by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & Oppression and Freedom & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f ever there was an immigrant success story, it is Alex Kaprian's. His flight to the United States also illustrates the story of Spokane's religious refugees from the Soviet Union. He grew up in a devout Christian family in Mariupol, Ukraine, and his memories of the Soviet government's persecution of his family are still vivid. Though he was one of the best students, he was not recognized for his talent in the government-run schools and he recalls being beaten up at school several times for being Christian. For the Soviets, Christianity presented an ideological threat to the ideals of the communist state, in which God had no place.
In the late 1980s came Gorbachev and glasnost, and in a kind of modern-day exodus, Jews and Christians began to leave the country that had never wanted them. Using fake Jewish passports, Kaprian, his six children and his pregnant wife left Ukraine in October 1989, landing first in Czechoslovakia, then Austria and, finally, Italy. Safely out of the Soviet Union, they revealed that they were Christians and were granted religious refugee status. Kaprian explains the passport ruse, saying that Christians had helped Jews during World War II, and the Jews remembered and helped Christians leave with them.
The family arrived in Fresno, Calif., in January 1990. Then 27 years old, Kaprian says he was "shocked at first" -- at the astonishing abundance in the grocery stores, as well as the ethnic diversity of the community. He soon began preaching at an immigrant church, whose members saw in him the potential to be a leader. In 1992, the family moved again, to Spokane, where his wife had relatives and where he says some houses were going for $40,000 and federal programs offered help even if a family was on public assistance. His found a job with the International Refugee Council, then in 1993 he started with DSHS as a community worker serving refugees.
Meanwhile, he had begun a little church, with just a few families from Mariupol. But Kaprian says he had "a vision from God" of a new church, a more American sort of church, one based purely on the Bible. In January 1994, with just 48 people, Kaprian created Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church. Here, Kaprian says, "we accept everybody," and the church has shown the growth to prove it. Membership now stands at around 600 souls, and as many as 1,000 attend morning and evening Sunday services. There is a children's Sunday school, a youth group, a choir and even a Web site.
"For immigrants," Kaprian says, "the church is everything."