Russian immigrant couple cling to hope amid adversity of urban America


C It has been a rough 10 months in America for Russian immigrant nuclear physicist Sergei Zverev and his wife, Rimma.

Mr. Zverev was giving a speech on the Russian economy and politics to members of the Baltimore Country Club on June 8 while his house was being broken into -- for the second time in a week.

He has run off two thugs who tried to rob him, his wife, and a friend, and then three people were shot and wounded during a furious midday gun battle June 13 in front of his East Baltimore rowhouse in the 700 block of N. Collington Ave.

And he has been unable to find a permanent job.

"About 75 applications, about 75 rejections," he said. "But America is a healthy society that rewards effort. I will continue to try."

The Zverevs moved in with friends the night of the second burglary, but have returned to Collington Avenue because that is their home -- despite the fact that it is in a high crime area.

"We lived in tiny apartments in Russia all our lives, and this is the first time we've had a place of our own," he said. "We renovated the whole house, and we like it."

"I think we have a decent future in this country," Mrs. Zverev said.

"We're the only white family in the neighborhood, and several of my neighbors came by and expressed their concern," Mr. Zverev said, adding that they even told police who they thought responsible for the break-ins.

"We felt closed in when we first moved here last summer, but we got a Christmas card from a neighbor welcoming us, and that sort of changed the relationship. Also, Rimma is very friendly, always smiling and waving to the neighbors," he said.

Gladys Hall, who lives three doors from the Zverevs and has been in the neighborhood for seven years, said, "They're nice, hard-working people. I hope they stay here. I hope they aren't driven away." It was Ms. Hall who sent the Christmas card.

Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she was outraged by the problems that have befallen the Zverevs.

"They're such decent people, and this neighborhood, and this country needs them," she said.

Mr. Zverev, 45, a native of Ukraine, and his wife, from Moscow, emigrated to the United States last August under the sponsorship of the Rev. Ivan Dornic, pastor of SS. Cyril and Methodius Greek-Catholic Church in Joppa.

Mr. Dornic put the Zverevs in the house on Collington, which is owned by the church, and helped arrange jobs for them. Mr. Zverev scraped and painted walls at St. Mary's, a Greek-Catholic church being restored in Joppa, and worked as a maintenance mechanic in a senior citizen's residence. He also has worked as a translator for visiting Russian politicians.

He has temporary employment at Towson State University, with duties that include helping Helene Breazeale, associate dean of the fine arts and communication department, raise money for the World Cello Congress next July in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"Sergei is invaluable," Ms. Breazeale said. "He translates our material into Russian, plus he has expertise in computers. Not only does he know how to use them, he fixes them when they break down."

Mrs. Zverev is working at a nursing home on weekends, and at Maryland Screen Printers in Dundalk during the week. She is also learning English at the Community College of Baltimore.

Mr. Zverev is puzzled by the crimes. "I think it is easier to work at McDonald's than rob people of a few dollars and risk going to jail," he said. "It isn't losing our possessions that I mind. It is the sense of lost security, and the feeling that people can come into your home any time they want something."

Mr. Zverev admits he acted foolishly during the street robbery in January. He was returning from dinner in Fells Point with his wife and a friend when two men approached as they got out of their car. One stuck a hard object into Mr. Zverev's side and demanded money.

"It felt too big to be a gun, and I said, 'Hey, that's not a gun.' The man pulled a beer bottle from his jacket, cracked the top off on the sidewalk, and started jabbing it at me," Mr. Zverev said. "I got angry and challenged him. He threw the bottle at me and they both ran. My friends tell me it's better to give the money, of course."

In the first burglary, someone broke a kitchen window and took a VCR and three lamps. Mr. Zverev put bars on the downstairs windows. But the burglars came back three days later while Mr. Zverev was at the Baltimore Country Club and his wife was at work, breaking through the bars.

"They took just about everything except the furniture," he said.

Mr. Zverev is unhappy about his failure to find a job. He has a doctorate in physics and is searching for a teaching job in his specialties of applied mathematics, dosimetry (the study of X-rays and radiation) and computer programming.

"They say I'm over-qualified for entry level positions at a university, and higher levels are crowded and impossible to break into. My friends in Russia picture America is an ideal place where justice always prevails," he said. "I hope this is so."

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