Relocating in friendly location

Transitions: Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have made an apartment complex near Pikesville part of their new lives.

February 29, 2000|By Jay Apperson and Liz Atwood | Jay Apperson and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Vladimir and Alla Kuchik were still half a world away when their friends turned the apartment into a home.

The friends, thankful for the Russian sausages and yogurt drinks awaiting them on their arrival from the former Soviet Union nearly two years before, stocked the kitchen with pots and pans, with bananas and chicken. They arranged the sofa and the end tables, the bureaus and the beds. They hung toothbrushes beside the bathroom sink.

A day later, when the Kuchiks crossed the Atlantic and the threshold of their new Baltimore County home, their friends met them with dinner and a champagne toast. A banner framed by pink, blue and yellow balloons read: "Welcome Home."

Home for the Kuchiks and their 14-year-old daughter, Katya, used to be Belarus, a former Soviet republic about the size of Colorado. They are among the latest in a long string of refugees to start a new life at Milbrook Park Apartments -- a first stop for Russian-speaking immigrants arriving in the Baltimore area for more than 20 years.

Tucked behind Reisterstown Road Plaza and the nearby rowhouses south of Pikesville, Milbrook Park is an international enclave. Of the 720 units at the complex, about half are leased to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Kurds from Iraq mix with immigrants from Latin America, and black children from Baltimore City frolic at the pool with boys speaking Russian.

It is a place where signs and bulletin board fliers are printed in English and Russian. Where gray-haired men gather at picnic tables to argue politics while playing dominoes and a card game called "durak" -- Russian for "fool."

In the winter, the streets of Milbrook Park resemble Moscow, with men in fur hats and women in wool scarves carrying bags of groceries. In the summer, the residents, accustomed to a cooler climate, flock to the pool -- and demand immediate repairs when the central air goes on the fritz.

This is a place where a bilingual apartment office clerk, a native of the Old World, dispenses enough advice to immigrants to be called the "Russian version of Dear Abby." Where a switch in cable television programming that temporarily removes the Russian-language station sparks an uproar.

"That wouldn't have happened anywhere else, I can tell you that," says John Hirsch, the apartment complex manager.

So unusual is Milbrook Park that Hirsch bends the cardinal rule of apartment management: He hands over the key to a unit before the tenant signs the lease. Friends and relatives then prepare the home for the newcomers.

"The plane lands, and they need a place to live. There is no camp. There is no hotel. There is no intermediate place," Hirsch says. "We take it on faith they will be here in the morning to sign the lease.

"Somebody has to give an immigrant a break."

In preparing the Kuchiks' apartment last month, Yelena Lipartiya's family tried to duplicate the greeting it received when it arrived in the United States less than two years ago. Then, her parents had furnished the apartment with a couch, a kitchen table and beds, and stuffed the refrigerator with Eastern European foods.

Lipartiya's 12-year-old daughter, Dinara, recalls her arrival.

"It was like, really, `Welcome,' " she said, spreading her arms in a gesture that showed she can still hardly believe it. "When I first walked into the building, it was like, `Oh, my God, it's so clean.' "

But Yelena Lipartiya kept thinking about her friends back home. She had met Alla Kuchik, a sewing instructor, years ago in a sewing class, and the families became fast friends. Soon after emigrating, she urged her friends to apply for a lottery that awards winners the right to live and work in the United States.

The Kuchiks were living a middle-class life in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Alla's husband, Vladimir, worked as an acrobatics coach. But they decided to take the chance to see whether they might find a better life in the United States.

They entered the green card lottery and, to their surprise, Alla Kuchik's application was chosen.

In one way, life has gotten better. In Minsk, they shared a one-bedroom apartment in which Alla, 39, and Vladimir, 41, slept in the living room. At Milbrook, they have two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a spacious living room and an eat-in kitchen.

"It seems so big," Alla Kuchik says in Russian a few days after their arrival. "Two bathrooms is practically unheard of in Belarus."

The Kuchiks also are impressed that they can control the thermostat in their apartment and that the rent includes a refrigerator and stove.

For now the rooms are sparsely furnished, but Alla Kuchik's intricate hand-sewn tablecloths and pictures brighten rooms. A few prized possessions -- Katya's collection of small plastic toys, souvenirs of Minsk and religious icons -- remind them of life in Belarus.

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