Russian "Welcome to Westfield"

Chances are that you couldn't read that simple Russian phrase, meaning "Welcome to Westfield."

Imagine being unable to read, speak or understand a language used all around you. Imagine being separated from your culture, your family, and your home by thousands of miles.

Imagine arriving in this country with just one suitcase and, maybe, 25 dollars. For the whole family. I know a Russian couple that did just that.

Not an easy situation, but that's what life is like for Russian immigrants arriving in the United States. And, probably not unlike what my grandmother went through when she arrived from Sweden in the hold of a ship, or what your grandparents went through when they arrived from Poland or Czechoslovakia or Ireland or Armenia or Germany.

Did you know that our Westfield Russian population is one of the fastest growing segments of this city's population? Or that there are 224 Russian students enrolled in our bilingual programs in our public schools?

There is a lot many of us don't know or understand about our Russian neighbors in Westfield, despite the fact that they number some 2,500, according to the Refugee Assistance Program.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to learn more about our new Russians at a seminar for social work and mental health professionals at Western New England College. The day was spent discussing the problems faced by Russian immigrants, and the problems they left behind, generally in the Ukraine.

Most are Pentecostal Christians, whose religious freedoms were tightly suppressed by the KGB and their web of informers. Higher education was inaccessible unless you abandoned your religion and joined the Communist Party.

Freedom of speech? No. Media controlled by the government, with censorship a way of life and any controversial opinions, including those based on religious beliefs, highly proscribed.

A request to immigrate caused even more problems, and a wait of 10 years or more for an exit visa. Meanwhile, you lost your job, and probably your housing as well, just because you asked to leave.

Life was very different from life in America.

On a brief visit a couple years ago, I saw asphalt being applied by hand, by laborers on their knees in the streets. I saw worn out trolleys and worse tracks. I saw police at every corner. Areas I couldn't go. National treasures unprotected.

Good jobs are still hard to come by, and Russians must start work at an early age to help their families survive in the stagnant economy.

Russia may be free of Communism, but it is not free of hardship. Thus, many choose the tough road of immigration to the United States.

But their troubles do not end with their exodus, a trip made without family souvenirs or heirlooms, arriving with only the clothes on their backs. The Russians that come sincerely want to work and be contributing members of our communities. They prize work, and homes, and their children. Determined to find jobs, despite a lack of English, to support themselves and their families, midwives become maids, violinists do laundry.

And they embark on a life of living through an interpreter, a feeling of isolation, surrounded by strangers who don't understand their backgrounds, their work ethics, their language, their desire to be good Americans.

The children are put in difficult positions, with schools so different from the Russian schools, which were strictly regimented, with a set curriculum, social development subordinate to the instilling of knowledge, ten minute recesses consisting of silently walking around the edges of a classroom in a circle with heads down.

Learning English more quickly than their parents, the children become the adults when it comes to shopping, taking care of paperwork like insurance and tax forms and banking.

Russian families are plagued by many of the ills that are dealt with by American families, but at a much higher rate, according to professionals in the social work area who attended the seminar. Mental illness, especially depression, and domestic violence and sexual abuse have to be dealt with.

Social problems, lack of money, language difficulties, cultural changes, loneliness. Lack of government funded programs for immigrants.

These are problems that the professionals are learning to deal with in ways acceptable by the immigrants.

The newest immigrants are as determined to succeed as our ancestors were. They want what we all want--freedom of speech, religion, a free press, a better life for themselves and their children.

Let's welcome them, and help them achieve their dreams.

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