Once refugees, now neighbors: Berkshire County residents reflect on coming to this area to make a new home

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Yelena Levina left Russia after her brother was jailed for privately showing the movie "Amadeus."

Inessa Kurchenko and her husband, Alexander Matkovsky, left the Ukraine as parolees in 1999 primarily for the health of their 5-year-old daughter, Dasha, who was suffering the effects of Chernobyl radiation.

Natalya Yantovsky and her husband, Sergey, escaped religious persecution as Jewish refugees from Belarus in 1992 with their 9-month-old son.

"People [become refugees] out of desperation," said Natalya Yantovsky, a dentist in Pittsfield. "You don't do it for fun. [You] can just no longer continue living the way you were living."

They were all were part of a group of 30,000 to 35,000 immigrants, mostly refugees, who came to Western Massachusetts from Russia and Soviet bloc countries in the 1980s and 1990s.

And while they all fled different places for different reasons, they shared a fierce desire to integrate into their new country. Indeed, since leaving their respective countries, the families have become contributing members of local society, with successful careers, children in local schools and strong ties to the Berkshire community.

Decades later, the Pittsfield area is poised to see another influx of refugees. Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts is working to bring as many as 50 refugees, primarily from war-torn Iraq and Syria, to the area as part of a resettlement program.

The program has been met with mixed emotions. While there has been an outpouring of support by many in the community, there also have been concerns about safety, particularly the vetting process involved in admitting refugees. Others have also questioned whether the community has enough social services — particularly affordable housing — to support potential refugees.

The Eagle reached out to a number of people who have shared their concerns on social media, but received no replies.

Yantovsky sees no merit in those concerns.

"All Berkshire County needs is to help [refugees] integrate and they will take off," she said. "Most people are good ... most people want to live in peace."

Benefits of diversity

For resettlement programs like this to work, the local community needs to overcome any anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, said Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center.

Communities — not just refugees — benefit from resettlement both economically and socially, she said.

Refugees bring a diverse range of experiences and stories, adding special perspectives to places that are valued for their culture, like the Berkshires.

"Just adding to that diversity is a benefit for anyone," she said.

The Berkshires' declining population — especially among the young — would increase with refugee resettlement, creating an injection of new employees, new students and new taxpayers, she said.

"We're benefitting from people buying homes and being consumers and paying taxes," she said. "They bring a very eager workforce."

Matkovsky began working about three days after arriving in Pittsfield.

"I had to feed [my] family," he said. "I didn't care what to do."

He soon got a job in his field at Interprint in Pittsfield as a helper. He has worked for the company since 2000 and is now a production supervisor.

"To me, all [that] I have is because of Interprint," he said. Kurchenko has been a hairdresser — a dream of hers — for four years at Hair Express & Day Spa in Pittsfield.

The former Soviet Union offered few opportunities for advancement or even survival for young people in the 1980s and 1990s.

While sitting in the living room of the home they own in Pittsfield, Kurchenko and Matkovsky recalled how happy they were to be able to rent a small studio apartment in Kiev. Life in the Ukraine was a constant struggle to survive for many people, they said.

Sergey Yantovsky, a dental technician in his wife's dental practice in Pittsfield, worked as an auto mechanic for about a year and a half when he and his family first came to the United States.

"[We thought] 'that's it, our American dream came true,'" he said. "We have a job in this country and it can only get better from here."

New U.S. citizens

Levina, a piano teacher at Berkshire Music School, didn't even make enough money to cover basic expenses while she lived and worked in Russia.

"You can work, work, work, work and you will still not have enough money to live from one payment to another," she said.

About 85 to 90 percent of former Soviet Union refugees who came to Western Massachusetts in the 1980s and 1990s are U.S. citizens — including Levina, Kurchenko, Matkovsky and the Yantovskys, said Eva Mollina, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

"This is our second homeland," Natalya Yantovsky said. "We wanted to integrate into this society and be a part of this community."

The elder of the Yantovskys' two sons became an auditor in Albany. Their younger son is a high school student in Lenox. Kurchenko and Matkovsky's oldest daughter, Dasha, is a victim witness advocate in Woburn at the district attorney's office. The couple's younger two children — Marc, 11 and Eva, 9 — attend Berkshire County schools.

Matkovsky's father sometimes asks when the family will come back to the Ukraine, but Matkovsky and Kurchenko have no plans to move back.

"America is our home now," Matkovsky said. "Everything's better [here], [and] you get used to better really quick."

Greene said she has seen several refugee families thrive since The Berkshire Immigrant Center helped them settle in the Berkshires.

"The families who came did incredibly well," she said.

City Councilor John Krol has been among those advocating for the Iraqi/Syrian resettlement program.

"Much of the feedback that I have had ... has been people who are overwhelming positive and want to help," said Krol, who represents Ward 6 and is vice president of the council. "There's compassion there."

He recalled that when he was a child, he informally mentored two young Japanese immigrants who did not speak English in his Pittsfield school — an experience he has never forgotten.

Krol said he hopes that more community members will support the resettlement program once they learn more about the extensive vetting process and the history of welcoming refugees in Pittsfield.

"These families will contribute to this community," he said. "They are not a burden to it."


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