disagree, but the clash is intensified by immigration, Russian-speaking therapist Olga Parker says.
Roles between immigrant parents such as Mariya and her children are switched, Parker says, because young people absorb language and culture like sponges, while parents take a long time to learn.
«Russian kids feel they are no longer Russian,» says Parker, who works for Lutheran Community Services Northwest. «They start to resist everything their parents do or say. They tell their parents, you don’t really understand American life.»
The conflict may be deeper than in other immigrant communities because these evangelical Christian parents are intensely traditional and conservative, and they reject American culture, although the majority have become U.S. citizens.
«Parents think that if their kids get involved in American things, it’s desertion,» Faith Community Church Pastor Robert Rathbun says. «It’s like corruption of their Russian or Ukrainian culture and religion.»
Families are large — some have more than 10 children — making it difficult for parents to control them. And parenting approaches that worked in their homelands don’t mesh with American realities. Children control their parents by threatening to call Child Protection Services if they spank them, Parker says.
«Parents don’t trust their own kids,» says Vadim Riskin, the Russian liaison at Portland Public Schools. «They’re afraid to talk to them, afraid they won’t say the right thing. Some parents are even afraid to ask their kids to do homework, to raise their voices or tell the kids to go to their room, because they’re afraid their kids will be taken away from them.»
Many Slavic parents also know little about the school system and don’t value formal education, Riskin says. «Making it» financially, including home and car ownership, is much more important in the economically stratified Slavic community — a value spawned in a homeland that once eschewed private ownership and kept many in poverty.
Parents expect boys to make quick money in construction or car repair, and they push girls to quit school to baby-sit siblings and get married. Others home-school children because they dislike the values schools teach.
When a teen does get in trouble, Slavic parents often don’t call police or social services. Fixing one’s own problems is a point of pride, and discomfort with government or any organization is common, as is fear of public disgrace.
«If their child did something bad, they think that means they failed as parents,» says John Laws, a retired Portland police officer. «They cover for the kids, because their position in the community is at risk.»
Some Slavic teens rebel secretly, Parker and others say. On one hand, they attend church and follow the many strict dress and behavior codes. Some Slavic churches require women to wear long dresses, cover their hair and ban makeup and jewelry. They forbid television, Internet, movies, dancing or dating.
But when parents aren’t watching, the kids transform. Girls from the most conservative families go to the school restroom and change into jeans or short skirts and apply makeup. They change back before heading home on the bus. They have makeup parties and secret boyfriends. Boys go partying with friends, telling parents they are at a youth group meeting.
«They have to play two roles,» Parker says. «They can’t be who they would really like to be in front of their parents, so they lead a double life. Parents have no idea what’s going on.»
Youth and school staff estimate at least half to two-thirds of the metro area’s Slavic teens lead some sort of dual existence. At times, this leads to trouble at school or with the law.
A favorite meeting spot is quintessentially American — Starbucks. At Vancouver’s Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard store, groups of girls in makeup and low-cut blouses sip lattes and chat with sharply dressed boys in a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and English. BMWs and other expensive European cars are parked outside.
Most Slavic teens flock to the cafes to socialize, but Vancouver Police Department’s Ilya Botvinnik says some youths are involved in crimes. No statistics are available, but anecdotally, Slavic crime is similar to that in other immigrant communities.
After complaints that Russian-speaking teens intimidated customers, police were sent to monitor the Vancouver cafe, Botvinnik says. They also patrolled Starbucks’ Portland Gateway location on Northeast Halsey Street, another spot popular with Russian-speaking teens.
Mill Plain customers told police about watching a weapons deal out of a car trunk. Botvinnik himself saw evidence of drug sales, Slavic kids smoking marijuana, and girls engaging in prostitution. There is also evidence, he says, of a drug network of Russian-speaking dealers that circulates among metro-area Starbucks cafes, targeting Slavic youths, «although no arrests have been made.»
Imitating the Russian mafia is popular among some of the kids. A few join the dozen or so loosely organized gangs across the metro area, says Laws.
«When parents go to church, the teens form criminal enterprises organized around the churches,» stealing cars and car parts, the retired officer says.
Another dramatic problem that police and social workers see is the rise in drug abuse and addiction, especially to heroin.
Finally, school counselors and police who work with the community say prostitution is rising among middle school and high school Slavic girls. A prostitution case involving the Russian youth community was opened with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office’s human trafficking division, Officer Keith Bickford says. It has been taken over by the FBI, which doesn’t comment on open cases.
Despite the overwhelming need for help, few culturally specific resources are available to Slavic youths and families.
Because they are white, Russian-speaking refugees aren’t usually seen as a minority or eligible for minority grants to fund services. And, although they are one of the largest ethnic groups in the states, little or no data are collected about the group as a whole.
Pastors, the community’s gatekeepers, are skittish about letting social workers into the church, Parker says, especially to distribute brochures or give lectures about physical abuse or parenting, «because they feel I may say something against family values.» Pastors acknowledge they try to solve family problems strictly within the church.
But many don’t openly address the problems with youths. Several pastors interviewed for this story said they have no problems. Some youth pastors speak broken English. Some are not trained or educated and offer simplistic solutions, Riskin and Parker say.
«Many Russian churches here are like the churches in Russia 20 years ago — they are stuck in time,» says Rathbun, the Faith Community Church pastor. «They’ve had all these traditions for so long that they started seeing them as theological truths instead of the cultural norms they are, and they’re unwilling to change them.»
But because religion is so important to this group, Parker and Rathbun say, solutions must be church-based. «We have to work with the pastors to help the community,» Parker says.
The Slavic community has seen some success, which gives its advocates hope.
During the past few years, Riskin and others have seen more Russian-speaking teens complete high school and head to college — teens such as Vitaliy Cherchenko, Reynolds High School’s valedictorian last year and now a Portland State University dentistry student.
The Russian Youth Leadership Conference, which promotes student leaders and helps them pursue higher education, is growing, attracting hundreds of Slavic teens. And a new charter school, Azbuka Academy, opened this month in Southeast Portland, draws Russian-speaking students who might otherwise be home-schooled or drop out of public school.
Some congregations are also starting to acknowledge they may lose their youths — and eventually their congregation — if they don’t change. Many see bilingual or English services in their future. Others have relaxed their dress codes. At Sulamita, a Slavic church in Fairview, girls in short skirts and high heels sit next to grandmothers bent in prayer.
Pastors are changing too, says Alexander Tkachenko, who works with Russian speakers at the social service agency Human Solutions. His pastor at Sulamita, Nikolay Michalchuk, now regularly preaches that parents should pay more attention to their kids. Michalchuk encourages youth leaders at Sulamita to work with troubled youth.
«We have to adjust,» Tkachenko says. «Maybe we’ll lose our Russian language service, but at least we’ll keep our faith.»
In the end, pastors, psychologists and school staff agree, it’s the quality of the relationship with parents that makes the biggest difference for youths.
«Success depends on family dynamics,» Parker says, and whether the family is open to education and change.
What Russian-speaking parents need to understand, advocates say, is how important it is to have a healthy relationship with children instead of being rigid and strict.
«The Bible doesn’t teach us to force things. It’s important to explain, to give advice, to talk, otherwise kids will just lie and do things behind parents’ backs,» says Pavel Yuzko, who worked as a Multnomah County health educator with Slavic families until his position was cut last year.
«If you have a good relationship with your kid,» Yuzko says, «it works better than just laying down the law.»
— Gosia Wozniacka; firstname.lastname@example.org