The whole world has been heartsick by what they’ve seen happening in Ukraine since Russia invaded last month. For me, it’s been particularly devastating to read about the Black and minority residents who are trying to flee both countries, only to encounter dangerous discrimination at the borders.

Sophia Andree Kiala Submitted photo

Until recently, I didn’t know much about Russia’s Black community. It’s incredibly small; roughly 70,000 of 144 million Russians. But my friend Sophia Andree Kiala, a fellow congregant at Church of All the Nations here in Lewiston, was one of them. In 1998, Sophia’s parents immigrated to Russia, fleeing the Angolan Civil War. Sophia was born there.

But they’d traded daily violence for daily discrimination. Sophia says many Russians treated her as if she “weren’t human.” Her classmates called her and her brothers “monkey” so frequently, that the siblings stopped reporting it to teachers.

Once, when Sophia and her uncle were walking to a train station, a man began threatening them with racial slurs. They ducked into a nearby store where a kind stranger offered to cover Sophia inside her coat. Another time, when a man was killed outside her apartment complex, the police wouldn’t come for hours. “People would just pass by him without a glance because it was a Black body,” Sophia told me.

Sofia’s mother realized that she and her children couldn’t stay, so the Red Cross helped them apply for refugee status. The family went through the rigorous refugee interview process, fasted and prayed. When Sophia’s mom learned that they were approved for resettlement in America, she rushed to tell her children with tears of joy in her eyes.

“The discrimination impacted every part of our lives in Russia,” Sophia told me. “We were treated as foreigners and never fit in.”


But in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her family landed in 2005, Sophia knew things would be different. She was only 7, but “it was the first time I believed I would find my place in the world,” she said.

Building a new life in America wasn’t easy. Her mom was a single parent, who juggled three jobs to support their family. But after learning English through ESL classes at school, Sophia and her brothers began to find their way. Sophia got involved in the school theatre program, took music class and joined the international club.

In 2013, Sophia’s family moved to Lewiston after her mom was accepted to nursing school. “I noticed everyone here was sweet,” Sophia tells me of her early impression of Maine. Two years later, she graduated from Lewiston High School and was awarded a scholarship to attend Thomas College in Waterville.

Around this time, I first met Sophia, who was translating at one of our church services. (She speaks Angolan, Russian, French and English.) Afterwards, I approached her to say how impressed I was with her language skills. She soon became a fellow volunteer at the Franco Center, Lewiston’s performing arts center that also offers language courses and other services for New Mainers. She started helping foreign-born mothers enroll their children in school.

One day, she saw a woman playing with a group of children at the center. When she learned the woman was a social worker, she was intrigued. She’d grown up working with kids: helping to raise her younger brother and volunteering to help with the youth Bible study group at church. “In eighth grade, I even tried to host my own Bible study at home,” she recalls.

In 2018, Sophia completed her bachelor’s in early childhood management, graduating in just three years. She later enrolled in the online master’s social work program through the University of Maine. Today, she works in the family services department at Community Concepts, where she coaches new parents in child development. “We are like teachers for parents,” Sophia explains. “I get to be with kids and their families.”

In the future, Sophia hopes to open her own translation services business help Mainers who are still learning English. In the meantime, she knows her Russian may come in handy. The United States has just committed to resettling 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, many of whom speak Russian. She hopes she can give them the same welcome in America that she received. “It’s by God’s grace that I am in Maine,” she says. “In Russia, I never fit in. Here, I relate to people I never thought I’d relate to.”

Héritier Nosso is a health promotion coordinator and community organizer in Lewiston.

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