Share this article

print logo


Five Ukrainian kindergarten students clung nervously to one another as they followed the school principal quietly down the long hallway to meet their new American classmates.

Inside the classroom, Ann Sheridan's students had all the patience of five year olds waiting for a treat. They could barely keep still. They had heard for weeks about the Ukrainians and all wanted to sit next to them.

The newcomers, dressed in their best from the rural Ukraine and the Pentecostal refugee camps in Italy where they spent the last five months, slowly entered the room and stood before the class. They clasped their hands, scuffed their feet and looked to one another for support.

The Americans broke the ice and giggled as they showed their new friends gifts of pencil sharpeners, rulers and crayons. The Ukrainians smiled politely but seemed overwhelmed by the attention and everyone talking at once in a strange language.

The scene was repeated in classrooms throughout the New Covenant Tabernacle School in the Town of Tonawanda last week, as a group of Soviet Pentecostals began life anew.

If the first day of school was awkward for the children, it was a dream come true for their parents. Like generations of immigrants before them, they came to America seeking a better life for their children.

Persecuted in the Soviet Union for their religious beliefs, they said authorities threatened to take away their children if they continued to teach them Christianity. Despite glasnost, the Soviet Union still forbids religious instruction for those under 18.

The children were taunted in Soviet schools, held up as bad examples by their teachers, and shunned by their fellow students.

But now they are in a school where they are treated as honored guests, where Bible lessons are part of their daily lessons. The school is run by the New Covenant Tabernacle Church, which brought the Pentecostals here.

"We are happy there is no more religious persecution," said Anatoly Ostapovich, who with his wife, Helena, has six children. "We want our children to be raised in the Christian faith. Our idea is to raise our children in a free world."

Forty Pentecostals have arrived here in the last two weeks, and 13 of their children began afternoon classes last week at New Covenant. Another 60 Pentecostals are expected in coming months. Beginning June 7, the Kenmore-Tonawanda Schools will teach the children English.

"It's really going to be a quick sampler," said Kenmore administrator Richard DeGlopper, who handles the district's English-language programs.
"Being so close to the end of the school year, it gives the kids a bit of a flavor of what's going on."

The coming weeks and months will be difficult for the children, but they should have a much easier time adjusting than their parents.

"I just know it's very easy because children pick up the language so fast," said Irene Doroszak, an interpreter who has been helping the newcomers with English and translating for church officials. She came to the United States with her husband and two preschool children in 1950 to escape Stalin. Her children were speaking English by the end of their first year here.

The adjustment has begun already at the New Covenant school. Their American classmates quickly discovered the Ukrainians are not from another planet.

"They're kind of cute," said Danny Swain, 9. "They look about like us."

His classmate Chris Costello agreed.

"I like them," he said. "I think they look just like Americans."

School principal Nancy Hamlin met with the parents last week and told them the school was breaking new ground with the Ukrainian-speaking students.

"You are an experiment, because we don't know what we are doing with you," she said. "So there is going to be some give and take. We will learn from each other."

As she read down a list of students and the grades they would be assigned, each parent seemed almost moved to tears at the mention of their child's name, even if the American system of grades meant little to them.

For the parents, English remains the biggest barrier and their greatest fear about their new country.

"Language is my biggest worry," Anatoly Ostapovich said through an interpreter. "I don't know it; it keeps me back."

New Covenant, through its pastor, the Rev. Paul Schenck, has already made it easier for the immigrants to hear church services in their language by installing 26 sets of headphones in the church for Ukrainian interpretation. The Rev. Mark Hill, New Covenant's youth pastor, is trying to set up English lessons for the adults.

The biggest advantage they have in adapting is their closeness to one another. They are the Ostapovich clan and everyone in the five families is either a blood relative or related by marriage.

So far, life in an Elmwood Avenue apartment complex in Kenmore is much like it was in Ladispoli, Italy, where they awaited U.S. immigration authorities to approve their arrival here as refugees.

"Everybody is going everywhere together," said Mr. Hill, one of a delegation of American pastors who visited the Italian refugee settlements in late February.

The Pentecostals still eat communal meals, pray frequently together, and make decisions as a group. Culture shock seems to hit them daily.

"We were overwhelmed," Nadia Tumash said of her first trip to an American supermarket. "There was so much food, so much variety. I simply could not believe it. There was so much fruit, so many vegetables. I have never seen so much food."

She went immediately to the produce section and bought lettuce, bananas and tomatoes. Such produce is usually unavailable in the Soviet Union or not worth buying because of its poor quality, high price or long lines to buy it.

Mrs. Tumash is one of the best cooks in the group. She cooked the Ukrainian borscht for a feast the Pentecostal community in Ladispoli had for the visiting Americans.

She and her husband Leonid are quickly adjusting to life here. Leonid and Andreij Polyukovich already have begun work as laborers for the Joseph Higgins Co. construction firm, and Nadia has a part-time job cleaning the New Covenant church.

Higgins called church officials and offered jobs to the refugees as soon as he heard they were coming to this country.

"I'm just glad I was able to offer these men a job," Higgins said. "One of my best employees is a Polish refugee who came to this country three years ago."

In that time, Higgins said, the worker and his wife saved enough money through various jobs to put $60,000 down on a $120,000 home.

Higgins was in for a bit of culture shock himself. He took his new Ukrainian workers to lunch Thursday, but found they would not eat at the same table as he did because "he was the director."

Lunch for the children went a bit more smoothly at school. They had their first sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly. Even through an interpreter, school officials had a time of it trying to tell the children exactly what peanut butter was.

"The peanut butter was very good," said Alexander Ostapovich, who ate both halves of his sandwich but did not touch his cheese crackers. "The crackers I did not like so much."

Luda Fesiuk, 8, his young blond cousin, could only finish half her sandwich but was too shy to talk about it.

Luda is a talented young musician with a crystal clear voice who is the star of the Fesiuk musical family. She sang flawless renditions of Ukrainian hymns for the Americans during their Italian visit. Everyone in the Fesiuk family sings or plays a musical instrument.

"In Italy, we performed several times in front of the clergy," Anatoly Fesiuk said. The family is performing today at New Covenant.

Mr. Hill said more job offers are coming in, but, in the meantime, the families are living on food donated by the church and by local supermarkets. County Legislator Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, arranged for 400 pounds of donated food on Friday.

In addition, the families received a food allowance from Catholic Charities and will become eligible for food stamps in 30 days, Mr. Hill said.

But the plan is to have them out of the apartment complex and living on their own within three months.

"We have been welcomed so warmly," Anatoly Ostapovich said. "It has made us feel secure and hopeful."

There are no comments - be the first to comment