hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

August 9, 2012

Poor Tom’s Almanac: From Russia With Love

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — As a regional coordinator of Cultural Homestay International, Irena Anthony is one busy and fulfilled woman. Her job is running the agency’s internship/training program.

Over the years, she has placed a number of foreign students into area homes, including Haverhill and Bradford where she resides.

Just recently, the city hosted 34 Chinese exchange students, volunteering at various non-profits like Career Resources, Emmaus and Little Sprouts.

The students, along with teachers and host families, joined together for an outing at the home of Lois Anthony abutting Country Pond in Kingston, N.H. In all, some 55 guests celebrated a memorable afternoon.

Nobody was more pleased than Irena and her husband, Ken, who’ve opened their doors and encouraged others to follow their example as reliable host families. In many cases, host families have made the trip abroad to attend weddings and other special occasions.

“It’s a reality check for a lot of these kids,” says Irena. “They come to realize that the average American family doesn’t live in a Santa Monica-type mansion but a small home in Groveland or Haverhill, working as a school bus driver. They’ve experienced different worlds, all of which have been appealing.”

Irena came to Haverhill by way of Siberia, moving here in 1995 after meeting her husband. Armed with a degree in English and German, she acted as an interpreter with the Boy Scouts of Russia. Three years later, she joined CHI in 1998 as a group program coordinator for 20 young Russians.

The non-profit educational organization was founded in 1980 to promote international understanding and goodwill through people-to-people exchanges.

Like their colleagues, the Anthonys believe that the best way to build bridges of friendship and trust is to experience each other’s customs, values and languages. To live, study and work together leads to an experience of acceptance and genuine affection.

The J-1 Visa program allows these students to work for up to four months in the United States. Each participant is interviewed in their home country before being hired.

Over these past 32 years, more than 250,000 students and young adults from more than 100 countries have come to our shores, including a vast number to this community. This year, a partnership was formed with China, which sent people to practice English in a practical business and family environment.

You’ll often find Irena on the telephone or pounding the keyboard, setting up contacts and finding homes for these students. More often than not, she succeeds with a little persistence. Many of them are repeats, knowing the good that comes with the gesture.

Like the Dyers (husband David and wife Debbie of Haverhill) who were featured a week ago in this column, connecting with other nations of the world not only produces unity but promotes peace and understanding.

The Anthonys have taken a number of CHI tours, more recently to Russia and Bulgaria. Ken’s daughter Anne Marie moved to Russia seven years ago and worked for CHI one season, interviewing students who come to work in America. The modest salary they may earn compensates for their living expenses.

Irena’s mom, Nadya, still lives in Russia and Irena gets to revisit her homeland every year. Another reason why she and Ken travel there is purely out of fate.

After graduating from the University of West Virginia in 2004, Anne Marie asked for a trip to Russia for her graduation gift. Once there, she wanted to stay. There she was, in the middle of a cold Siberian winter — a far cry from the pleasures of New England and Bradford. Since that time, she secured a master’s degree in Marketing from Omsk State University in Russia, went to live with Irena’s mom, became fluent in the language, and worked as an English professor there.

Not only that, she fell in love with a guy named Nikolay Doroshenko, an engineer with the biggest petroleum company in Russia, and that’s where they’ve been living. A September wedding is planned in North Conway, N.H., where the family often escapes.

Back to Russia went the Anthonys this past May to toast the couple on Irena’s 50th birthday. When Irena thinks about the recent developments in her life, a smile crosses her face.

“It’s hard to explain how happy I am for my step-daughter who adopted my culture and language,” she says. “Hopefully, her resilience came from the fortitude exemplified by me. Back in 1999, I became an American citizen. I don’t feel guilty anymore for departing my motherland because I paid my debt by Anne Marie hopefully becoming a Russian citizen next year.”

At the time of a proposal, Nikolay got on one knee and begged the question. She said yes and he coughed up a shish kebab skewer before breaking out in laughter. The diamond came next.

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Haverhill Gazette.