Welcoming the Stranger: Making a New Beginning in Upstate New York


Editor’s Note: As the emerging influx of refugees, sent by officials in New York City, takes root in our communities, Rural & Migrant Ministry is highlighting the stories of the men, women and children who arrive across New York State. Our hope here at RMM is to remind us all of their humanity, and to remind us of the importance of standing with our new neighbors and accompanying them on their journey. We have much to offer these immigrants — and they have much to offer us, if we keep our minds and our hearts open.

By Gittel Evangelist

He speaks quietly about his childhood — about the poverty, the schoolyard fights, the propaganda, the corruption. Though he speaks English quite well, he chooses to tell his story with the help of a Russian interpreter, because he wants to be sure all the details are accurate. At 27, he is thoughtful, introspective, wise.

B. was born in Yakutia, but grew up in the Republic of Buryatia, an impoverished state in the Russian Far East, home to a people called the Buryats. (B.’s name is being withheld for his protection.) Though his family was poor, his young parents strived to make a better life for their son by earning their college degrees — his father, in agriculture; his mother, in accounting. Until age 4, B. lived with relatives in a distant part of Russia while his parents studied in Buryatia. Eventually, two more sons were born, and B. grew up helping to care for his younger brothers.

“Propaganda in Russia starts in kindergarten,” B. says. “They have rewritten the course of history in schools and universities, and I think we will learn of many people, from news in the future, who grew up on this propaganda and do horrible things. This situation is quite similar to events described in George Orwell’s novel, 1984.”

Though school was difficult for B., he finished high school and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in aviation at St. Petersburg University. Then came mandatory military service, which is required of every able-bodied Russian male. Though assigned to an Army job as a driver mechanic, B. spent most of his time doing “busy work” — maintenance and construction on the barracks, or on the private homes of his superiors.

“It was one of the worst parts of my life,” he says. “I met people there who were into torture, drugs and violence.”

His regiment was one of the Russian Army’s worst, with many of the drafted men dying from drug overdoses, infighting and suicide. He had no real coping mechanism, he says.

“I survived day by day, trying to find food and better clothing, until I could leave and try to find a job as a pilot.”

But his plans were thwarted by the pandemic, which took hold in February 2020, just a few months after B. was discharged from the Army. With the aviation industry crippled by COVID, B. found temporary work as a middle manager in a bakery supply warehouse. He made use of the time by studying English, passing additional aviation courses and preparing paperwork for employment as a pilot.

And then, just as the pandemic finally began to release its grip, came a different kind of misery: On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

B. explains the idea of Rusсism, “a term that originated from the words Russia, fascism and racism, which quite accurately describes Russia now.”

“I did not approve of the war at all,” he says, “though many people did, and believed the propaganda. These people are so poor that they don't mind going to war to make money, although the probability of death is close to 100 percent. The death rate for soldiers sent to the war from Buryatia is significantly higher than for people from other regions, even from densely populated regions. It is a similar situation with other national minorities and even immigrants who received Russian citizenship. I consider Putin and his associates guilty of genocide of Ukrainians and peoples of Russia.

“Ukraine is having a very hard time right now,” he continues. “Just look at the map — compare the size of Russia and Ukraine. A relatively small country against the richest, largest country that has no ethics, morals and honor. So, if you have a desire to help, please help Ukraine and the refugees from there. Please help them defeat Putin.”

Early on in the war, B. said, “I tried to get people to change their minds. At first, we protested to try to stop the fighting. I thought if enough people were against the war, we could stop it; however, the protests were no match for Putin's regime.

“There are many people who are against the war — some of them have spoken out, and many are now in jail. But you can get out of jail if you sign a contract with the Army and serve for six months.”

B. talks about Alexei Navalny, a political leader of the opposition who survived being poisoned by Putin and is now serving nearly 30 years in a Russian prison camp.

“Many people are persecuted, not allowed to live normally, and this has left dissenters in fear of being imprisoned. It's a pity that most of them don't have the financial or other opportunities to escape.”

When it became clear the early protests were not enough to change the course of events, B. began selling off his belongings and left for Kazakhstan alone. Two months later, he regrouped in Israel with his parents and his youngest brother, Max.

Although it, too, has now devolved into a state of war, “Israel allows refugees to stay and work temporarily,” B. says. “I love Israel and I am very grateful to the Israelis for their help.”

After living there for six months, grief put a chokehold on the family when Max died unexpectedly of an aneurism. He was 9.

B.’s eyes well when he speaks of playing basketball with his little brother, describing him as “optimistic, cheerful and very intelligent.”

“The day before he died, I came home from work in a very poor mood, but when I saw him dancing and happy, he made me happy, too.”

The family returned to Russia to bury Max and spend time with relatives. But after just a few days, an ugly incident transpired that forced B. to flee and seek asylum; he declines to give the details. He fled to Kyrgyzstan, then booked a ticket for Mexico, where he arrived at the end of March.

After a month, he crossed the border to Texas with a CBP One application and within days, boarded a flight to New York. This mobile application for immigrants made his way much safer, he says. Since May, B. has been living in a Hudson Valley hotel, where New York City officials have been housing migrants. He is, he says, “very grateful to New Yorkers and others for helping refugees in this way.”

When the weather permits, B. spends time riding a used bicycle he bought. He has diligently attended English classes and gotten a learner’s permit to drive. Practicing for his road test, B. drives cautiously, with hands at 10 and 2; he is quietly pleased when he learns he has passed.

After finally receiving his work authorization, B. has now found work as a security guard in another hotel that houses asylum-seekers. Eventually, he hopes to find a job as a dispatcher for a trucking company, where he can work remotely while traveling across America, and then the world, “except former Soviet Union countries if the situation there doesn’t change,” he says.

He’d like to see the Grand Canyon, California, Washington State, Washington, D.C., Yellowstone — “all the important places,” he says. On Sept. 11, he traveled by himself to Lower Manhattan. “I do often remember that tragedy,” he says. “My condolences go out to the victims, their families and loved ones.”

He feels a kinship with Americans, he says. “I am eternally grateful to the USA and its people. I really appreciate the chance given to me by the USA to take asylum later, when the time comes.

“With every passing month, I feel better,” B. says. “I have come to the realization that I’m safe here.”

Gittel Evangelist is Communications Coordinator for Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc. Reach her at gittel@rmmny.org