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Ukrainian by Birth, Tehrani by Marriage


18 Jan 2011 23:01Comments
0C26073A.jpgA new diaspora takes shape in Iran's capital.

[ dispatch ] Oksana B. has been compared to one of the Decembrist wives -- legendary Russian heroines who in 1835 voluntarily followed their disgraced aristocratic husbands to a life in chains in Siberia.

At other times, she has been called insane.

"When I tell an Iranian girl that I'm married to a local guy, the reaction is always, 'Are you crazy?' One even asked me if I was under some sort of a black magic spell," she says.

Oksana, 31, is part of Tehran's growing -- and mostly female -- Ukrainian diaspora. While they do not quite form a proper community, ensconced as they are in tight-knit family units, the Ukrainian embassy in Tehran now registers more than one hundred Ukrainian residents in the city. Typically, they are the young brides of Iranian men who studied at Ukrainian universities, drawn by the relaxed lifestyle and affordability of education there. Upon marriage, they settle in Tehran, a city whose economic prospects far outshine those of Kiev.

When Yulia, 24, arrives for Farsi classes at a local language center, all heads turn to admire her fair features. Among her constantly chattering Russian and Ukrainian posse, she is the silent one. She rarely smiles, and her dark eyes have an ever-present expression of melancholy. When asked about her life in Iran, she musters a shrug. "There is nothing to say," she says. "I wasn't expecting to end up here."

Yulia met her husband, a local architect, when they were both studying at a university in Kiev. After they got married, their original plan was to stay in the city and find work. But in a bureaucratic country where an unconnected entrepreneur must bribe everyone from the health inspector to the night watchman to stay in operation, doing business as a foreigner proved impossible. Tehran, for all its faults, was a logical alternative.

After four months, however, Yulia seems to be falling into depression. She misses home and worries that her lack of language skills excludes her from the local workforce. Her older friend Svyeta, who hails from Kyrgyzstan, advises her in typical Russian fashion, "You will survive."

But not all of the Ukrainian brides are so resigned. Relaxing in her living room in Marzdaran, a middle-class neighborhood in the south-central part of the city, hands folded around her belly, seven-months-pregnant Oksana radiates contentment. Tonight, she will leave for Ukraine in order to give birth, thus easing the bureaucratic hassle of obtaining dual citizenship for her newborn.

When she moved here five years ago, Oksana knew little of the local culture or language. She met her Iranian husband during a two-week trip to Iran and followed him here after a five-month courtship, abandoning a vibrant social life and an accounting career in England. "I was always concerned about spiritual growth, and moving here was definitely the most challenging, saddest, most difficult period of my life," she says. These days, Oksana speaks in fluent, beautiful Farsi and can ta'rof like a local. But behind her seemingly effortless behavior is half a decade of adapting and soul searching.

When Oksana's best friend in London, an Iranian girl, invited her to visit the country in 2005, she did not hesitate. At the height of the U.S.-Iraq war, most westerners regarded the entire region as a den of Islamic extremism, and Oksana was determined to explore the real Iran. "It was pleasant to discover that Iranians were not these horrifying, uneducated terrorists, but sophisticated, kind, happy and thoughtful people," she says.

As many female expats living in Tehran will attest, marriage to a foreigner carries a certain allure here. Beyond the attraction of exotic looks, having family abroad is considered prestigious. Oksana adds that foreign women are generally thought to be humbler and less materialistic than Iranian girls. "If Iranian men have laws to suppress women, women here have laws to suppress men financially," she says.

Five months after meeting her future husband at a family party in Tehran, Oksana moved here and married. She began trying to internalize new social norms. Covering up, not laughing too loud in public, and not being able to hold her husband's hand on the street all took some getting used to, she says. Most difficult, however, was adapting to life within her new family. Accustomed to speaking her mind, Oksana says she had to learn how to bite her tongue in front of her parents-in-law.

Once, when she told a sister-in-law about her difficulty adjusting, Oksana's confidante began keeping a secret handwritten log of the complaints, and later presented them at a family gathering. "Imagine me sitting there, not knowing any Farsi, having to prove myself clean," Oksana says. "In Europe, we first decide whether we can trust the person, and then we marry them. But here, after several months, I realized there was still no trust -- from my husband or his family."

While shaken, Oksana remained determined to succeed in her new life. She learned to read and write Farsi by taking free public classes for illiterate women, where chador-clad grandmothers would question, with a mix of curiosity and castigation, why such a bright young woman couldn't read. Did she shirk her studies in school? "It took some explaining for them to understand that I was not actually illiterate," Oksana laughs. "Ultimately I think it was better than taking a normal language course."

This somewhat untraditional path to reading and writing Farsi may not be for everyone: Oksana holds a master's degree in linguistics. Before her maternity leave, she worked as a private English instructor, which, besides being lucrative, allowed her to avoid Iranian office culture. In her previous job as a sales director for a local import/export company, Oksana says she encountered exorbitant cattiness and sexism. However, she notes that perceptions are quickly changing, partly for economic reasons. "I'm beginning to see some older members of my family encouraging some of us younger women to work, which was unthinkable a few years ago."

Modern Decembrists

Marzdaran is a popular neighborhood for Ukrainian brides. As Oksana makes final preparations for her overnight journey to Ukraine, her compatriot Olga, who lives nearby, tends to her three-year-old son Arash. Like Oksana, she describes her life in Tehran as a spiritual journey -- one that started five years ago in rural Ukraine, where she danced as a professional ballerina in a circus troupe.

In her Ukrainian work identity card -- a holdover from Soviet times -- Olga is listed as a "ballerina of the first category." Her lithe, five-foot-nine frame tells of a lifetime of physical discipline. Originally from Crimea in south Ukraine, Olga travelled around the country with the circus until settling in the Lugansk region in east Ukraine, where she joined the ballet ensemble of a local theater group. Though she enjoyed the artistic aspect of dancing, she eventually began to feel drained. "It becomes very taxing to give so much of your energy," she says.

For some, life in Lugansk has not changed much since Soviet times. A 65-square-meter apartment in a dilapidated high-rise building, often with intermittent electricity and hot water, is the reality for many residents. Meanwhile, interest in Islamic groups like Arraida, a pan-Ukrainian organization founded in 1997, is growing. Although it is famous for vodka, pork, and beautiful women, Ukraine is also home to between 800,000 and 2 million Muslims, according to Arraida. "In Ukraine, there are many young Russian girls converting to Islam," Olga says. "It's not unusual at all."

When Olga began visiting the local Islamic center in Lugansk, she says she became fascinated with watching Muslim women pray. "I was like a child staring at chocolate, because I didn't have this calm and quiet that they had, and I wanted it," she says. Three months later, on the 25th night of Ramadan, Olga converted. She stopped dancing and began working as a group exercise instructor at a women's sports club.

Olga's future husband, an Iranian engineering student living in Kiev, selected her from a photo album of Muslim women. He proposed to her two days after their first meeting, and the couple married in Kiev in 2006. They tried to open a small Iranian restaurant, but systemic corruption soon hampered their endeavors. Like her younger friend Yulia, Olga abruptly relocated to Tehran. These days, she is determined to develop a career as a fitness instructor, and dreams of opening her own dance studio. Last month, she was even chosen as a finalist in a citywide step aerobics competition, but was inadvertently excluded from the last round -- ostensibly because the organizers did not know she had an Iranian passport. "I went all inside myself," she says. "How can they exclude me from the most important thing in my life here? It was my way towards self-realization, being part of the culture."

For Olga and the other Ukrainian brides, life here has not been without difficulty. However, all three say the forthcomingness of Iranians has helped them adapt. And on days when surmounting the myriad sociocultural obstacles begins to seem impossible, there's always illegal satellite television: "When I was at my worst," Oksana recalls, "I would watch the Oprah show. The sight of women talking freely about their problems somehow cheered me up. I began thinking to myself, could I one day go and talk to that woman?"

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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