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U.S.: Former Soviet Jews Constitute Major Immigrant Population

  • Robert McMahon

The 1990s saw a major influx of immigrants into the United States, with New York again proving to be the quintessential immigrant metropolis. In his series on the recent U.S. census, RFE/RL's Robert McMahon looks at the circumstances that brought tens of thousands of former Soviet citizens, most of them Jews, to New York.

New York, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A typical grocery store in New York's Brighton Beach neighborhood is well-stocked, bustling, and thoroughly Russian.

On an afternoon before the recent Jewish celebration of Passover, our correspondent saw an abundance of unleavened bread, dried fish, and potato pancakes. Store signs are in Cyrillic. All conversation is in Russian.

And there is much more than food in this neighborhood, part of the city's borough of Brooklyn. On block after city block in Brighton Beach, music stores, book shops, and other establishments cater to a Russian-speaking population of at least 50,000 people.

For Inna Stavitsky, a Russian Jew from St. Petersburg, Brighton Beach represents a marketplace ideal never realized in Russia.

"It's not a piece of Russia because we have never had in Russia anything like that. This is the recreated dream of the Russian Jews, probably -- the bustling area full of everything. Everything is in abundance. Whatever you want you can find it here."

Stavitsky and her family arrived in Brooklyn late in 1989, just ahead of a decade-long wave of immigrants that brought tens of thousands of former Soviet citizens, most of them Jews, to New York City.

U.S. census figures on foreign-born Americans have not yet been released but estimates by the New York City department of planning indicate the largest number -- more than 30,000 -- came to the city from Ukraine during the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Thousands of other immigrants came from Russia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Moldova. City planning officials say they constituted one of the largest ethnic groupings of immigrants to New York during the 1990s.

The Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 11.2 million immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1990s, equal to about 44 percent of the U.S. population growth in that period. Immigrants were a key part of the growth in the country's most populous metropolitan area, New York, whose population surged to more than eight million people in the 1990s.

Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union took advantage of U.S. legislation that provided refugee eligibility to specific categories of former Soviets -- Jews, Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics, and Ukrainian Orthodox -- who were considered likely targets of persecution.

Stavitsky now teaches English at a local college and in business schools. She says her family's decision to come to the United States was prompted by the increasingly uncomfortable conditions for Jews in St. Petersburg. She said anti-Semitism by the end of the 1980s had changed from an official Soviet policy to what she called "street anti-Semitism."

"We were not observing Jews, we were not trying to be observing Jews, but we were just Jews and we felt ourselves like Jews. So I was trying to find a place where I would be first considered a person and then a Jew and that's when we thought of America."

For Stavitsky and many others, New York was the natural destination because family members had previously emigrated to the city, which has a century-long history of accommodating Jewish immigrants. New York also has well-established agencies to assist relocating Jews.

Organizations like the New York Association for New Americans typically have staffers meet arriving Jewish refugees at the airport, providing them with a small amount of U.S. dollars and access to important services.

The sheer numbers of former Soviets forced many to settle beyond the comforts of Brighton Beach. The new arrivals have created pockets of Russian speakers throughout the borough of Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, and Kensington.

Fira Stukelman is one of the many former Soviet Jews to have settled in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay section. She is a Holocaust survivor raised as an orphan in the western Ukrainian town of Chernovits (Chernivtsi). Unable to practice her Jewish faith and facing discrimination, she was granted refugee status in the United States with her husband and two children, arriving in Brooklyn in 1989.

Now a grandmother, Stukelman works as vice president of the Association of Holocaust Survivors. She is grateful for the opportunity to re-settle in New York but tells RFE/RL she is also appreciative of the transplanted culture carried to Brooklyn from the former Soviet Union.

"Our people have the opportunity to buy the food (they grew up with). They have opportunity to speak Russian. They have opportunity to watch Russian TV, Russian radio, Russian newspapers. It's nice, listen."

New York City in the 1990s was the destination of thousands of other refugees, from conflicts in Africa, Latin America, and the Balkans. Working mainly on family reunification, the aid agency Catholic Charities helped relocate about 400 Kosovo Albanians to New York after an ethnic-cleansing campaign by Serb forces in 1999.

A young Kosovo Albanian woman, who declined to give her name, told RFE/RL she came to New York with her parents, a brother, and a sister in 1999 after spending more than two months in a refugee camp in Macedonia. Now a student at St. Francis University in Brooklyn, she said her family's transition to New York living has gone smoothly despite some difficulty in finding housing.

The adjustment is helped, she said, by the presence of Kosovo Albanians throughout the city, in places such as Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and in another part of the city, the borough of the Bronx.

"It's easy to adjust because you can find your own community or at least communities that will understand you."

An official with the refugee settlement program for Catholic Charities said although there were some cases of depression, the Kosovars handled their resettlement relatively well and hundreds are applying for permanent U.S. residency.

The official, himself an Afghan refugee, spoke to RFE/RL on the condition that his name not be used. He said he has dealt in recent years with many people coming from conflict-ridden environments. Children are affected the worst, he said, often complaining of nightmares and crying.

Though uprooted and traumatized, he said, many times these refugees find peace in the United States.

"Some of them told me when they come here they breathe of freedom in this country. They would not hear any more shelling, bombing, killing and also the noise of helicopters, airplanes, fighters. They feel very calm here, especially the children."

For those seeking to become U.S. citizens, the effort to share in the nation's prosperity and democratic traditions can be difficult.

The Center for Immigration Studies says more than half of the post-1970 immigrants and their U.S.-born children live in or near the poverty level. And it says about one-third of them have no health insurance, making the situation for many immigrant families precarious.

In the New York City area, more immigrants are becoming naturalized citizens, giving them the right to vote and a voice on issues that some immigrants feel have been neglected.

Stavitsky, of Brighton Beach, has become one of at least a dozen foreign-born candidates seeking election to the New York City Council this year. She said she was motivated by a number of concerns including housing, education, and health insurance.

She says there is a severe shortage of affordable housing for the elderly and low-income families. Stavitsky also says public schools do not provide sufficient support for immigrant children. And the nation's 1996 welfare reform legislation eliminated some services, the most important of which was medical care. That last development has prompted a growing number of immigrants to become citizens.

But Stavitsky said it is not easy to become a political candidate, in part because of entrenched political party organizations that have not provided much support to immigrants seeking office.

"I'm kind of a pioneer, and it's a difficult process because we do not have the structure to support us, we do not have tools to work, we do not know the rules sometimes, so it's a very difficult process."

But Stavitsky says she thinks there is a good chance that new politicians, representing immigrants' concerns, will be elected to the city council. The introduction of term limits means that 35 of the council's 51 seats are to be contested this autumn and political experts believe the city's huge immigrant population will gain more representation soon.