Shortly after arriving in Fairbanks,Elena Savostianova began English classes at the the Literacy Council of Alaska. While gaining fluency there, she learned something else about America.
“I met a lot of people, and our teachers are the best,” she remembered. “What was a surprise to me, they volunteer at this school. We don’t have many volunteer programs or even people who would want to volunteer in Belarus. We don’t have time for volunteering, and if you have time, you’re always trying to find a way to make money, not spend your time making people’s lives better.”
Volunteering, however, is how the Belarusian immigrant found her place in Fairbanks. Even before she was employed, she was getting involved in things and meeting new people. She said, “My brother said, ‘You are everywhere and nowhere.’ He meant I was nowhere particular. I didn’t have a job, but I had this meeting and that meeting.”
Savostianova was raised in the village of Korchitsy. She was young when the Soviet Union collapsed and grew up when Belarus was a new country. As a child, she said, it was not always easy.
“It was really hard to find clothes, food, you needed to stand in line to get even simple things,” she said.
These days the country is more prosperous, but opportunities remain limited. “If you have a degree, it doesn’t mean you will have money,” she said.
Savostianova moved to Minsk for college at Belarus State Technological University, earning a degree in environmental engineering. Subsequent work in that field included three years with printing and packaging company Uniflex, her favorite job in Belarus.
Savostianova’s brother had come to Fairbanks for the summer as a student in 2005 and now lives here. Intrigued by the pictures and videos he sent, she thought, “I need to go there for sure.”
She and her husband, Victor Savostianovo, began applying annually to the Diversity Immigrant Visa program — nicknamed the green card lottery — that the State Department operates to allow immigrants from numerous countries become legal residents.
“We were playing for six years before we won a Green Card. It’s totally free. You apply online, you get a number, you wait one year, and you check this number on May 1. If you won, you’ve won.”
In 2015, the couple won, arriving in Fairbanks in early May.
“Everything was so unusual,” she said. “A lot of small planes. We don’t have this in Belarus. I’d seen maybe one or two in my life. We don’t have mountains. Even food is different. It was really fun. In the food store they sell guns. It was so unusual for us, and we wanted to take pictures to show to our friends in Belarus. ‘It’s real. In the store you can buy food and you can buy guns.’”
She found the Literacy Council on Craig’s List and dove into learning English. “I was taking every single class. Not only my level, I came for higher level and lower level. I had days when I spent all my day there. Also we had conversation classes on Fridays, when you can come and talk about anything.”
Savostianovo’s efforts paid off.
“One time, after about two years, we were sitting in a restaurant and I started to understand people at the next table,” she said.
She realized she no longer had to work at understanding Americans, that it would now come naturally.
She also impressed the staff at the Literacy Council and was invited to join the board, where she presently serves as the student representative.
During this same time, she attended a showing at Two Street Gallery and met Vladimir Zhikhartsev. He invited her to attend some of his watercolor classes. “My friend paid for two classes for me for Christmas. I had never painted before. My mom can paint beautifully, and I thought maybe I had gotten some talent from her. I went to Vladimir’s classes, and it was fun.”
This led to another volunteer position, building and maintaining the website for the Fairbanks Watercolor Society. Elsewhere, she has volunteered for the Yukon Quest, providing security for dogs, and at the Food Bank. Highly social by nature, she’s made many friends simply by becoming involved in things.
Savostianovo’s first job was in a salon. This past January she took a position with Tanana Chiefs Conference, where her drive to help others found yet another outlet. “They have medical programs for taking patients to Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seattle,” Savostianovo explained. She arranges flights, buys tickets, and handles billing and payments for these services.
She said her exposure to village life in Alaska reminds her of Belarus. “I always think, ‘Do they live like we live in our villages in Belarus?’ It’s interesting to me to learn how they live and compare.”
Savostianovo embraced the Alaska lifestyle. In winter, she said, “I started snowboarding. We went ice fishing a couple of times. We went aurora hunting. I did a lot of stuff. The first winter was really interesting.” When a friend from Belarus visited last winter, they tried dog mushing.
Her favorite season is summer, however. “I’m a night owl, and it was so good for me. I would go running at 10 p.m. I would take videos at midnight when the sun is shining and send it to my friends. It’s 12 hours difference between Belarus and Alaska, but we had the same sun.”
Along the way, she’s come to call Fairbanks home. “Last September I went to New York,” she said, “and after seven days I missed Alaska a lot.”
Savostianovo plans to stay deeply involved in the town that has welcomed her warmly.
“Alaska accepted us as new immigrants. The community accepted us. We need to give back something. I feel like I do now because I work for Alaskan people. It’s really good to know you can do something important.”
Reflecting on her numerous contributions to Fairbanks, she added, “Here there is a great opportunity to start something and to change something.”