A Look into the Ukrainian Immigrant Experience in Portland

By Beatrice Endler ’17

“Life is much better in this country,” said Maryana’s mother-in-law. Maryana and her husband and her two children, ages three and five, moved to the United States in 2002. Her husband’s parents and younger brother were already living in Portland, OR, having arrived two years earlier, prompting Maryana to move to Portland as well.

Maryana was hesitant to leave her mother behind in Ukraine, as she was sick with cancer. Her family also urged her to stay and care for her mother. “My mom’s side of the family says, ‘Maryana, you are a bad daughter because you left.’ But my husband’s family said, ‘you must listen to your husband,’” and so she agreed to go to America.

Before Maryana married, she was an Orthodox Christian, but she converted to her husband’s religion, the Church of God (7th day), in order to get her marriage blessed by the church. Her husband was hopeful of America’s promise of religious freedom, especially after his turbulent religious experience in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, before the dissolution of the USSR, communism was aggressively against  religion. According to Maryana, “communism didn’t care for the Saturday sabbath,” as it represented the practice of a religious minority. Russian Orthodox, the dominant form of christianity in Ukraine, practiced church-going on Sundays. When Maryana’s husband was in school, the six day week proved a challenge to him and his family, and “he had big problems with the teachers because everyone is supposed to come into school, but he couldn’t miss Saturdays” because his religion required that he take Saturday off as a day of Sabbath.

Because he missed class every Saturday, he fell behinds. No one in his family graduated high school or attended college. A similar issue arose in terms of jobs, as not being able to work on a Saturday, often a requirement, made him a less desirable employee. Finding religious freedom and more opportunities in the workplace were the main motivations for the family’s migration.

According to a 2006 report entitled “Placing the Refugee Diaspora to Portland, Oregon” by Susan W. Hardwick and James E. Meacham, between 1990 and 2005, more migrants from Russia and Ukraine made their way to the Pacific Northwest than to the rest of the United States. These migrants were drawn to Oregon and Washington because of the “sponsors affiliated with…church congregations…well organized social service and refugee resettlement agencies; and a physical environment that resembles their homeland.”

Maryana with her family. (Photo: Beatrice Endler '17).

Maryana with her family. (Photo: Beatrice Endler ’17).

In 1987, President Mikhail Gorbachev announced, unexpectedly, that “religious minority groups could leave the USSR for the first time since the Russian Revolution ended in 1922.” When this gate opened up, U.S. Congress “responded by…easing restrictions on immigrants from Communist countries, especially for religious refugees.” After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, it became even easier for Ukrainians and Russians to migrate to the United States.

At first Maryana disliked life in Portland. “After two months in America, I wasn’t happy, and my husband said we could move back. But I said, I’m not a gypsy, we came here, we will stay here, and we will try to live our life here.” They moved into a Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood in NE Portland. Ukrainians are a minority in this community, but everyone was very welcoming. Back in Ukraine, under Soviet rule, it was required that students learn Russian, and so Maryana and her husband can speak both Russian and Ukrainian, as can their two eldest kids.  

When she moved here, almost 15 years ago, she wasn’t aware of any animosity between the Russians and Ukrainians. In light of recent events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, there has been some tension in other neighborhoods and other church communities in Portland, but not in her neighborhood. “I’ve heard that other churches have had big problems…In our church, everything is quiet,” she noted.

Maryana and her family joined a church community which originally had “200 members, but now there are over 600,” and this doesn’t include those members under the age of sixteen or those who are unbaptized. “We never drive on Saturdays, that is why everyone must live close to church,” so that they can walk. “Everyone lives between 138th Northeast and 192nd, and from Burnside to Sandy, this block. All in the Northeast.”

“I know around ten women, like me, who clean houses. Men do construction or repair cars. There are also truck drivers.” In her community, there are currently no professionals, such as doctors. “Now our kids are starting to go to college and university.”

Maryana and her two brothers went to school close to home, and for higher education, Maryana attended college in Odessa, Ukraine. After her studies she became a bookkeeper. Her father was a sheriff, and her mother, who didn’t finish the 8th grade, worked in a milk factory.

“Life is much easier here.” America has generally been much more accommodating of their religion, but for his first job in Oregon, with a wood furniture company, Maryana’s husband “was fired because he didn’t want to work on Saturday.” After a few days, “he found another job in the tile industry, and he never had a problem after that. He had an American boss who didn’t work on Saturday either. For his boss, Saturday and Sunday are for family, no one works then.” Now her husband works for himself, setting tiles in bathrooms and kitchens, and he has two employees.

Maryana and her husband spoke no English when they first arrived. Maryana’s first English word was “garbage.” She took English lessons for three months at IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Organization in Northeast Portland. “That’s it, that’s what I have.” This was the extent of her formal English learning, but Maryana got to practice using English as she worked.

Maryana’s first job was as a cleaning maid “at a Hilton hotel 14 years ago. After two weeks, the boss, a woman said, ‘We’ll give you Saturday off, but you have to work on Sunday.’” This was exactly what she wanted, but, “in August, when the hotel was really busy because everyone is travelling, I sat down in the lunch area with my sister-in-law, and the boss walked over and said, ‘Girls, you must come in tomorrow to work.’ We were both so scared because we couldn’t come. I told her this, but the boss said, ‘no, I am sorry, we are so busy tomorrow, you have to come.’ I started to cry. I was so scared, I had only been in America for two months and I was afraid of losing my job. She asked, “why are you crying?” and I explained that I couldn’t work on Saturday.”

“We went into the boss’ office, and there was talk of us being fired and replaced by another girl who could speak English. I said, ‘I am so sorry, but these are your rules, and these are our rules.’ Then the boss said, ‘alright you can go and I’ll think about it.’ I came into work later, and on my punch card it said that I didn’t have to work on Saturday. After that I worked there for 5 or 6 years, and there was never a problem.”

Maryana later took part in a Mercy Corps program to “Earn a Small Business Grant.” According to the Mercy Corps Northwest website, program participants build “an Individual Development Account” or (IDA), and “through the program IDA clients save money, complete…training offerings, and complete their business plan. Upon completion of the program, clients receive matching funds to purchase equipment and hard assets for their business.”

Maryana went to Wednesday classes for eight weeks, which were translated into many languages, including Russian, and there she learned how to get a license for her small business, get compensated for her work, and do taxes. “I saved 167 dollars every month, and once I saved 1000 dollars, Mercy Corps matched it three times,” Maryana explained. After completing the program, Maryana used the money she received and bought supplies to start her own small house cleaning service. “I bought three vacuums, towels, and a washer-dryer to wash the towels, all for my business.” Her husband had gone through the program before her. After the program, she decided to give back to the organization. “I put together a donation, not big, two, three hundred dollars, because they gave me such a great opportunity.”

Maryana now lives in Portland with her husband and children. (Photo: Beatrice Endler)

Maryana now lives in Portland with her husband and children. (Photo: Beatrice Endler ’17)

Maryana likes life in Portland and isn’t angry about paying her taxes, as she has noticed other Russian and Ukrainian families to be. In Ukraine, the citizens don’t pay taxes. “You can come to America if you don’t have money because there are welfare programs, and there are programs that can give food for free, like food banks, and you can go and show your social security, and they look at the number of family members and income, and give you food for free. In my country, they never give anybody anything, and we don’t pay taxes. In America, I love it, I am okay with paying because the government takes what they need.”

Maryana and her husband now have four kids, all of whom can speak Ukrainian and at least some Russian. None of her kids have Ukrainian accents, and they “think and live like Americans.” Her youngest son, age seven, “loves fast food,” but at home, his mom only cooks traditional, Ukrainian food. Maryana believes that she “has been Americanized” as well, and she plans to stay in Portland. “I never want to go back to Ukraine.”