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First Person: Life In Russia As A Non-Russian Child

Aida's daughter Bermet didn't find a very warm welcome in Russia.
Aida's daughter Bermet didn't find a very warm welcome in Russia.
Aida Kasymalieva reports from Moscow for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. This summer, she brought her 5-year-old daughter, Bermet, to Moscow from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, where she had been living with her grandparents. This is Kasymalieva's account of her daughter's experience of life in Russia.

DOMODEDOVO AIRPORT, MOSCOW -- Bermet has arrived. She's arrived! Seventeen kilograms of pure happiness is back with me again.

"Mom, we're Russians now, aren't we?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Because we're in Moscow."
"No, we're not Russians."
"Then why are we going to live here? There are so many Russians -- just look around!"
"Yes, more than back in Bishkek."
"They're like Aunt Sveta. So many Aunt Svetas here."
"It doesn't matter. We're just here temporarily, because I work here. We are Kyrgyz."
"Oh, I get it. Russians go to Bishkek, and we come here. We change places. It's a game!"

She repeated that thought every time we encountered other Kyrgyz on the subway. She devised a project for herself -- to count her compatriots during subway rides. We once counted 300 Kyrgyz immigrants on a trip that lasted seven stations.

No Welcome Home

Before Bermet's arrival, I found a place to live in Balashikha, a city just outside the Moscow city limits. It made for a long commute: 55 minutes on a bus, and another 40 minutes on the subway to get to the city center. The trip is even longer if the traffic is bad.

There are many new buildings in my neighborhood in Balashikha, all apparently built for young families. All the buildings are identical, painted the same shade of orange. Sometimes the families inside seem identical as well -- the same mother, the same children. And all different from us.

As soon as I brought Bermet home for the first time, we threw down our bags and went out for a walk. My friendly little Bermet, who was used to drawing smiles from strangers in Bishkek, immediately greeted all the mothers she saw gathered in the courtyard. But instead of greeting her back, the women simply ignored her. One by one. Not a single smile.

On that evening, Bermet's first in the Moscow suburbs, we returned home feeling confused and sad. Within a week, she had gotten used to playing alone and had stopped attempting to say hello to anyone on the street.

"Oh, Mom -- that man is eating a banana. I want one too!"
"Yes, I'm eating, and it's none of your business," the man snarled at Bermet.

I had been trying to keep my feelings to myself. But that day I turned to Twitter. "I didn't want to write about this. But since Bermet's arrival I've been going outside. And we're alien, we're different. No one smiles. And the children copy their mothers' hatred."

Aida Kasymalieva
Aida Kasymalieva
The next day, Bermet made a fresh attempt to make friends in the courtyard. She went up to one girl, and then another, trying to make their acquaintance. But it was in vain. She got only silence in response. That, and a rude shout from one of the mothers to her daughter: "Dasha, come over here!"

"They won't play with me," Bermet said despairingly. "I want to go back to Bishkek. I want to be with my friends -- with Akerke, Meerim, Aiday, Artur, Masha."

The sky had fallen. The planet had spun out of its orbit and drifted away into infinity. This was the only way of expressing how I felt.

Over time, my conversations with Bermet took on a kind of dreadful sameness.

"No one plays with me."
"They just don't know you, Bermet."
"They're mean."
"Everything will settle down in kindergarten. You'll make so many friends!"
"Why don't they want to play with me? I come up to them and they don't say anything!"

I should clarify here that Bermet speaks better Russian than I do. And she has friends of many ethnicities back in Bishkek.

Courtyard Ghettos

Balashikha is full of diminutive names. There's the "Solnyshko" (Sunny) bus stop, the "Pole Chudes" (Field of Miracles) neighborhood. Even the city itself may have gotten its name from a Finno-Ugric word meaning "land of laughter and fun." All names that stood in stark contrast to the cold reception we received at every turn.

One day, we set out to explore every playground and courtyard in our neighborhood, finally stopping at the one that was closest to our house. Throughout, Bermet and I were totally alone. Strangers' glances seemed to push us out, to snap at us and remind us, again and again, that we were alien, alien, alien.

Bermet sat down on a bench and looked around.

Not everyone was Russian. There were people from the Caucasus, whose children didn't speak Russian and who crowded together on one bench. On a second bench, the Russian mothers gathered. Bermet and I were sitting on the third bench.

'These Tajiks'

The next day, there was one empty seat on a bench occupied by elderly women. One of them threw an angry glance at me and began speaking loudly about "stinky" Tajiks and how "uncivilized" they were. "They scream all night long," she said, and hang their "stinky blankets" off the balconies in the morning. She took me for a Tajik.

There are actually many Uzbeks living in those buildings -- migrant workers and unskilled laborers. Their children, who don't speak Russian, avoid the playgrounds as though they were lepers. But there are actually no Tajiks.

Once I called a plumber, and when I began to explain my address, he complained that I lived in an area full of "churkas," a derogatory word for nonwhites.

And yet he felt no discomfort facing me 10 minutes later when I opened the door to my apartment.

Black Emma

After her first day in kindergarten, Bermet came up to me and said: "Mommy, I'm black all over. My hair, my eyes, and my skin."

I froze for a moment, but forced myself to make a cheerful reply from the kitchen. "That's right, sweetheart, we are both black beauties." I didn't try to find out where she had heard that phrase.

After two months in the kindergarten, she hadn't made any friends.

"'You're not part of our group. We won't play with you,'" Bermet once told me tearfully, repeating what classmates Vika and Dasha had said to her.

I only wanted some sense of goodwill toward my child. When the time came for her to leave, I couldn't bring myself to bring a cake. Instead, I decided to express my concerns to the director. Our conversation, as expected, turned into an hourlong argument, and she didn't give in until I threatened to take my complaint to the Ministry of Education.

"I apologize if something went wrong," she finally said, barely squeezing out the words. She did not say good-bye to Bermet as we left.

On that day we went home and I grabbed Emma -- a doll that I had bought in New York City. Emma is an African-American doll, made of cloth, with dark, curly hair, and the same height as Bermet.

And the three of us -- Emma, Bermet, and I -- took a walk in the Field of Miracles. It was our kind of silent protest in support of tolerance and against xenophobia.

On our way back to our apartment, a family joined us in the elevator. The air felt thick with hatred. Their child was whimpering, prompting his mother to shout, "Don't be a monkey!" She was looking at Emma as she said it.

The Russian March on Unity Day in Moscow
The Russian March on Unity Day in Moscow

Heading Home

On November 4, I covered the Russian March -- the annual gathering of ultranationalists on National Unity Day to protest the presence of Caucasians and other immigrants in their country.

Among the thousands of protesters, I saw a young girl -- no older than Bermet -- sitting on a grown-up's shoulders. Together they shouted, "Moscow for Muscovites! Russia for Russians!" The little girl, like many in the crowd, was wearing a mask. Many other demonstrators were young parents, their children still in strollers. It was then that I understood that Bermet and I had to get out of this place.

Before our departure, I gaze through the window of our apartment at the houses in our neighborhood. Even at 3 a.m., there were three lights burning in the house across from ours. An unbearable feeling settled over me, and I literally gasped for air. I don't want Bermet to grow up with the feeling, imposed on her by others, that something is wrong with her. Everything is perfectly right with my wonderful, smart girl.

I don't understand anything. We lived in Dubai and Bermet attended school there as well. There, children are the object of constant affection, no matter the color of their skin or eyes. The Arab natives calmly stroke babies' heads and smile with delight. One can breathe easily there, without a feeling of shrinking. The same is true in Bishkek, where no one separates the people into difference categories.

People have tried to convince me that the things I've seen only happen in the suburbs, and that attitudes in Moscow are different. I've been told I'm being obsessive and hypersensitive about it. But somehow I don't think 5 kilometers' difference suddenly makes people kinder -- especially in Moscow.

People offer different reasons for why this is so. They claim that it's not anger, that it's just fatigue. But I don't care. We're leaving right now, and I'll think about tomorrow tomorrow. After 2 1/2 months of living in Moscow, Bermet weighs 19 kilograms instead of 17. One of the two kilos is definitely bitterness.

"I don't like Moscow. The people here are very mean!" This is how Bermet says good-bye to Russia.

This piece was originally published in Russian by the Kyrgyz news agency

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