A hard-fought immigration victory

Russia to Seattle

 

See end of story for a complete package of refugee stories in this issue.

UPDATE: The names of the refugees in this story have been changed to protect their privacy. 

Antonia Kabinov perched on the edge of a courtroom bench in Seattle in 2002. She nudged her older sister, Alisa. Both girls were chomping on gum.

Meanwhile, their mother, Valentina, stood next to a lawyer, begging the judge to let the family stay in the U.S. She opened up about her personal history, spilling out her most painful memories: fear, anger, desperation. It was all part of being a Jew in eastern Russia, where those who follow Yahweh aren't considered Russian at all.

Pop.

Kabinov's chewing gum burst.

"The judge yelled at us," Kabinov remembers. "She said, ‘Are you cows chewing grass?' "

For Kabinov, it was another in a long series of humiliations. Her childhood in Russia and later in the U.S. was fraught with instability. Her father, who is not Jewish, brought the family to Seattle on temporary visas in 1994. He dreamed of becoming a businessman, importing and exporting clothes and shoes. But alcohol and violence tarnished those dreams.

"My dad was abusive," says Kabinov, now 20. "Not to me and my sister, but to my mom."

At last, Valentina Kabinov gathered up her girls and slipped away to a women's shelter. Their visas expired. Even as they prayed for a miracle, they became illegal immigrants.

At the time, Kabinov was just 13 years old. She'd been living in the U.S. since she was 5, and couldn't imagine returning to Russia.

"I didn't really even remember anything about living there," she says.

Kabinov moved with her mother and sister to eastern Washington, where a friend offered them a place to live. They hired a lawyer, and years of court hearings began.

In federal court, Kabinov learned the truth about her history and homeland. Her mother used to meet every Saturday with a group of other Russian Jews, who assembled in an old building to worship. But those Sabbath days were often marred by fear; threats against the Jews were often spray-painted on the walls. Once, people broke into the synagogue and beat the worshippers with baseball bats. Kabinov's mother escaped; others were not so lucky.

"Nobody gathered anymore because it was very scary," Valentina Kabinov told the judge.

In Russia, Valentina Kabinov had trouble finding a job, and her children were denied places in daycare. Valentina still hoped that things would improve for Jews in Russia; if that happened, she thought, the family could return. But then Kabinov's uncle in Russia was nearly killed when anti-Semitic thugs attacked him. And a close family friend died after a brutal attack.

In federal court, however, those stories did not outweigh the fact that Kabinov and her family were in the U.S. on expired visas.

"We were denied, and denied again," Kabinov says. "I saw a lot of people deported in those courtrooms."

Valentina Kabinov refused to take her daughters back to Russia. She appealed to one judge after another.

Then, finally, in 2007, things changed. Kabinov isn't sure whether it was due to the skills of a new lawyer or the compassion of the appeals court, but after years of fighting, her dream came true: The family received official refugee status.

There was no celebration. "We were just so tired," Kabinov says.

Today, the Kabinov family's story is well known among immigration experts. It's rare for foreigners to successfully battle against immigration court.

But because of her Jewish heritage, Kabinov still lives in the margins of Washington state's community of refugees from the former Soviet Union. Between 2003 and 2007, federal officials resettled nearly 45,000 Russian-speaking refugees in the U.S. About one-fifth wound up in Washington -- far more than any other state.

Washington is among the top five states to initially resettle the most refugees, and it is also a top destination for refugees who choose to move again, on their own, shortly after they arrive in the U.S., according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The state attracts many refugees from the former Soviet Union because the cool, wet climate west of the Cascades is similar to many areas of their native lands. Once a community developed, others were drawn because they knew they would find Russian language churches and other groups, and a social services network accustomed to dealing with Russian speakers.

The Christian refugees are tight-knit, and Kabinov's father has since joined them, claiming to be a changed man.

Kabinov, however, follows a different path: She attends a Russian Messianic synagogue. She observes the Sabbath out of respect for her mother, but she also believes in Jesus Christ, out of respect for her father and other Russian refugees she knows.

"That whole period was just kind of a waste," Kabinov says, referring to the years her mother fought to stay in the U.S. "We're finally just getting started with life."

More refugee stories:

Editor’s note: The newest Westerners
Immigrants from around the world are changing traditionally white Western communities such as Boise, Idaho.

Refugees unsettle the West
In Greeley, Colorado, a meatpacking plant observes Muslim traditions such as Ramadan while multicultural refugees adapt to the West's very different landscape and culture.

An orphan heads to college
Chan Kuoth's journey has taken him from Sudan to Tucson, Ariz., where he hopes to help other refugees.

Seeking a vocation in a no-man’s land
Salam Talib, who barely escaped from Iraq with his life, now seeks a new beginning in San Francisco.

A new kind of ministry
Tom Simbo, who faced down gun-toting soldiers in Sierra Leone, now works with other immigrants in Denver, Colo.

Refugees by the numbers
Placing the influx of refugees in the West in context.

More than English
The Emily Griffith School has taught English to immigrants and refugees since its Language Learning Center opened in 1981. Using creativity, games and encouragement, the school also offers an orientation to U.S. culture and workplace protocol.

“I like America”
Multimedia: A unique neighborhood north of Seattle is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them refugees. The neighborhood center is used on Sunday mornings for Russian church, on Fridays for Arabic Muslim services, on weeknights for ESL classes for Somali Bantu.