Alexander Ossipov dresses pretty hip for a kid who just arrived in Portland as a refugee direct from Kazakhstan 18 months ago. A pair of colorful Nikes pokes out from under his jeans as he sits in front of the 7-Eleven near Portland State University, drinking a Radiation Rush flavored Slurpee. Since he speaks seldom and softly, it's hard to hear his Eastern European accent. Next to Ossipov sits his American-born friend Matt Soto; they're talking about playing hacky sack. While all may seem normal, fitting in is a huge undertaking for teenagers like Ossipov in Portland's isolated, conservative, and growing Russian Christian evangelical community.
Soto is actually Ossipov's only American friend. They met up through a program called New Youth Perspectives, which pairs teenage Russian immigrants with American mentors. The two are a funny pair, since 19-year-old Soto is short, dark-skinned, and talkative while Ossipov, 13, is tall, pale, and responds to most questions by staring at the ground and mumbling, "I don't know." But the two communicate with each other, and Soto frequently does the talking for both of them.
"Once I asked him, 'What would you do for fun in school?'" says Soto, of Ossipov's life in Kazakhstan. "He thought about it for a minute and said after school they would fight."
It's difficult to get statistics about Russian immigrants in Portland because they are lumped into "white" on the census—but social workers definitely agree on two things: One is that the population of Russians in Portland has jumped in recent years, from 23,000 Russian speakers in the Portland area in 1990 to an estimated 100,000 in 2004. Second, that the children of Russian immigrants drop out of school at alarmingly high rates.
One worker from Russian Oregon Social Services (ROSS)—a nonprofit based in Southeast Portland—estimated that 80 percent of the young people in her church left public school before finishing eighth grade. The language barrier and the fact that many Russian kids join their parents in the workforce instead of going to public high school contribute to the high dropout rate. But there's also a cultural dynamic at play: Many of the Russian immigrants are members of tight-knit, conservative communities revolving around membership in one of Portland's 30 Russian Christian evangelical churches. Often, church-going parents decide they would rather not expose their kids to the diverse and, in their minds, questionable morals of Portland's public schools.
Russian Christian evangelical churches have a spectrum of beliefs that stress regulation of personal lifestyle. Drugs and alcohol are forbidden, of course—but many of Portland's Russian evangelical churchgoers also abstain from dancing, smoking, birth control, theater, and some American television and movies that are deemed immoral. Teenagers attend church services up to three times a week and spend their other nights at church youth groups or church dances. According to ROSS, domestic violence is rampant but unspoken: Women are traditionally found at fault when their husbands beat them, and divorce is forbidden.
These dynamics put Richard Kearney, the director of New Youth Perspectives, in a tough situation. How does a social worker reach out to a community that feels it's just fine being left alone? Two years ago, United Way began funding the New Youth Perspectives program with the hope that linking Russian teens with one-on-one American mentors would help the isolated kids learn English and stay in school.
But Kearney's mentor program is having trouble gaining traction. While all of the dozen kids involved in the program have improved their grades, many in the Russian community are hostile to the idea of their kids assimilating.
Kearney, however, thinks that even in a community that prefers to be cloistered, kids should be exposed to liberal America—and stay in school.
"These young people are starting to develop their own opinions," Kearney says. "Hopefully they'll be able to learn about all their options."
Kearney says the Russian evangelical churches typically view him with suspicion. And even when he finds an open-minded Russian family, he has trouble explaining the concept of a mentor—teen mentors don't exist in their culture. The best translation of "mentor" Kearney's found is the word nastavnik.
"That means, 'someone who will make you do something for your own good,'" he laughs.
For Ossipov, the program has been good. Several afternoons a week, Ossipov and Soto hang out to work on Ossipov's English and Soto's Russian, as per the official mentor program goals. Thanks to his improved English skills, Ossipov now breezes through his junior high school workload.
"We do fourth grade stuff," he scoffs.
But Ossipov and Soto don't spend most of their time studying grammar. Mostly, they watch YouTube videos. And zombie movies. And go to the mall. Basically, it's Mainstream American Teenager 101.
Right now, Soto's in the middle of a campaign to catch Ossipov up to speed on American films.
"Borat was a big one," Soto laughs.
"When I said I was from Kazakhstan, my teacher laughed," says Ossipov quietly, bouncing a hacky sack off his foot. "I didn't understand why, but then I saw the Borat movie."
Most people Ossipov meets don't know anything about Kazakhstan except what Sacha Baron Cohen (the creator of Borat) has fabricated—but the teen is a reluctant cultural ambassador. Sometimes he explains that his hometown is not so different from that found in rural America; yes, they have electricity. Sometimes he just keeps quiet about his roots.
Kearney realizes that exposing Russian immigrants' kids to horror films and liberal Portland values might provoke a backlash if it's not done sensitively. Rather than trying to reach into the conservative core of the community, New Youth Perspectives has so far focused on those families who fall on the more progressive side of the evangelical spectrum. Ossipov's is a prime example.
"Walking into it, I was under the impression I'd see scarfed heads and hear prayers at dinner... but that wasn't the case," says Soto. Ossipov says he and his mom are not too heavily involved with the church; they only attend services on Sunday (still far more often that the average Portlander). The rest of the week, Ossipov's mom, Mia, works as a hairstylist with other Russian-speaking women.
"When we came here, everything was new. New law, new language," says Ms. Ossipov through a translator. She is excited that her son has an American friend to hang out and speak English with.
"If we live here, we have to adopt this culture," she says.
A week after drinking all-American Slurpees under downtown condo towers, I ask Soto and Ossipov to take me somewhere equivalently Russian in Portland. All too soon, I'm at the crowded counter of a Russian deli in a strip mall on 82nd Avenue, gnawing on a meat product Ossipov described as "Moscow sausage." The small deli is full of babushkas and older men picking up groceries and talking in brusque Russian dialects. I thought Ossipov would be more comfortable here than at the 7-Eleven—and maybe even show off his bilingual skills. But he's as awkward and quiet as usual and only Soto's persistent encouragement cajoles him into speaking a few words of Russian to the robust counter woman wearing a meat-stained apron. Soto picks up a package of white cheese, its package covered in Cyrillic characters.
"What do you usually eat with this cheese?" he asks.
"Mayonnaise," mumbles Ossipov, smiling slyly.
Soto falls for it, looking up at Ossipov in surprise and then bursting into laughter.
"You're kidding," Soto says, scrutinizing Ossipov's face. He pauses, "Right?"
Ossipov grins and keeps quiet. He just pulled a Borat.