Mar 17, 2022 - News

Russians in Charlotte face backlash over Ukraine invasion

Photo: Ashley Mahoney/Axios

Russians living in Charlotte are receiving hate mail, losing clients and business, and trying to explain to their children that other kids don’t mean the words they say to them.

Why it matters: Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is harming those who have nothing to do with it, thousands of miles away.

  • “There’s so many different kinds of people and some are like, ‘Oh we’re going to hate all Russians.’ It’s not that white and black,” says Aleksandra Degernes, a Russian immigrant and the communications director for the local Slavic Business Association. “Russians here support Ukrainians.”

What’s happening: Charlotte is home to about 25,000 people from Russia, and the region is home to about 600,000 Slavic-rooted people, says Autumn Weil, executive director of International House.

  • Weil sent out an email to the International House community last week asking people to help spread a message that support for Ukraine doesn’t also have to mean disdain for Russians.
  • The nonprofit has received reports from therapists and doctors who’ve lost patients who don’t want to be treated by Russians, financial planners who’ve lost clients, and small businesses that have received hateful social media messages.
  • Worse, she says, is what children of Russian immigrants are hearing in some schools.
  • “Let’s be mindful of our rhetoric, and how little ears are listening,” Weil says. “Our Russian community has no control over Putin or his Army.”

So far, there haven’t been any reports of violence, Weil says. The backlash is more passive, with people pulling business or time from Russians.

  • “It’s people trying to initiate sanctions on their own,” Weil says.

Between the lines: Degernes works with people who’ve moved here from countries all across Eastern Europe. She says that some of the anger toward Russians here is from U.S. natives, but a good bit is also from Ukrainian immigrants who are simply trying to process what’s happening in their home country.

  • “They’ll say, ‘I’m battling my feelings of hate toward Russians,’” Degernes says.

The big picture: Degernes moved to the U.S. 10 years ago after growing up in Russia. She still talks to family and friends who live there, she says, and the reports are chilling.

  • Even calling the Ukraine conflict a “war” will net someone 15 years in a Russian prison.

When Degernes visited her home country last summer, she marveled at how advanced it was in the simplest of things: Apple Pay, for instance, was everywhere, she said. (Following the invasion Apple started limiting Apple Pay in the country.)

  • Now, after countries around the world have instituted sanctions and pulled business out of Russia, many of her family members and friends are terrified about what’s next.
  • “Now it’s just suffocating, and they feel helpless. And they said they don’t see their future clear right now. Thousands and thousands of people lost their jobs. It’s going to get really dark for Russians.”

On top of that, she says, there’s the emotional toll for many families who believe two totally different realities.

  • Her own father, she says, believes Russian propaganda, making conversations with him difficult.

What’s next: Weil says she expects the Charlotte area to start seeing refugees and other groups coming from Ukraine and Russia, but she’s not sure how many.

  • If so, they will be received by organizations already stretched thin after resettling more than 200 Afghan immigrants last fall.
  • Finding affordable housing continues to be a challenge.
  • In any case, Weil says, she hopes the Charlotte community embraces the next wave, wherever they come from.
  • “What they’re experiencing is very traumatic,” she said. “Whether it’s Afghans or Ukrainians or Russians or anybody else who has to flee their home. … That is a trauma like you can’t imagine.”
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