Struggling to Adjust, Young Russian Immigrants Turn to Heroin
Photos by: Akemi Hiatt
Worldpress.org December 29, 2007
Her daughter tried dozens of rehab clinics and treatment programs. After awhile, Olga says, they blurred into a familiar pattern: “program, back, program, back.”
“Back” meaning: back on heroin.
Olga, who asked that her and her daughter’s names be changed for this story, came to New York City with her family in 1997, refugees from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. In the 1990s, more than 200,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union poured into the United States, eager to escape the political and economic upheavals that accompanied the collapse of the country.
That helped inject new life into South Brooklyn’s Russian enclaves, but also triggered a heroin epidemic among New York’s young Russian-Americans.
Olga’s daughter Tanya got her first taste of heroin with a group of older Russian kids when she was 12, and was soon hooked.
“I felt hopeless,” Olga says. “So many times I was feeling, that’s it, my daughter is a drug addict. I cannot do anything.”
After five years and a string of treatment programs, Tanya broke her heroin addiction — but only after her closest friend overdosed and died. Now she’s 21 and drug-free, with a job and her own apartment.
Heroin, popular, cheap, and easy to find throughout the former Soviet Union since the Afghan War in the 1980s, is still popular among Russian-American teens today.
“There’s a lot of heroin around,” said Anna Snol, a drug counselor who works exclusively with Russian-American addicts at Seafield Services in Brooklyn. “Of course, they mix it – it’s not the only drug that they use. They try to experiment.”
It’s easy to find heroin and other drugs on the streets of New York’s Russian communities, Tanya said. Getting high made her feel “better than anything” at a time when she was struggling to adjust to American life. “It was hard, and I didn’t want to be here,” she said. “Then my friend was doing [heroin], so I wanted to try it.”
Olga agreed that immigration-related hardships likely triggered her daughter’s drug use.
“Especially for teenagers – it’s stressful,” she says. “You come over to a new country, new environment, new kids. And the Russian kids stick with each other, and a lot of kids are already on the drugs – they give you some way to relax.”
That not uncommon an uncommon situation.
“Immigration is one of the major traumas,” said Natalia Zayachkivska, director of Project H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that has long provided drug treatment programs for Russian-speakers. “And that is one of the major contributing factors in substance abuse. Sometimes [immigration] is triggering [substance abuse]. Sometimes people bring their problems with substances when they immigrate, and get sucked in deeper and deeper.”
But drug and alcohol use was also common in the former USSR.
“They’re experienced with alcohol and drugs since they were in Russia,” said psychotherapist Mikhail Shats of the Russian-American Community Coalition. “It’s common – it’s how we cope with stress. It’s the traditional medicine for the Russian soul.”
In the United States, drugs are often easier to find, and parents working long hours to get ahead have trouble supervising their children as strictly as they did at home, Shats said.
“I am an immigrant myself, and I’m still working three jobs,” said Shats, who came to New York from Ukraine almost a decade ago. “I can’t manage my kids. I just can’t – I’m not at home. And the schools are full of drugs.”
The lack of specialized treatment programs for Russian speakers in New York compounds the problem. There’s only a cluster of small for-profit outpatient programs, providing quick-fix detox. That’s a problem, because Russian-Americans cannot always express themselves in English and most are uncomfortable with American-style drug treatment programs that require addicts to talk openly in group therapy sessions.
“We’re traditionally a closed society,” Shats says. “You must keep your secrets in your own closet.”
He points out that this was a necessity for people living in the former Soviet Union – especially for drug addicts, who could be subjected to punishing “treatments” and public humiliation.
Olga and Tanya suffered such cultural disconnects at the mainstream treatment programs Tanya tried. “I couldn’t relate to most of those people,” Tanya recalled.
And because most of Tanya’s programs were conducted in English, she struggled to communicate.
“First of all, language is a big problem for kids who just came – they cannot speak English,” Olga said. “Second of all, we are not so open to talk in front of everyone about our problems. Maybe we’re shy, we try to hide – because it’s a different mentality than American people have.”
In the decade since the heroin epidemic began, little research has been done on Russian-American drug addicts in New York. Data that tracks drug treatment referrals in the city health system can’t isolate Russian participation, as it only identifies clients by race.
“That’s the biggest problem – nobody researches this,” Shats says. “We are not minorities by definition. That’s why no research money is spent on us.”
New York’s Russian-American community has little political power to push for research or more culturally-appropriate addict treatment programs, said Dr. S. Lala Straussner, a professor at New York University’s School of Social Work.
“I think [drug abuse] is vastly underestimated, because [Russian-Americans] don’t have their own power, and there’s no lobby for their services,” she said.
Dr. Straussner conducted a small study of drug abuse trends in Brooklyn’s Russian enclaves in 2004, the only research published on the topic so far. She had hoped to continue her study, but couldn’t find funding.
It’s a frustrating reality Shats understands all too well.
“We try to connect with all possible politicians to address these issues,” he says. “I sent letters to city and state officials, and no one answered.”