‘Immigration is the essence of America.”

~Lisa Simpson, 2nd grader, Springfield Elementary
Vol. 19, No. 10 • Mailed monthly to over 12, 400 homes in the Gateway & Parkrose Communities Free • FEBRUARY 2004
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An immigrant’s story

Escaping religious persecution a Ukrainian family immigrates to the United States, grows their family, works hard to achieve the American dream, makes assimilation a family goal, faces and adapts to cultural prejudice, becomes integral part of the community


Mid-County is changing. Light-rail bisects the area. Committees weigh the needs of residents against those of neighboring businesses. Large retailers and box stores create change in our habitats and shopping experiences. Immigrants from around the world are enriching demographics. One local school district administrator reports that her English as a Second Language program serves 45 different languages and that there are 60 different languages actually spoken by students and their families.

The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO, located at 10301 N.E. Glisan St. was established in 1976 to meet the needs of these new arrivals. It was at recent networking meeting sponsored by our growing Slavic community and held at the Chai Hana Russian Restaurant at 10534 N.E. Sandy Blvd, that the MEMO was introduced to IRCO staffer Luba Shalya.

In 1989, Shalya emigrated from Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, with her then husband, Alex, and five young children. (The Shalya’s added four more children after their arrival in this country. They divorced in 1997.) Seeking religious freedom, they came to Portland under the sponsorship of Alex Shalya’s sister who had already settled here. Luba says her family was persecuted in Ukraine because they are Christian. Under Soviet rule, the only recognized church was the Russian Orthodox Church. Others were driven underground, forced to hold secret services in their homes. Shalya says that shortly before Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader the underground churches were allowed to register with the government and begin to worship more openly, but persecution continued. She and her sisters were taunted in school. Her father was questioned and threatened. Her grandfather was imprisoned for 25 years. All because they were Christian.

ASPIRE Program Developer Teena Ainslie (standing from left) and Parkrose College and Career Center Director Meg Kilmer answer questions from ASPIRE mentor Sallie LaValley (seated from left) ASPIRE student participants Zhanna Koshilko and Diana Minko.


Shalya fondly recalls the small mountains and rolling forested hills of her homeland. Donetsk (population about 1 million), the city in which she lived was known as the City of Roses, the same as Portland. She says it is very, very green and has lots of roses and beautiful botanical gardens.

While things are better in Ukraine since the break up of the Soviet Union, Shalya says it’s very different from when she lived there, different money, different political structure, and even different cultural norms. There are 15 separate republics that were all once part of the Soviet Union, making travel much more complicated. When asked if she wanted to return there to live, she said “Why? I like America. It is better here. After a couple of years I thought I was born here. It was like my country.”

In the Ukraine, Luba was a teacher’s assistant and worked in day care. Her husband was a coal miner. They were also parents to five children ranging in age from 7 years to 6 months when they decided to immigrate. Upon their arrival in Portland, they first lived in Columbia Villa. Luba says there were challenges at first for her school age children because they were different and because her kids had not been exposed to black people. They experienced some discrimination, but she says it wasn’t long before they overcame that and were soon walking to school and playing with their neighbors. After about three years, the family moved to Southeast Portland. This was an even more comfortable fit as there was a large Slavic population in the community. Arleta Elementary School, where her children attended, had a Russian interpreter on staff who was also a good liaison between the Slavic families and their American counterparts.

Early on, Luba says she was confused by anger she encountered from Americans. People here don’t know hardship or persecution she contends. They don’t know what it’s like to stand in line from 4 to 8 a.m. waiting to buy milk while their children are home alone. She decided her best approach was to really learn about her new country and take it upon herself to understand this new culture. Occasionally, she would commit a cultural gaffe. When that happened, she would open a dialog with the offended person (American, usually white, sometimes black) by explaining her culture, the reason for her actions and ask how things work here. Instead of allowing the situation to develop into an argument or create further misunderstanding, she tried to foster understanding. While she still finds discrimination perplexing, she has no patience for immigrants who feel they are owed something. She says people who come here need to learn the culture and how things work. “I asked America to give me freedom. If I cannot do something, or do not understand something it is up to me to learn,” she says.


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