Moscow on the Delaware

Local residents extend a hand to Russian asylum seekers


DELHI - On a temperate day in late April, Mariia Shemiatina and Boris Shevchuk steered their old green Ford Expedition - a beater, purchased just days before from a Tijuana used car lot - north toward the Otai Mesa border crossing for the fifth time. On each previous trip, they’d been turned away by U.S. border patrol agents stationed on the Mexico side. This time, mysteriously, they rolled through. Once on U.S. soil, they presented themselves to the first officer they saw and declared their request for asylum.

Finally, they thought, they were safe.

Both physicians in their late 20s, the married Russian couple shared their story with The Reporter in mid-November, sitting in a tidy Delhi guest house. The home had been offered up by a local couple, members of a hastily organized collection of neighbors who’d been scrambling to get the newcomers housing, legal assistance, clothing, food and a crash course in English. (Mariia speaks the language haltingly; Boris, though less confident, is a determined student.) Both appeared buoyed by the community’s show of support, eager to please, and in good spirits, considering the circumstances they’d endured.    

The couple fled their home in Olenogorsk reluctantly in March, after Mariia’s mother received a call from police threatening her daughter with 15 years in prison. Her crime: social media posts in which she voiced support for opposition leader Alexei Navalny and denounced the war in Ukraine.

Russia began experimenting with democracy in the 1990s, but repression returned under President Vladimir Putin. The regime’s critics have come under attack (Navalny himself is in prison, having barely survived a poisoning attempt). Protesters are sometimes sent to penal colonies. And recently, trained medical professionals like Boris and Mariia, an infectious disease specialist and radiologist, respectively, have been pressed into military service in Ukraine.

For the young couple, as for some 900,000 of their compatriots who have fled the country since the war began in February, the decision to flee was a no-brainer.

The E.U. wasn’t an option, but when the couple learned that Mexico allows entry to Russian citizens without a visa, they made their way to Cancun and then to Tijuana - the doorway, they hoped, to a new life.

The United States of America is, as President John F. Kennedy put it, a nation of immigrants. With the notable exception of Native Americans, we all descend from people who journeyed here, voluntarily or in bondage, from a foreign land. The couple knew the history, and as they kissed each other goodbye and were taken into custody, segregated by gender, they saw themselves as part of a venerable American tradition.

The reality has always been more complicated, and in recent years the subject has become highly politicized. President Joe Biden has discontinued some of the harsher measures, including family separation, imposed during the Trump years. But even the current policies seem a far cry from either the famous Statue of Liberty inscription (“Give me your tired, your poor...”) or the “open borders” of nativist nightmares. Last week, 100 human rights groups issued a public letter to the Biden administration deploring “inhumane conditions” throughout the system.

Mariia and Boris’s story lends credence to this claim. They spent their first days in America shivering in small, windowless holding cells (detainees have nicknamed them “hieleras,” or iceboxes, due to the frigid air conditioning). There were more than two dozen packed into each room - people fleeing persecution, violence, poverty and climate catastrophes back home - made to share a single metal toilet tucked behind a low partition. Each was offered a yoga mat to sleep on (some had to take shifts, due to overcrowding) and a sheet of mylar with which to wrap themselves. There was a sink, but no soap or toothpaste. The lights shone all night long.

After six days, Boris and Mariia were shackled at the wrists and ankles for a flight to Louisiana, where they were placed in his-and-hers detention centers to await a hearing of their asylum claim. Conditions initially seemed like an improvement (detainees slept in bunks, barracks-style, for instance). But in other ways, things were worse. Meals were often inedible, they say, and Covid-19 was rampant. Despite the Biden administration’s continued reliance on a pandemic-related rule to expel thousands of people without a hearing (now the subject of a legal battle), neither Boris nor Mariia ever saw anyone tested or provided with a mask. And Boris, who somehow managed to avoid the illness while directing his hospital’s pandemic response back in Russia, believes he contracted coronavirus multiple times in Louisiana.

Both developed other serious medical ailments they say went untreated for months. Boris says he was roughed up by guards after requesting protection from another detainee. Eventually he went on a weeklong hunger strike in an attempt to force the authorities to take his and Maria’s plight seriously.

In an emailed response to the couple’s claims of maltreatment, a spokesperson for the GEO Group, which runs both facilities, rejected their claims, “including the allegation that a denial of medical care led to the deterioration of an individual’s health.” (The for-profit prison company, which reported revenues of more than $2.2 billion in 2021, has been the subject of numerous federal lawsuits over its treatment of detainees.)

One day in late June, Boris dialed an immigration hotline. The voice at the other end belonged to Delhi resident Daniel Gashler, who has devoted two hours a week for several years taking calls on behalf of Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit. “I speak with people all the time who feel like nobody cares,” he says. “There’s so little we can do, but most people are incredibly grateful just for talking.”

Gashler, who teaches history at SUNY Delhi and has lived in the village since 2016, speaks Russian fluently.

Boris’s goals were simple: All he wanted was to secure medical care for Mariia, who was suffering severe pelvic pain, later diagnosed as cystitis, and numbness on her left side. He wanted to file an official complaint over detention conditions he believes would shock most Americans. And he wanted to find a lawyer to help with the asylum claim. Gashler said he’d do his best.

For more than a year, Gashler had been meeting with a small group of area residents, brainstorming ways to help asylum seekers. They’d been stirred to action by scenes from Kabul during the military’s disastrous withdrawal, and spent the next year learning about the issue and establishing an organization they called Delaware County Citizens for Refugee Support.

Sangeeta Pratap, one of the group’s founding members and a professor of economics at Hunter College who lives part-time in Bovina, views support for refugees as an economic issue as well as a human one. While immigration can sometimes depress wages for laborers in urban centers, she says less densely populated areas like Delaware County, where unemployment is low, reap significant economic benefits from newcomers, the presence of whom “creates demand for more goods and services” and provides necessary labor.

Welcoming refugees, she adds, “is an issue that cuts across political boundaries. It’s a humanitarian issue, and humanitarians exist in both parties.”

It also draws interest from diverse age groups. When Gashler screened a videoconference interview with Boris as part of SUNY Delhi’s Constitution Day, more than 100 students showed up.

As Mariia’s health deteriorated throughout the late summer and early fall, Gashler brought the group regular updates from Boris. “His story just got worse and worse,” Mina Takahashi recalls. “Mariia’s condition and how she was treated got to the point where, I don’t think any of us was sure she was going to make it. We just thought, we got to get them out of there.”

After an immigration attorney from a New Orleans nonprofit got involved, a judge ordered the couple released on bond of $15,000 each, an unusually high amount according to the couple’s lawyer. The figure was later reduced to $10,000 each after Mariia began experiencing seizures, collapsed and was rushed to a local hospital. By then, Gashler and his wife, Krisy, had resolved to sponsor the pair themselves.

In short order, the group got a tax ID and a bank account, and created a GoFundMe page to cover Boris’s bond (Mariia’s was furnished by former Russian detainees) and other necessities. The fundraiser quickly pulled in $7000, and a community event hosted by Delhi’s Bushel Collective in October raised an additional $3500 in just two hours.

On November 10, Boris and Mariia stepped off a jetbridge at Newark Airport. Gashler was there to greet them. So was Pratap, who had brought some New York delicacies: smoked salmon sandwiches and black-and-white cookies. Esther Lee, another Bovinian and DCCRS founding member, arrived bearing new winter clothes from Target.

The couple’s first weeks in Delaware County have been busy with medical appointments, legal meetings, visits to the Department of Social Services office and the DMV, and dinner invites. They’ve also been in touch with local medical networks about volunteering their services while they pursue medical accreditation and permission to work legally, and are doing all they can to help the friends they made in detention who have not been as lucky. (They agreed to be featured in a recent New York Times article to bring more attention to the issue.)

Local residents have been busy too, contributing home-cooked meals via and showering the pair with offers of housing, rides, English lessons, electronics, and even a guitar. The Catskills Agrarian Alliance is pitching in with CSA shares. Robson’s Christmas Trees in Bovina pledged a choice evergreen, and retired Walton schoolteacher Jan Bray organized a drive that netted dozens of Christmas ornaments with which to decorate it. When people understand the need, Pratap says, “Help pours in like crazy.”

For Boris and Mariia, the reception has been overwhelming. “We are very surprised by the support that the people of Delaware County have given us, although they do not know us,” they wrote in an email. “They have no reason to do this, which reflects the personal qualities of people.”

There have been lessons for area residents as well. “We’ve all heard about how awful these detention centers are,” Takahashi notes. “But when you’re in direct contact with two real human beings, you experience it in a completely different way.”

Esther Lee, another DCCRS cofounder, wasn’t surprised that people pitched in. “But what I didn’t expect,” she adds, “was the level of genuine warmth and caring. This has really brought the community together, brought out our collective generosity, and given us something to fight for and believe in.”