Facebook Twitter



The world would not have considered it a fashionable time to leave.

Poland was holding free elections, the Berlin Wall was gone, the Ceausescus were dead and Gorbachev was showing surprising restraint with Soviet states seeking independence.The Communist bloc was thawing. A watching world expected it to green with freedom and opportunity.

But the Korkishko family in Kharkov, Ukraine, saw only the endlessly bleak Communist winter they had known all their lives. Not enough food. Not enough clothes. Not enough freedom. The Ukraine, with Kiev as its capital, is Russia's breadbasket.

So, with a smattering of English and two suitcases each, they came to America, Salt Lake City and freedom. In their minds, freedom is inextricably linked with life in America.

"I like people and many freedom in USA," the father, Yuri, said in his careful English. "Much freedom," corrected his daughter, Elini.

Yuri and his wife, Lidia, are just learning to speak English. Elini, 20, and her brother, Aleksey, 15, had English in high school and understand it better than their parents.

"Freedom of choice of profession," Yuri said in Russian, while Elini translated. "We can get any profession we like. Freedom of movement. I can live where I want in any state," he said.

The Korkishkos came to Salt Lake City because the Tolstoy Foundation - which helped them emigrate - is here. They have been here three months, settling into a home, making friends and starting school. Yuri, Lidia and Elini spend six hours a day studying English and drivers education at Salt Lake Community High School.

Aleksey is a sophomore at Granite High School. He immediately plunged into a full load of classes, cheerfully biking the five miles between home and school twice a day. He's happy in Salt Lake City.

"I like freedom in school and life," he said. Happily, algebra and P.E. require minimal English. They are his favorite subjects. Social studies and biology are his toughest.

In Russia, the Korkishkos were among the educated. Yuri was an electronics engineer at the Scientific Institute of Research. Lidia taught physics at a nearby school. Elini was two years into her civil-engineering studies at the university.

In America, they get by on welfare assistance while they scramble to learn English. "My parents want to speak English faster and find a job as soon as possible," Elini said.

Even Aleksey says finding a job is one of his chief ambitions. Elini wants to finish college. "I will enter the U. of U. _ when I can speak English fluently. When I can feel it," she said, trying to explain the ease and fluency she hopes for.

Every afternoon after school, the family gathers around the dining table to help each other with their lessons. "We together study English," Yuri said. "All day. Just break for dinner," Aleksey said. His sister told him he exaggerated.

"We have very good teachers in school," Lidia said. She seldom spoke during the interview, shy about testing her English.

Besides the hours of study, "we usually speak English to our American friends. More practice," Elini said.

The family is still reeling from the shock of the alien life they have taken up in America. They are as bewildered by the driving laws and the work ethic as they are the language. America is more than a different country. It's a different world.

"All different," Yuri said. "Different houses, different cars, different electricity." And a very different job market. It's easier to get a job in Russia, Yuri said, "But to earn money, it's more difficult. When we were in Russia, we couldn't see the difference between worker and engineer. Engineer and worker earned equal money."

"We little understand TV," Aleksey said. But one obvious difference delights the family: "People are happy here. In Russia, people not so happy," Aleksey said.

Yuri's elderly mother takes no part in the Americanization of the Korkishkos. She came to America because her son and his family came. But at 74, she considers herself too old to learn new ways. When the family studies English, she reads her Russian newspaper.

With few possessions, no jobs and uncertain futures, many families would consider themselves poor. Not the Korkishkos.

"We were surprised of economic in America because of so much food in your stores," Elini said. "We did not have so much food and clothes in our country. We did not have anything. It was hard to live there."

The family miss their friends and the relatives who wanted to come to America but couldn't. "Many, many people want to leave Russia, but America can't accept so many people," Elini said.

Yet, despite the bouts of loneliness, they don't regret their move. "We just miss people. Not country," Elini said.

"We are very happy to live in America," Lidia said through her daughter. "We will try to do for America our best."