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Russia: Eastern Immigrants Resettle In Small-Town America

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington; 10 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - Walter Ilyin can tell you a lot about immigration, both during and since the Soviet era.

Ilyin represents several generations of persecuted refugees -- his parents' and his own. Now, as pastor of the Russian-language Pentecostal Christian church in the northern Pacific Coast town of Bellingham, Washington, he is helping newcomers from the former Soviet Union build new lives in small-town America, even as he and his parents did before them.

Walter Ilyin was born in pre-communist China of Russian parents who had fled Ukraine so they could practice their religious beliefs without fear of repression. But it was not until 1963 that he was able to make his way to the United States, living in several larger cities before finally settling in Bellingham, only a few kilometers south of the Canadian border.

Now, 33 years later, Ilyin finds himself guiding the new wave of religious refugees who have made their way to this largely rural corner of the United States in the last decade. Rarely is it their first point of settlement. Refugees usually first settle near their original port of entry -- New York City -- or are drawn to such other well-known big cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. These are cities founded by immigrant populations.

In the last century, the immigrant founders of Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County were Western European, mainly Dutch and Scandinavian. But even then, many of these pioneers only reached the West Coast after having settled first somewhere in the eastern United States.

It is this resettlement phenomenon that is now swelling Whatcom County's new refugee population from the former Soviet Union -- most notably from Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakstan, Russia and Ukraine.

Only a few years ago, as religious refugees flowed into the big cities of the United States, the congregation of the Russian-language Bellingham Pentecostal Church embraced only a few families. Today, with more than 500 members, it is looking for a larger meeting place.

Ilyin estimates that 1,500 immigrants from the former Soviet Union now make their homes in Whatcom County. In less than five years, these people have come to represent one in every 10 residents of the county (total population 148,300 -- about a third of whom live in the county seat, Bellingham).

Although the flow of refugees from the former Soviet Union is slowing, Ilyin tells RFE/RL that he expects the resettlement of refugees from elsewhere in the United States to continue. This phenomenon, he estimates, will add 10 to 15 percent a year to the county's immigrant population, as friends and relatives make their way west and north.

Ilyin says the attractions of smaller towns for today's immigrants are several. Compared to big cities, land in Whatcom County is cheap, so housing is less costly, either to buy or to rent. Another attraction is the quality of public education, which in the United States is locally governed and locally taxed.

In addition, the wet but generally mild climate and the geography of the northwest, on either side of the Cascade Mountains dividing Washington state, appeal to many newcomers as reminiscent of the lands they left. And for Pentecostal Christians -- with their typically larger-than-average families and correspondingly large extended families -- there is also the appeal of a Russian-language religious community to ease the transition and help reinforce the family values so important to them.

Those values, too, tend to be more concentrated and obvious in small-town America than in the nation's great cities, whose attractions may later beckon more to the immigrants' children. Ilyin says the children more easily make the necessary adjustments to a new life and new language in a new and very different country.