Slavic Parents Lose Control of Their Americanizing Kids

Gosia Wozniacka, The Oregonian, September 13, 2008

Aleks Kirichenko, an electrical engineer, and Layma Ektova, a hairdresser, both of Vancouver, dance late on a recent Saturday night at Santorini in Beaverton. Many churches in the Slavic community forbid dancing or drinking, but such rules are contributing to a clash as Americanizing Slavic teens increasingly rebel against their parents and churches. Kirichenko and Ektova, both originally from Lipetsk, Russia, said they have good relationships with their parents despite no longer attending church.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

One family’s trials

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.

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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. {snip}

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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.

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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.

Mariya, a religious refugee from Ukraine, says she has lost hope for her children. Her teenagers smoke, drink and disappear for days. Two dropped out of high school; one ran away from home. Mariya spends days in her Southeast Portland home praying for change.

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Family roles change

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Leading double lives

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.

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Hanging out at Starbucks

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.

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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.

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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.

Help slim but growing

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.

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College-bound

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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.

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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.”

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