Yelena Bosovik (back row, second from left) and her family ultimately moved to Springfield to escape religious persecution in Ukraine.
Religious persecution isn’t something that Ozarkers deal with on a daily basis. At least, not really. News stories report the lives of people living a world away — but few people around these parts fear being arrested for going to church or know the terror of saying things the government doesn’t approve of. Even fewer have nearly lost family members for such reasons.
But some do, and Yelena Bosovik is one of those people. “I was born in Ukraine,” says Yelena, whose family immigrated when she was a child. “We moved to the United States as refugees to escape religious persecution.”
And she’s not alone. Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian and Russian immigrants live in Springfield and the surrounding area for the same reason.
Before the move
Yelena’s native Ukraine wasn’t an easy place to grow up as a Christian. She notes her grandfather, a pastor of a church for 40 years, who was put on trial several times for his religious beliefs. Later, his church building was confiscated by the government for use as a Communist academy. And one generation before that, her family paid an even greater price. “My great-grandpa served 15 years in a Siberian work camp for his beliefs,” says Yelena.
Those were the days when “you would pretty much have to meet at night,” says Yelena. Women would smuggle gospel tracks in their pinned-up hair, and when meetings were held, “they would shut off the windows with pillows and…pray and speak in a whisper so no neighbors would hear.”
The fall of the Communist regime in 1991 offered some hope that things might begin to change. Unfortunately, things didn’t happen fast enough. “Politically and technically it fell apart, but the people who were in power then were still in power, they just weren’t operating underneath the Communist party anymore,” says Yelena.
After Yelena’s dad spent several days in jail on trumped-up charges related to the church bus, he decided enough was enough. “A few days after he got out of jail, he filed for asylum,” says Yelena. “Within a year, we moved to the U.S.”
The hope of a better life
“When you’re eight, you really don’t understand that you have to cross an ocean to go to a different country,” says Yelena, who remembers thinking of the trip as an adventure. “But when we moved, at first it wasn’t really real. It was something we’re doing and then we’ll go back. But then it was kind of hard because we didn’t speak English.”
No one in Yelena’s immediate family — comprised of her, her parents and five siblings — spoke English. Instead, they spoke Ukrainian and Russian, languages that were spoken with equal ease due to Ukraine’s proximity to Russia and the Soviet Union’s policy that Russian be the national language.
The family’s first stop was Portland, Ore., where they lived temporarily with some extended relatives. Yelena’s dad got a job as an over-the-road truck driver, a career that didn’t require much English fluency — but took him away from the family for long periods of time. Looking back, Yelena says she admires her mother for being able to transition to a new culture. “I honestly don’t know how she did it,” says Yelena. “I can’t imagine moving to a foreign country with six kids and trying to navigate the system on my own.”
The Bosoviks, a year after moving to the United States.
The family, which eventually grew to 11 children, stayed in the Portland area for nearly seven years before they felt the call to move again. This time, the move wouldn’t take them internationally, although to Yelena the culture shift felt just as drastic. This time, they moved to Springfield.
The move to Missouri
Yelena’s parents had been told about Missouri by some friends, and visited Springfield in 2006. It didn’t take long for them to make a decision: While they were in town, they bought a house — and told their kids that they were moving to the Midwest in three weeks, just in time for closing. “They prayed about it, and God told them this is what they should do,” says Yelena. “They’re always quick to obey, which is good. But when you’re 15, it’s like the worst thing that can happen to you.”
At the time, Yelena didn’t even know where Missouri was on a map. “I imagined farmland in the middle of nowhere with nothing,” she recounts, noting that her biggest concern was whether or not a mall was nearby.
Moving to Springfield offered new challenges for Yelena and her family, as well as the local community that isn’t used to a lot of diversity. “I think when you’re faced with something you’ve never had to face before, most people’s reaction is negative just because it’s different,” says Yelena.
Some of the first issues new immigrants dealt with were language-based. Although Yelena picked up English quickly after arriving in the U.S., other people moved (and continue to move) to Springfield who aren’t fluent. Practically speaking, this translated into the implementation of Springfield Public School’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program, just in time for the influx of Russian-speaking immigrants.
While kids quickly learn English at school, learning a new language as an adult presents a far more difficult challenge. That introduces other issues, like working with translators. “I think a lot people haven’t spoken to someone who needs a translator,” says Yelena, who often serves in such a capacity for her mother. “You go and they don’t know who to look at, you know, if there’s a translator. How to have a conversation. It’s awkward at first. But I think people are pretty quick to learn. It’s so sudden and so new and unexpected, that there’s just an adjustment period.”
But Yelena says there’s an easy way to overcome that awkwardness: ask questions. “I think people are sometimes afraid to ask questions or make negative assumptions based on stereotypes,” says Yelena. “But the best friendships I’ve made with people outside of my culture were people who were willing to ask questions…not in a negative way, but just out of curiosity.”
Even though Yelena notes that as an immigrant, “you become part of the culture that you live in,” she doesn’t want to forget the past — especially the sacrifice that her parents made to give her the life she has. “They really moved for us (kids), and it’s an acceptable sacrifice for them,” says Yelena. “My dad gave up a business to come here, and my mom left her family there. They left everything they knew…But I think they were just looking towards the future, and they have high expectations for a better life for us kids.”
Her parents, however, didn’t leave all of their culture behind. The family still speaks Russian at home, eats traditional dishes, grows a large garden as they would have in Europe and attends Ukrainian church services five times a week, the latter of which fosters a strong sense of community. She recalls a recent example, when her mother brought an abundance of squash to a service to give away. “Everybody took some home,” says Yelena. “And that happens all the time. You just take care of one other. That’s just the way it is. Just like any church.”
Yet despite those connections, Yelena worries that as years pass their ancestors’ persecution will become more of a story than a sacrifice. “I think it just waters down from generation to generation because they’re no longer firsthand accounts that you hear,” says Yelena. “They’re like stories of your grandparents and your great-grandparents. That’s such a long time ago. It doesn’t really impact your life, it’s just a story you tell.”
But Yelena will never forget. “I don’t think many people understand the significance of the sacrifice that our parents made,” she says. “I think that’s what breaks my heart when I see my friends or my cousins leave the church or live the lifestyle that’s contrary to how we were raised. Just because I know that it came at a great cost.”
The next chapter
Nearly 10 years after moving to the Midwest, Yelena says Springfield is home. She graduated from Glendale High School in 2009, after which she pursued degrees in Business Economics and Finance at Drury University. Her impressive mastery of the English language — which, after a lot of effort, she speaks accent-free — even netted her the job of Editor-in-Chief for the university’s student newspaper.
For her, the choice of academic pursuit was a sweet one. “We have so much opportunity,” says Yelena of being in the United States. “You can really be whatever you want to be. To me, that’s incredibly amazing.”
In 2013, Yelena became the first person in her family to graduate from college. But she didn’t stop there: Yelena is now one year away from graduating from the Missouri University School of Law. Her career choice, however, is one her parents have had a hard time getting used to.
“When I went into the legal field, they were worried that I would be participating in corruption,” says Yelena. “That’s just because they grew up underneath a lot of corruption. Stuff like that is just hard to get out of your mind. Or to think that any system can exist otherwise.”
But instead of corruption, Yelena wants to use her life to advocate for justice. “I never imagined that I’d be an attorney or go to law school,” says Yelena. But just like when she moved to the United States, she’s embracing the unknown. “God has a plan, and I’m kind of nervous and kind of excited to see what it is.”
Note: Yelena Bosovik was sworn in as a lawyer in September 2016.