Immigrants get Baltimore greeting

A NEW START

January 28, 1992|By James Bock

Belarussian immigrant Victor Olyshko kissed his sister, Nadia Arnaut, for the first time in almost a year. The Slavic Church of Christ's Sunday school class nearly doubled in size in one stroke. And the Belair-Edison neighborhood's population increased by eight.

That is what happened last night when refugees Petr and Nadia Arnaut and their six children came to Baltimore, leaving the political upheaval of Ukraine for the warm embrace of relatives and the steadfast support of a little Slavic church in Highlandtown.

The Arnauts' arrival at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was not in itself news, except to the family, church and neighborhood involved. No television cameras recorded the event as a dozen relatives and friends greeted the exhausted couple and hugged the children, who smiled bashfully and gingerly tried their first sticks of American chewing gum.

Yet the event was no less significant to those who welcomed them, and the Arnauts' arrival gave a hint of how immigration weaves new textures in a city's fabric.

"I hope for the best. I hope to become settled and work," said Mr. Arnaut, 37, a Moldova-born coal miner. "It seems like overnight, in one day, that Ukraine has become very poor."

Nadia Arnaut, 32, said she just wanted to "settle down and feel at home. Maybe I'll have some other feelings later, but right now that's all I feel."

The coming of the Arnauts brings to 25 the number of the family's members who have settled in Baltimore in the past 14 months.

The family migration began in 1990, when the Soviet Union was still a nation. Nikolai and Anna Falko, a Belarussian couple in their 50s, brought nine of their children to Baltimore. The 10th, Nina Olyshko, followed with her husband, Victor, last year.

All were granted refugee status as evangelical Christians, settled in Belair-Edison, flocked to the Slavic Church of Christ near Patterson Park and received aid from Migration and Refugee Services, a resettlement program of Associated Catholic Charities.

Beginning today, Petr Arnaut will become the latest in the family to look for a job. His four school-age children may join 200 other kids of 27 different nationalities who are taught English as a second language in city schools. For a couple of months, the family may receive emergency food stamps and medical

assistance.

"People do get sensitive to the fact that refugees work while Americans are unemployed," acknowledged Mary M. Haile of Migration and Refugee Services. "But the truth of the matter is many Americans won't take the kinds of jobs these people end up having."

Most of the refugees have found work in factories or trades. Nadia Arnaut's brother, Victor Olyshko, 32, was a coal miner, bricklayer and vegetable grower in Belarus. Now he works in a window-manufacturing plant and struggles mightily with the English language.

Both Migration and Refugee Services and the Slavic Church of Christ look for donations to fill the gaps in what they provide the newly arrived refugees.

The migration agency receives only $225 cash in federal aid per refugee, and "that is usually gone by the time they get here," said Sheridan Conklin, resettlement coordinator. "The philosophy of the program is not to have them access welfare, and we never have."

The Slavic church's 70-member congregation -- a mix of Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians and other groups, often refugees themselves -- worked over the weekend to make the Arnauts' rented home in Belair-Edison presentable. It still lacks a few beds, but there was food and the first month's rent was paid when the Arnauts moved in last night.

In the little graystone church's cozy, cream-colored sanctuary, the Rev. Adam J. Korenczuk reminded his flock Sunday that the Arnauts were coming and solicited donations.

Sunday school teacher Lily Zaitsev told her little class enthusiastically that they soon would have half a dozen new playmates: Vitaly, Elena, Innesa, Nelli, Dina and Yevgeny Arnaut.

And the congregation sang a hymn in Ukrainian that seemed to capture their own immigrant story and that of the Arnauts:

Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,

The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land . . .

How many more refugee families will come to Baltimore from the former Soviet Union is uncertain. Congress has authorized the entry of a record 61,000 refugees from there this year. Mr. Korenczuk expects one family next month and another in March, both from Ukraine.

But the law that offers refugee status to Russian Jews, evangelical Christians and Ukrainian religious activists is due to expire in June, and other refugees around the world -- notably Haitian boat people in Cuba -- are clamoring for U.S. sanctuary.

The breakup of the Soviet Union is not reason enough to withdraw refugee status from those groups, says Pam Lewis of the State Department's Bureau for Refugee Programs.

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