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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Global Club a Lifeline for Local Expat Women

MTDebbie Osburne, left, Loes Hofstee, Lisa Vershbow, Conchita Bautista and Giovanna Bonnetti at a club meeting at Spaso House.
Isolation and loneliness were the driving forces behind the founding of the Moscow International Women's Club, and 25 years later, the club continues to offer expat women a chance to meet friends, volunteer and enjoy a wide range of activities.

"When I came to Moscow five years ago, life was a misery for me, but the International Women's Club has helped me maintain my sanity," said Dora Munga, the wife of a Zambian diplomat.

The IWC was founded in 1977 by a group of diplomatic wives who decided to form clubs similar to those they had participated in when stationed in other parts of the world.

Moscow in 2002, with its coffee shops and restaurants, may not be as isolating as 20 years ago, but it still can be difficult for some foreigners to adapt.

"The club accommodates women from all over the world and helps them make the most of life in Moscow," she said. "Like other wives of diplomats, I can't work here, and the club offers a lot of activities. I come from a tropical country, and if I stay inside all day [during the winter] I feel like a prisoner in my own home."

Activities include cooking classes with a well-known Russian chef, ballet lessons with a former Bolshoi ballerina and Russian embroidery. There are also computer courses, language classes, lessons in creative art such as ceramics and icon painting, history, culture and literature classes, sports and spiritual activities.

"There are so many things we want to do for the club, and this year it's mostly about the members," said Conchita Bautista, the president of the club and the wife of the Filipino ambassador. "We will try to do something really special this year. We want to organize some ladies? only trips within Russia to visit beautiful places."

The club, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, also supports a number of charitable causes through the donation of clothes, food, computers, funds and volunteers. Among its projects are 14 centers for infants who are orphaned or have special needs, the Mother Teresa Street Clinic for elderly people, hospitals, orphanages, more than a dozen soup kitchens and women's crisis centers and hotlines. Last year, the Russian government sent a letter of thanks to the IWC for its work with women's prisons.

"Our objective has always been to work for charity and help the needy," Bautista said.

The annual Winter Bazaar, which has been held for the past eight years in the Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel, is one of the main fund-raising events of the year, and embassies donate goods from their countries.

Bautista said one of the biggest problems with the bazaar -- which will be on Dec. 5 -- is the tax restrictions on imported goods.

"Normally with charity bazaars, we can bring in items tax free, but not here," Bautista said. "So when we go on vacation we bring fewer clothes with us, for example, so we can bring back more to sell at the bazaar. If it weren't for the customs regulations we could bring back a lot more."

Bautista hopes to make life easier for the IWC by inviting more government participation. "The government is not presently involved with the IWC, but I would like to change that," she said.

"We make a lot of money for charity with this bazaar, but we could make a lot more if the tax restrictions were lifted," she said.

"I'm dreaming that they will change this law."

The club currently numbers around 800 members. Russian women are invited to join, but the IWC constitution stipulates a maximum of 5 percent.

Kelly Skelly, the public relations officer for the IWC, said if the number of Russian women married to expats is included, the total is closer to 20 percent.

One American expat joked that Russian women join the IWC both to keep an eye on and make things easier for foreign women, by smoothing things over if the group has any trouble while traveling or visiting churches, for example.

Tanya Bartiouk, a 26-year-old Russian who works at Allied Pickfords, joined the IWC with a few of her colleagues to take advantage of the various interest groups. She recently attended a cooking class, at which she was the only Russian, and hopes to volunteer with one of the charity groups.

"The IWC should include more Russians, because they are always asking about translators, for example," she said.

The international flavor of the club means the range of activities and interests is wide, and recently arrived expats worried about being stuck indoors through a long winter might take Bautista's advice: "If you are new, the best thing to do is enroll in one of the classes and get out and meet some new people."

The International Women's Club will host a coffee morning for newcomers to Moscow on Oct. 31, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Sudanese Embassy. For further information and reservations, please call Dora at 243-4811 or Ingrid at 730-3123.