Pentecost Blog #24: A Refugee's Journey
By Luda Bates
[KS: We asked Luda Bates to share the story of her journey here to the US. As a refugee from the former Soviet Union, her perspective is unique. Her family has gone through hard circumstances, but it is apparent how faithful God has been through them.]
My family and I came to America when I was ten years old, but the journey started two years prior. My father had heard from fellow Christians that many were leaving to the US and he decided to try as well. In order to leave, one had to file an application to petition the US government, then fill out an application for each member of the family (including medical and work forms, each with the proper stamps and signatures from local and regional authorities). After sending the application, we waited for an invitation to attend an interview at the US consulate.
Because it was still the Soviet Union, getting out was extremely difficult. My father’s friend, a fellow believer, drove 1,500 miles from Estonia to our little city in Russia to pick up the application and later to bring us our visas. The documents were sent to him in Estonia so that the KGB wouldn’t intercept anything. After getting the visas, my parents, not trusting the local postal service, went directly to the US consulate in Moscow to request an interview. Every applicant had to be interviewed by the US consulate in order to gain one of two possible statuses: a refugee or an immigrant. Many Christians became “immigrants” and others, like my family, became “refugees”.
If you got the “immigrant” status, you would have to find an American sponsor who would finance your passage to the US, which was impossible. For those of us who got the “refugee” status, the US government paid for our tickets (we would need to pay them back when we were financially able) and provided all financial support when we came; a housing allowance, food stamps, and Medicaid.
In order to get the “refugee” status, my parents had to prove that they were persecuted for their religion. As members of the Baptist church, that wasn’t very difficult to do. When he was young, my father was a pilot in the Soviet army, but he became a believer in God and was kicked out. From then, our family lived in Eastern Ukraine and my father worked as a coal miner.
When we received our tickets the only thing that my mom could read was “metropolitan area” and she was terrified that we were going to live in a metro. We arrived in New York City and got our next tickets to St. Louis. There are cities in the US that are refugee relocation centers and the US government works with local agencies to resettle refugees.
We were placed in the care of the International Institute of St. Louis and they worked with local businesses, schools, churches, landlords, and other organizations to resettle the thousands of refugees that arrived each year. Each state has different programs for resettling refugees, but in Missouri we got a housing stipend for 9 months, giving my parents time to learn English. In order to receive that money, refugees had to take English classes, so the institute was full of foreigners: Russians, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Serbians, Africans, and many others others learning English, and about American customs, holidays and culture. They found my dad a job and helped us to get on our feet. When the US government resettles people, they try to settle people with others that come from similar regions, so there were already a few Russian Baptists in St. Louis, and therefore a church. A local American Baptist church let us use their building to hold services and within a few years the church was full of Slavic people who continued to arrive from the former Soviet Union.
Sometime during that first year, someone local found out about my dad’s story and decided to write an article about our family in the St. Louis Journal. A few months later, an American woman saw us taking a picture in the neighborhood, recognized us from the journal and befriended our family. Lenita, a Catholic who worked for the city of St. Louis, petitioned the local parish school to accept us children on scholarships, which was instrumental in giving us a good education, from elementary school to college. She found out about scholarships, helped my siblings and I to find odd jobs kids our age could do. She also helped us talk to potential landlords to make sure no one was taking advantage of us.
Along with Lenita, there were other American Christians who helped our family. There was a local man from a Baptist church in the suburbs who took it upon himself to help the Slavic people. From bringing gifts on Christmas, helping us navigate medical jargon, to organizing a VBS in his church for Slavic kids, Don Wilson has been a servant to our people.
Growing up in Ukraine, Russia, and the US, I always remember my parents talking about God’s grace and kindness to our family. They never sat us down and explained this to us, but through their conversations with each other and others, the reality of God’s kindness and mercy was like the oxygen that my family breathed.
God was merciful: the journey out of the Soviet Union took many years for most, but the process took us two years. God was comforting: though we did not fit in at our private Catholic school, we always had a close group of Russian Christian friends. God was caring: when my father got fired from his job, it led him to a better job and to pursue his dream of being a pilot. When we had murders and death take members of our extended family, even in the midst of that darkness and deep pain, God met us in our need and provided His comfort and presence.
Truly, God has been extremely generous and kind to our family. When I think of all of the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, I can’t help but see God’s generosity. When I reflect on my own life, I see God’s grace and mercy clearly. Even in the midst of the harshness of life from unimaginable sorrow, loss, loneliness, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and from carrying the burden/gift of being a third-culture kid, I revel in knowing that God has been so loving and kind. I can see God’s mercy to us in our circumstances, but the most kind thing that God has done is lead us to know Him deeper.
In the Soviet Union, Bibles had to be smuggled, churches had to register with the government and the ones that didn’t had to meet in secret, and premarital counseling consisted of “don’t be affectionate in public”. In the US, we were overwhelmed with all of the resources available to learn about Jesus, which was like rain on parched lands.
Being connected to Russian Christians in a foreign land, getting married to an American man and growing in and being part of his (now our) church has led me to weep at the goodness of our God. He didn’t have to be this kind and generous, but I add my voice to the Psalmist in wonder: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” God used different people, and global and local events to care for me and our family. I can’t help but be grateful.
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.