Russian around Suffolk

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

From now through July 8, do not be alarmed to see groups of people running around town wearing matching turquoise T-shirts proclaiming “Russian Around, 2006 Main Street United Methodist Church, Suffolk Va.” across the front.

It’s just a group of Russian children and church members enjoying all of the fun and sun that Virginia has to offer.

It is a program called The Russian Initiative, which originated with Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, where church families hosted Russian children during the summer. Main Street United Methodist joined the program three years ago.

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This year there are seven children, ages 11-14. They, with their interpreter, flew into Dulles International Airport last Saturday and began a whirlwind of activities. Their days are packed with trips to Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, bowling, and more.

The excursions, as well as health insurance during their stay, are covered by Main Street United Methodist Church.

“It is a gift from the congregation,” said Sue Draper, co-chair of the initiative.

The children’s families must cover their transportation costs, but for those who can’t afford it, scholarships are available, said Yvonne Lovingood, who has hosted children in the past.

Draper is hosting Nelli Dolzhikova, the children’s interpreter. Dolzhikova has been teaching English in Russia for fifth through 11th grades since 1974.

“I can communicate very easily with kids,” she said, which is important because she does not know any of the children until they meet at the airport in Moscow.

They are a mixture of backgrounds, origins and religions n most are from Moscow, Kazan and Voronezh and are Muslims or Russian Orthodox, Dolzhikova said.

Traffic is so horrendous, and nuclear and other plants so prevalent, that the areas where the children hail from can be quite polluted, she said. All of the children are born and raised in multi-level apartment buildings, so to see the lush, green grass in large yards in Suffolk and the wide open spaces of Virginia is a thrill for them.

“All of them want to visit the USA many times,” Dolzhikova said.

Their agenda includes trips to Sandbridge in Virginia Beach, because most of the children have never seen the ocean.

“They are very impressed when they see the ocean for the first time,” she said. Usually they’ll be splashing around for hours even when the water is too cold for Virginians and other tourists.

They also go to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Museum, WAVY-TV 10, Obici Hospital, tour Washington, D.C. and more. They will be treated to a viewing of the opera, Carmen, which will open at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts July 15, Draper said.

Dolzhikova said over the three weeks, the children come to know American culture, language and religions better. The exposure to different religions teaches them tolerance and acceptance for beliefs different from their own, she said.

The Russians also share some of their culture and language with their American hosts.

Daria Slack, 16, and her family are hosting two of the Russian children for the first time this year n 11-year-old Yana and 13-year-old Violetta. Slack is learning a little Russian, but said it is difficult to roll certain letters they way they do.

She has found that the girls are familiar with some of the same bands and movies, but they love swimming in a pool and eating American foods, such as hotdogs.

Peggy Hopewell is hosting two of the young boys, Egor, 12 and Michail, 11. One of her first errands was to take them to the supermarket for Blue Hawaiian Punch, Pringles potato chips, bubble gum and Slinkies. Then they went to Wal-Mart to fetch a badminton set.

“I’m an indulgent babushka,” she said.

(Babushka is the Russian word for grandmother.)

The boys also got a tour of Riddick’s Folly, the Peanut Store and, of course, McDonald’s.

“I figure they can eat trash for a while. That’s what you do at grandma’s house,” Hopewell said with a laugh.

“I’m having a ball with them.”

Egor and Michail are enjoying themselves, too, so much so that they haven’t gotten homesick yet, they said through Dolzhikova’s interpretation. Egor’s first impression of America is that people here smile more readily than those back home. Michail said the United States was much better than he ever imagined. So far, their most exciting day was spent at Busch Gardens n there is nothing of its kind in their hometowns.

Both look forward to learning better English, then sharing their experiences with their friends and classmates back home.

The visit does as much good for the Americans as it does for the Russians.

Draper said it helps remind her not to take her home and other amenities for granted.

“It’s refreshing to see the excitement that they have.”

Kim Wagner, one of the hosts, agreed. While it is “one of our missions to give them respite, and give them the opportunity to enjoy open spaces and fresh air,” she said, it also serves as a reminder for her family just how lucky they are.