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The Russian language is everywhere on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. At the Eastern European-style supermarkets and restaurants in strip malls that line the busy, wide roadway, it’s often more common than English.
Bustleton is a haven for people of post-Soviet descent. More than a third of residents in the neighborhood’s ZIP code are foreign-born, per census data. Many are realizing the American dream of being a homeowner: 60% of houses are owner-occupied, a rate that’s 10 points higher than the city average.
With its suburban feel, the neighborhood feels safe to newcomers, said Marina Lipkovskaya, director of the New World Association, a social services nonprofit that helps immigrants integrate into life in the U.S.
As war continues to rage in Ukraine, many Bustleton residents and business owners are displaying not only their native country’s flags, but also yellow-and-blue support signs.
“People here are ready to help,” said Lipkovskaya from her Bustleton Avenue office. Her organization continues to collect donations, including non-perishable food and clothes, to send to Ukrainians in need.
Providing international aid is not the core mission of the New World Association, Lipkovskaya clarified, but the group felt compelled to help.
On the day in February that followed the start of the Russian invasion, she said, an American man came and put $100 on her desk. “He said I would figure out what to do with the money.”
Since then, more people have stopped by — some who have Ukrainian roots, others who just want to help. And boxes full of necessities are filling up the office.
New World has clients from 54 countries, including Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. About half of the immigrants they’re helping right now, though, are from Ukraine, including some who fled recently.
Lipkovskaya herself left Kyiv, Ukraine, and moved to Philadelphia in 2003, so she knows first-hand what’s useful to newcomers, including help with visas, work authorizations, study records, and vaccination cards. After documents, the organization focuses on education services. This can include English lessons or preparation for the citizenship test, but also crash courses in financial literacy.
“I say to our English teachers, please, don’t teach them how to use supermarkets. That’s easy. Instead, teach them how to use the language to pay taxes, get paychecks, or how insurance works,” she said, summing it up as “civic education.”
To get clients familiar with U.S. traditions, New World Organization staff celebrates U.S. holidays with their clients, too — including all the food that comes with it. As Lipkovskaya said, “Food unites people.”
In Bustleton, the Russian language also unites people. Immigrants from most post-Soviet countries learned it in school.
“People feel more comfortable when doctors, people who fix their cars, or serve them in stores and restaurants, understand their language,” said Lipkovskaya.
Many businesses in Bustleton are run by immigrants, and billboards and signs are often in Cyrillic. Just across the street from New World Organization offices is Presidential Plaza, one of several small strip malls. With its Uzbek restaurant and Petrovsky Market, the plaza is a melting pot for the community.
Zinoviy Tabin, now in his 80s, immigrated to Philadelphia from Moscow 30 years ago. “Not good English,” he said, holding a local Cyrillic paper that he picked up from one of the racks in front of the supermarket.
Even living in the United States for so long, he doesn’t need to use English much, as most of his friends from the neighborhood are Russians or Ukrainians.
Abdurashid Ahmedov came to the U.S. 20 years ago from Uzbekistan. Since then, several other family members followed.
“The food here is similar to Uzbek, so it feels like home,” he said, waving at his son Ravshan walking out of Petrovsky Market with full bags in both hands, supplies for a party. This gathering was to be among Bustleton’s Uzbek community, Ahmedov said, “but sometimes, we hang out with Russians, Georgians, and others too.”
Gatherings often take place in immigrant-owned restaurants or churches, said Ucha Dzidziguri, standing in the driveway of his half-brick, half-stone home adorned with Georgian and American flags. He first moved to New York in 2008, shortly after Russia invaded his home country, and then later relocated to Philadelphia.
The Georgian Bakery and Cafe in Leo Mall, famous for its canoe-shaped shotis puri, is one of the popular gathering sites.
“They all come here to buy the bread, people love it,” said Sofia Samkharadze, an immigrant from Georgia who works in the bakery, as she was packing that bread and a chocolate cake for two Polish customers.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, some people gathered in a room above the main nave of the Albanian SS Peter and Paul Orthodox Church to snack on leftovers from the Easter service the day before.
It had become a favored meeting place. As Albanian population in Philadelphia got smaller over the years, the church decided to welcome all Orthodox Christians said pastor Nicholas Dellermann, who also doesn’t have roots only in Albania, but also in Slovakia.
The church is a prime example of why many post-Soviet immigrants choose this section of Northeast Philly, said Lipkovskaya, of New World Association: to be surrounded by people with similar stories — and a similar understanding of the Russia-influenced world they left behind.