By big city standards, there's not much traffic in Delta Junction anyway, but on Sunday mornings it's almost non-existent. Save for a gaggle of motorhomes parked at the “end of the Alaska Highway” visitor center, most of the town's vehicles fill one church parking lot or another. A handful of the churches are right off the Richardson Highway, which runs through the Copper River Valley from Valdez to Fairbanks. Also along the Richardson, at Delta Junction's center, are a couple of gas stations, a diner, a grocery store with a mini-mall attached and an espresso cart. But like a lot of small towns in Alaska, Delta actually spreads for miles in all directions. Getting to anyone's Delta home involves driving for what seems like forever down long, straight roads, with nothing but trees and fields along the way.
Most people just pass through Delta on their way to Fairbanks or Canada. In the summer, they pull boats and four-wheelers or have their pick-up beds full of camping gear. But sometime in the early 1990s, one Slavic family, looking for a simple, moral and inexpensive place to raise children, looked at Delta's flat, wide-open land and stopped. Now there are more than 2,000 people from the former Soviet Union calling this small community home, says Ukrainian immigrant Vera Gorban. And while the Slavic population has been growing in the U.S. and even other parts of Alaska over the past decade, these people now make up one third of Delta's population.
Gorban, who works in the Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services office in Delta, says most of Delta's newcomers are secondary immigrants - they moved to California, Washington State or Oregon first. The weather was warmer in those places, but these families wanted to shelter their kids from the things they saw happening in bigger cities. Immigrant Valentina Misyuk liked Washington. “It was a nice place, quiet place,” she said. “But, what they see at school? I don't like.” Misyuk says little things like children at her kids' middle school openly kissing on the grounds were enough to convince her to move. After all, they came to this country to teach their children to follow the Bible.
“Because of little differences of our understanding of the Bible,” said Olga Mazhan, a Ukrainian wife and mother of four, “we go to different churches.” There is a small group of Russian Orthodox people in the Delta area, but many of those from the former Soviet Union call themselves Pentecostal or Baptist. In some groups the women wear their hair covered all the time; in some, just at church. And there are other differences. But once a year, much of the religious Slavic population in Delta gets together as young men and women are baptized. Out on a lake at the western edge of the town, people come in their Sunday best to pray and celebrate this milestone.
At this year's event, nine teenagers, six girls and three boys, were baptized. They were all dressed in white. It was sunny, then rainy, then sunny again. Little kids fussed or splashed in the edge of the lake. High school boys revved their trucks as they pulled in to park. The pastor, who had been speaking in Russian about the kids' promise to devote their lives to God, began praying. And so did everyone else. They mumbled, whispered, shrieked or cried out for God to join them. It started to rain again. They kept praying. Some were tearful. Then it poured and the rumbling of the prayers grew louder as water dripped from hair and skin. Then the sun came out again.
It wasn't always such a public occasion when believers chose to be baptized.
At a dinner and celebration that followed regular church service, those who were baptized at the Delta ceremony had changed into dry, prom-style attire and sat at a special table at the front of their new church, which is still being built. Little girls played games in their seats to keep themselves occupied before they were given permission to get cookies and Kievskiy cake. When they got bored, one of Mazhan's daughters asked, with a smile on her face, if she could drive the car home. “She is 12 years old!” Mazhan laughed. Everyone happily ate Russian food, such as mashed potatoes with a meat gravy and warm cabbage salads, though Mazhan says her kids love McDonald's. There was music. And several people got up to make speeches. One man reminisced about a time, back in the Soviet Union, when they couldn't celebrate baptisms this way. “They had to do it at night, very quickly,” said Mazhan. In the Soviet Union, religion had to be practiced secretly.
Soviet policy toward religion was based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which made atheism the official doctrine of the Soviet Union. From the 1920s to1991, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and encouraged atheism in the schools, even though the practice of most organized religion was never officially outlawed.
Mazhan wasn't raised a believer. But she “heard about Christ,” she said. She met people who talked about God, she says, and what they told her was something she could believe in. Mazhan considered herself a Christian by the time she was 18. But her family was another story. “I got persecuted by my own parents,” Mazhan said. She recalls a friend of hers being thrown out of her parents' house for greeting them with “Glory to God.” “My parents told him to get out...'Not under our roof.'” But over the next few years, Mazhan's parents became more accepting. Her mother, who Mazhan says became severely depressed when Mazhan moved away to America, found God when she thought she had nothing. She is now a Christian too. And while Mazhan's father doesn't call himself a believer, she says his attitude is different now. “He changed too, very much,” Mazhan said. He was visiting from Ukraine this month and played with his grandchildren, talked with church members and snapped pictures during the baptisms.
Vera Gorban, the woman who works at the Refugee Assistance office, grew up a Christian in Ukraine. She remembers her family being forced to move out of their home when she was a child, after the local government found out they were practicing Christianity. Her father sometimes preached at church services held in members' houses. “They didn't want my dad to affect people there - to make them be Christians,” Gorban said. She was later ordered to a boarding school, one where religion was discouraged and openly practicing it was against the rules. And the rules were strict, Gorban says. The kids at the school had to cook, clean and essentially care for themselves. “We were like an army,” she said. “But in some ways it was good.” She learned to work hard and that has helped her in life, she says.
Gorban stayed at the school for six and a half years - until she was 17. At 23, she married Pavel Berezyuk. He had been forced to work underground and enlist in the army, and was then jailed for practicing religion in the Soviet Union. Berezyuk was already trying to get away from Communism when he and Gorban married. The couple lived in Estonia for 10 years, all the while fighting for permission to leave.
As the Soviet Union began to dissolve, then finally crumbled in 1991, religious people were allowed to practice more openly. But that didn't necessarily change the way the non-religious looked at them. “For 70 years they were told that Baptists and Pentecostals were sacrificing their own children,” Mazhan said. “Inside, people didn't change.” So, many of the believers in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other Slavic areas began moving away - a choice they didn't have while the Soviet Union existed.
Gorban's family was finally given permission to leave the Soviet Union and first went to Austria, then Italy. It was at the American Consulate in Rome that Gorban, her husband and their seven children were given refugee status. They moved to America in 1989. They first stopped in Florida, then lived in Oregon for four years, but Gorban's husband wanted to come to Alaska, where a few of their friends were building their lives the way he wanted to. Before he could follow through with the plan, however, Pavel died in a car accident in 1993, when Gorban was pregnant with their eighth child. But with the help of her brother and an American family, she moved her children according to her husband's wishes. In August of 1994, she arrived in Delta.
It was ten years ago, when Mazhan was 21, that she and her husband, Viktor, moved to America from Ukraine with their two children. They were granted refugee status and moved to California first. Mazhan says she loved the warm weather in Sacramento, but she was inside an air-conditioned apartment most of the day. Her husband, Viktor, who was a laborer outdoors, wasn't thrilled with the heat. They knew Alaska was sparsely populated and had heard they could get inexpensive land there. Viktor wanted to build something of his own. And have chickens - something he couldn't do in an apartment in Sacramento. “We had a few hens on the porch,” Mazhan said. “But the manager said if we don't get rid of them, he would get rid of us.” The family drove to Alaska and arrived in Delta Junction in the fall of 2002.
Such growth hasn't necessarily been accepted by everyone in the little Alaska town. Gorban remembers an early-morning phone call from one woman who yelled at her. “Don't you know how to look for work?” Gorban says the woman screamed. “Or just how to milk welfare?” Gorban says she had a job at the time, but apparently the woman on the other end of the line didn't know it. Gorban also says her kids have come home from school and told her that American kids had told them to “go home.” “So I told my children, 'You tell them they are not looking Native... You came first; you go home first, and we'll go after you.'”
Mazhan says the kids in the community interact more than the adults do, because they are all at school together. Every once in a while, she says, there is friction between an American student and a Slavic student. But Mazhan says that is to be expected. “It's usual for people to divide themselves,” she said. But her children have American friends and sometimes their church gets together with one of the American churches for a holiday play. Mazhan thinks one thing that keeps the Slavic people separate from the other people in Delta is all the time a lot of Slavic families spend in their church. “A huge role in our life is religion.” She says that doesn't leave a lot of time for much else.
But the biggest divider is probably the language, says Yelenia Berezhkova, another immigrant who works at the Refugee Assistance office in Delta. “People faced the language barrier immediately,” she said. They had a hard time finding jobs when they couldn't communicate with business owners and customers. One family found it too frustrating after living in Delta for five or six years. “They were not able to learn [the] English language,” said Berezhkova, so they moved back to Russia. But, she says, most are doing fine in Delta. “They are hard workers,” Berezhkova said.
Now, Slavic immigrants work all over Delta - in the grocery store, at the medical clinic, as janitors and housekeepers; massage therapists and teachers. They have received job training through the Refugee Assistance program. Many have learned some English. Several are fluent.
When she first arrived there, Gorban thought Delta was kind of a “scary” place, she said. Her family lived with friends for the first month, then she was able to rent a small apartment. The winters were a little more extreme than what she was used to. Especially on the road. “When it first snowed, I got in the ditch,” she said. But she found work helping other immigrants and in 1998, Gorban remarried. She had another child and her husband is now building a house. Gorban is well known in Delta, not only by the Slavic community but by other Americans, too. She knew a little bit more English than the other Slavic people who were in Delta when she moved there, so she was called on often to translate. When Catholic Social Services opened the Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program in 2003, she was offered a job. She now helps other immigrants get benefits, offers them classes in the English language and job training, and teaches them to apply and prepare for U.S. citizenship.
Mazhan says when she first saw Delta, it reminded her of the places she used to go camping in Ukraine - “very far from everything.” But this is what she and her husband wanted for their family. “We are trying to live [a] plain life,” she said. She said she misses things about Ukraine - the river and the beautiful old monastery in her town. But she and her husband like the schools in Delta, where the rule for boyfriends and girlfriends is holding hands only. Mazhan is a teacher's aide for the school district in Delta and her husband is building a house. They have their own land, with a garden and a greenhouse. They usually raise chickens too, she says, but they took this year off; their freezer is too full. They call their Delta neighborhood the Russian Village, because other Slavic people are building on the acres around them.
Gorban feels her roots are still in Ukraine. She began to cry remembering her country. “My parents lived there,” she said. Yet her children are getting an education in Delta, something Christians weren't allowed in the old Soviet Union. Coming to America was a good choice, she said. “This is my home.”
Life in Delta is a lot different than it was in Ukraine, Russia and the other parts of the former Soviet Union, says Berezhkova. “They had not enough food, no freedom like the people here do. Our children have a future. People in Russia say, 'You are lucky.'”?