East Village along the top of the Market Street hill, just past the Park and Market trolley stop, is a fine place for a memorable date or simply a night out with friends: wine-and-cheese bistros, exotic foods in upscale surroundings — even a Smashburger for the less ambitious palate.
But not all of East Village is an upper-income playground. Just down the hill on 16th and Market, a block in either direction and certainly a few blocks south, one can find a phalanx of the dispossessed here and there. Some have situated themselves — relatively legally — in front of closed businesses, along chain-link fences guarding vacant lots, under bridges, or camouflaged beneath bushes growing on either side of I-5 overpasses on Imperial or Commercial avenues.
Inquiring of a few people (among a staggering number) as to how they came to be where they are — that is, the street — one is for the most part met with dismissal and annoyance.
One woman, however, was willing to tell her tale — sort of. It would seem that roughly half the street population is quick to say, “Go fly a kite,” and the other half would expound on their life stories — at great length. The woman who chose to speak is from Kazakhstan.
“I am an immigrant woman who came to this country in 2000, 13 years ago or so. I came at first to New York. I am a Jewish woman from [Kazakhstan] there. Our country became, almost overnight, in the ’90s, a Muslim country. I came here for political asylum, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. I had my daughter who was 11 years old with me and the American government [C.P.S.] took her away from me. Yes, I was on the street, but I was home-schooling my daughter. I’ve been fighting with the system now for eight months. I cannot have my papers, I can own nothing, I cannot leave the country…I am mandatory [sic] sent to psychologist every week.”
As she speaks, her English becomes less adept than when she first began. Her accent becomes more pronounced. She does not weep but she seems emotional. She is a healthy, attractive, and clean young woman with long hair. Her age seems to be, possibly 30.
“I am asked every week — no, not asked — very insulting and embarrassing questions about my sexual life. The questions they ask me have nothing to do anything about my daughter or…” She trails off.
Her English once again kicks in impressively. “They have no proof of these stories they confront me with, these allegations. I have no way to prove my innocence.“
“What you’re saying sounds much like the old Soviet Union.”
“Yes. Yes. Thank you.”
Her name is Aleriya Russell (the spelling here, due to her accent and a very cheap tape recorder, may well be off). She says she has property in Washington state and says she is staying with friends of hers from “church,” not temple or synagogue. At this point, what she is saying sounds questionable. Cynical habit on the part of the interviewer, no doubt.
Her story goes on at length; it includes lawyers and the BBC as her only method of publicizing her plight.
Again she is asked how long she has been here, on the street, and she answers with precision: “Since November 24th, 2012.” She says she has a Ph.D. in economics and a bachelor’s in cinematography. “English is my third language, by the way. I speak Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, and English. Because of this, I think, they have said I am schizophrenia [sic].”
Russell claims she is a 9/11 survivor: “I was right there. I saw everything.”
Eventually she reveals her age to be 36 years.