Meeting Russia: Hilary Greene finds home abroad and helps newcomers find it in the Berkshires
PITTSFIELD -- On the second floor of the First Baptist Church, Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, sits at her desk -- stacked high with files, papers and photos of her family and a horse she loved growing up in Hancock. When she was 9, her parents, both teachers, moved the family there from Brooklyn.
Thirty years ago, Greene's 10th-grade Monument Mountain Social Studies teacher paired her class with Russian pen-pals in Petrodvorets, a small town near St. Petersburg. Greene wrote to Olga. Months later, Olga's reply arrived -- whole lines blacked out by a Cold War censor. Both girls wanted to master each other's language. Greene has always loved history and languages.
For six years she and Olga exchanged long letters. Just before Greene's senior year at college, where she majored in Soviet and Russian Studies, the two young women and Olga's family met at St. Petersburg's Pulkova airport. Greene had come to study there for her senior year.
After she graduated -- in 1991, two years after the Soviet Union dissolved -- she and a friend set off to live in Olga's world. Foreign businesses were flooding into Russia, she said.
"Everyone wanted to practice speaking English," she said. "Every day was an adventure. I walked everywhere, rode buses and trains to last stops, explored neighborhoods. I had this deep sense of history, beauty, amazement that I was actually there."
She explored antique shops and old neighborhoods on the city's outskirts where old women had set up stalls on street corners to sell pastries they had just baked in their kitchens.
Having discovered Prague's new English Language newspaper, she and an American friend created a publication in St. Petersburg, collecting arts, cultural and sporting events and job opportunities.
"It still exists," she said. "It's even online now -- sptimes.ru -- with our winged lion logo. But we handed it off to other expats and started another business, Personnel Corps -- placing English-speaking Russians in new jobs."
But for many Russians these times were miserable.
"Much was rationed. Everything was very expensive. Heating and plumbing systems broke down. I saw people standing in bread lines for hours, leaving with nothing but a broken egg. Highly educated professionals -- doctors, teachers, lawyers -- were earning less than the equivalent of $100 a month. Not enough to live on."
The country had survived two World Wars and decades of the Cold War.
"Resilience, adaptability and strength seem ingrained, deep in Russian culture," Greene said. "I saw such generosity -- in Olga's family, and everywhere. If something broke, or someone needed something, there were networks, always someone to help, trade resources, make do with and share what they had, trust their capacities to fix things without the government."
Greene came home in 1996, determined to find ways to keep using her Russian and make a positive difference in people's lives.
"I have strong memories, deep feelings about the people who took care of me in a foreign country, helped me, wanted to get to know me," she said. "It's important that I continue to do that for others here."
She was hired by the Jewish Federation's New American and Refugee Resettlement Coalition, serving Jewish refugees leaving the Soviet Union. In 2002, when U.S. policy shifted focus to Somalia, the Sudan and other war-torn countries, the local program became the Berkshire Immigrant Center.
Greene and three colleagues all work long hours at BIC, with love. Client numbers are higher than ever; they're at capacity in the numbers of people they can serve.
"What I hate most," Greene said, "is when people come with problems for which there is really no solution."
People leave home for their children's futures, she said. They need citizenship preparation, tutoring, or applications for visas, changes in status, legal appeals -- tasks requiring time, money, transportation and clarification, assets often inaccessible to immigrants working two jobs. Many, having fled wars, prisons, kidnappings, refugee camps, and violence, need safety, work, housing, health care, legal assistance, literacy and legitimacy.
Searching for funding never stops, she said. Immigration reform prospects seem dim. People desperate to bring in a spouse, sibling, child, parent, grandparent face heartbreaking facts: Some petitions take 12 years.
Berkshire County's population and labor force are diminishing. Dependence on immigrant workers is increasing, she said. BIC's trainings have addressed anti-immigrant feelings. But in slow economies, immigrants are vulnerable.
Every day new Americans are working hard, buying homes, paying taxes, starting businesses and strengthening communities.
"I love that every day is different," Greene said. "Finishing a day's work, I love knowing that because our organization exists, someone else's life is a little easier. Watching devastated people get back on their feet, understanding courage -- it's a privilege. I can't imagine doing anything else."
This series is a collaboration between this magazine and Multicultural Bridge to honor voices from all backgrounds.
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