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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Kind of Home In Tucson's Promised Land




Sofiya, a Jewish woman from Kharkiv, once faced the same decision that Mr. Abramov - the third-floor neighbor I wrote about last week - now faces: to stay in her homeland or leave it for the United States.


Unlike Mr. Abramov, Sofiya didn't agonize over her decision. She and her husband, Vladimir, decided to emigrate some eight years ago. They have since become American citizens, living in Tucson and building a new life for themselves.


I met Sofiya a couple of years ago at the beauty salon where my mother gets her nails done. The 50-something Sofiya began working at the salon shortly after her arrival, giving manicures and pedicures. My mother told Sofiya about her Muscovite daughter, and during one trip home, I made an appointment to see Sofiya, who gives the best pedicure this side of the Atlantic.


During my first visit, Sofiya gave me a short biography: She and Vladimir, a butcher, had decided to take advantage of the United States' immigration policy, which has been accepting thousands of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union during the past decade. Once the family had been cleared for entry into the U.S., they were invited to Tucson, where the members of the local Jewish community are helping resettle their foreign-born kin.


During their first months in Tucson, Sofiya and her husband were tutored in English and American Life 101. Soon afterward, they got jobs, she as a manicurist, he as a butcher at a fast-food restaurant. They were doing well enough to rent their own one-bedroom - or "odnobedrumnaya" - apartment. Their English slowly improved. They were able to support themselves on their two small salaries. They made friends among the local ?migr? community. And they took the first step along the road to becoming true Americans: They discovered Walmart.


Things seemed to be going along well enough, until Vladimir had a stroke.


The couple found it difficult to make ends meet without Vladimir's salary. They wrangled with the unemployment and disability offices, and found that the U.S., like the former Soviet Union, has its own maddeningly labyrinthine bureaucracies.


Sofiya and I got to know each other well enough that she invited me over to their apartment for dinner. Once I walked through the door, I forgot I was in the United States: The table, set with china made during the Soviet era and brought thousands of miles from Ukraine, looked like any other table I've sat down to in Moscow, Vladivostok or Kiev. The menu was standard: borshch, marinated mushrooms, bliny, jellied meat, pelmeni and the sine qua non of any feast, a bottle of vodka. The toasts were no different than the dozens I have drunk in Russia or Ukraine: to friendship, to health, to happiness. During dinner, the television droned on in the background - tuned, thanks to an enterprising cable service, to a station with Russian programming.


When I walked out of Sofiya's and Vladimir's apartment, I felt sad. They had left friends and family behind, taking from their homeland only what would fit in a few suitcases. They wanted to live their old life - with their language, their food, their customs, their television stations - but they had felt compelled to leave. Compelled because their country could not offer them the one element in life we all need: a future.


Helen Womack is on vacation.