Russians get a leg up on Thanksgiving
Program educates refugees about our Turkey Day customs
Ready, Svet, go!
Thanksgiving came early to the members of Svet, a Lutheran Community Services program founded this year that provides tutoring and social activities for refugee youth from the former Soviet Union. Svet is a Russian word that means 'light' or 'hope.'
On Saturday, 40 teens and their families gathered at St. Andrew Community Center in Northeast Portland to experience what, for many, was their first Turkey Day.
In the days before the banquet, Svet employees and several refugees gave their perspectives on a distinctly American holiday.
Iliya Gostyuk, 17, is a participant in Svet and an English as a second language student at David Douglas High School in east Portland. Raised in the Ukraine, he moved to Portland with his parents in May.
With the help of a translator, he compared Thanksgiving to a holiday he celebrated in his home country.
'There's a holiday in the Ukraine called Harvest Day,' he said. 'We took food to church and said 'thank you' to God. It's kind of the same as Thanksgiving, but we didn't eat meat ÑÊonly vegetables.'
Gostyuk, outgoing and with ambitions of going to college to become a nurse, said he knew practically nothing about Thanksgiving before coming to the States: 'I saw a few images of Thanksgiving on TV in the Ukraine, but I didn't know what they meant.'
But he's picked up on the holiday's significance in recent months.
'I just watched a movie about Thanksgiving at school,' Gostyuk said. 'I'm learning about the history, how the Pilgrims came here and met Native Americans. They had different religious beliefs. That's why they had to come here.'
In that way, the newcomers are similar to the Pilgrims. Slavica Kojadinovic, Svet's project coordinator, said that 'most of the children in Svet came to the United States with their families to escape religious persecution.' She said that people of the Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist and Baptist faiths are among the most common refugees from the former Soviet Union. While they weren't living in life-or-death situations, most faced varying degrees of intolerance because of their respective faiths.
Gostyuk, who enjoys shopping in downtown Portland and visiting the Columbia Gorge, is happy with his new home.
'I'm thankful to God for bringing me to this country. God bless America!' he said.
Bella Yermolov is a native of Ossetia, a region that straddles the republics of Georgia and Russia. She came to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago. Recalling her first Thanksgiving, she said: 'I didn't know what the food was. To eat cranberry jam with turkey didn't make sense to me.'
Marina Grozina, who came from Moscow to Portland in 1999, also had doubts about her first Thanksgiving meal.
'The food surprised me, like cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and green beans with gravy and pumpkin pie,' Grozina said. 'I never ate anything like that in Russia. But I tried everything.'
Said Kojadinovic: 'They need to experience a traditional Thanksgiving dinner if they're going to learn something. If we serve food they are used to they will eat that.' Therefore, no borscht or stuffed cabbage was on hand for the Svet banquet.
Kojadinovic is a Bosnian refugee who arrived in Portland five years ago. 'I like working with these kids, and they like me,' she said. Though not Russian herself, she doesn't have any trouble communicating with the kids in the program. 'I speak Russian, but my pronunciation is different from them Ñ and they laugh when I speak.'
Kojadinovic's first glimpse of Thanksgiving was through American sitcoms. When she moved to Portland she experienced the meaning of the holiday firsthand. Having just arrived in this country with only two bags of belongings to her name, she was thrilled when members of the Lutheran church brought a turkey to her doorstep.
She explained that she and her family had no wish to reject this American custom: 'Many of us refugees want to learn. Thanksgiving is a big deal. We realize it's a touching holiday. People never forget the good things people do to each other.'