Courage and spirit2/1/2017
Two central Iowa immigration success stories
America is mostly an amalgam of immigrant groups. Several founding fathers believed the country’s spirit grew from the courage it took new settlers to leave their homes to seek a better life. Today’s immigrants demonstrate the same courage and spirit. Two successful local businesswomen are prime examples. Their stories of life in a new land are as harrowing as they are inspirational.
Irina Kharchenko laughs at the old Yiddish joke, “You know how to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” A wildly unpredictable combination of setbacks and serendipities led her and husband Dmitri Iakovilev to their new home in Urbandale.
The couple met in the Black Sea resort town Sochi, the host of the 2014 Olympics. Irina moved there with her family from Moscow when she was in second grade.
“Sochi has a semitropical climate, like Florida. So I thought I was done with cold winters,” she laughed on a bitter Iowa afternoon in late December.
Everyone in her family had been teachers, pilots or engineers, but Kharchenko wanted to be adventurous.
“So I got my college degrees in international finance and accounting,” she continued, adding that in 1996, she and Dmitri won a lottery for temporary work visas to Canada. They flew to New York City and bussed to Montreal, but the process of entering Canada was so cumbersome that they spent most of their savings before they even got to Quebec.
“We were just starting out, and we were broke, homeless and carless,” Karchenko recalled. “Neither of us spoke any French and hardly any English. I remember painting ceilings with me pushing Dmitri in a shopping cart to work faster. That kind of work kept us eating.
“One day we got dressed up — Dmitri in a suit and tie and me in a black dress with stockings and three-inch heels like a crazy European woman. This guy tells us he has a job for both of us and drives us out of town to the middle of nowhere. Then he tells us the job is to clear a field of stones. So there we are, me driving a tractor in high heels and a cocktail dress with Dmitri running behind tossing stones in a cart wearing a business suit.”
The couple moved on from Montreal to Vancouver and then Calgary in the next two years.
“We went through half a dozen $100 and $200 cars because that was all we could afford,” she said.
However, three applications to renew their visas were denied.
“We were going to be deported to Russia unless the U.S. accepted us as refugees. Fortunately, the latter happened,” she recalled.
They entered the U.S. in Montana and spent two years there and in Los Angeles.
“We always both worked two or three jobs, mainly trying to pay immigration attorneys. We owed $40,000 in attorney fees at one time. At least in Los Angeles, it was warm enough to sleep in the car. Our last $200 car would take us from Montana to L.A. and on to Iowa. When we bought that car, there was grass growing on the dashboard,” she said.
They also worked their first “good job” in Los Angeles taking care of a house and family for a well-connected medical family.
“We cooked, cleaned and babysat. The lady of the family was very nice to us. She invited us to every big medical event in Hollywood,” Kharchenko recalled.
Los Angeles was fun and comfortable, but when Irina became pregnant, the couple began looking for a place more suitable for starting a family. They had heard that Iowa was good for that. They also knew that there was a community of Russians in Postville, so they moved to northeast Iowa.
“Postville was a scary place then (seven years before the infamous Postville raid) with so many different immigrant groups in a small town with lots of former prisoners. It was depressing — not what we had in mind for starting a family. The transmission finally blew on our old car, too,” she said.
“I had to hide my pregnancy to keep that job,” she explained.
After that, Dmitri became a project manager for a construction company and Irina the jewelry manager for a Younkers store. She became pregnant with her second child while working for Hubbell Homes in new construction sales.
“Our entire department got laid off on New Year’s Eve. Happy New Year,” she said.
Kharchenko says those were scary times because they had just bought a house. However, serendipity came to the rescue, and she began her favorite job working at Homemakers in sales.
“Homemakers is a great company, great people and great experience for me. I met so many people, and I was always one of the top salesmen. I still recommend people to them,” she said.
In 2006, the couple quit their jobs and opened Irina’s restaurant in a former Jesse’s Embers venue at 50th and E.P True. Business grew well, but there were problems with loans closing, landlords being uninformed and infrastructure needs. The couple began looking for a new building, and a strange opportunity popped up.
Razzmatazz in Urbandale had an illicit image and at least one shooting.
“We visited one night, and all they sold was Heineken and Hennessy. The smoke was so thick that we got high on second-hand smoke. The VIP Club smelled like sex,” Kharchenko recalled.
Despite the building being on a one-year liquor license ban, the couple bought it in 2008.
“There was mold growing in the coolers and refrigerators. All the food and liquor left behind was from Sam’s Club. There was a strange green goo all over,” she said.
The couple decided they had to gut the place to its studs. Inside one piece of drywall, they found stashes of what looked like illegal drugs.
“We made some homeless dumpster diver very happy, if he found that,” Kharchenko laughed. Maybe because of that stash, the place was vandalized one night.
“The police never caught anyone, but after that, they would park in our lot on nightshift and look after us. They are so nice,” she recalled.
To drum up business for six months without a liquor license, they decided to offer a “pay what you want” service. The offer garnered so much publicity (from Europe and England as well as across the U.S.) that they actually increased revenue during the offer by 46 percent.
Irina and Dmitri walked the streets of Urbandale asking people to visit the new restaurant. The community, desperately wanting to forget the former stigma, responded. Then came the flood of 2010. While a new roof was being installed, an underinsured roofer failed to secure plastic covering during a rain.
“There were 12 inches of water on the floor, and every fixture was dangling loose. The roofer fled town. Inspectors and insurers told us not to touch anything, so everything turned moldy, even the inside of wine corks. We had to gut the entire place again. We were closed another five months,” she said.
It’s been 16 years since the couple became U.S. citizens and seven years since the last Biblical-sized setback. Kharchenko says she has much love for Iowa.
“I still don’t love the weather, but the people are so nice and so supportive. I get tired of hearing people complain. This is the land of opportunity. If you come to work hard, you can make a very good life here. I also believe Iowa is a lucky place. If you do a kindness, it comes back to reward you 10 times. I never say no,” she concluded.
So Yong Newman and her eight siblings immigrated to Iowa without many detours or surprises. Their father was a successful military officer, entrepreneur and farmer in South Korea. His first seven children were all girls. Because he wanted them to all become independent businesswomen, he determined that he must leave Korea.
“There just were not — still are not — the opportunities for female entrepreneurs there. He determined that the U.S. offered the best environment for women business people, so that was where we emigrated. My oldest sister had already moved to Iowa with an American G.I. husband who lived here, so Iowa was a natural choice,” Newman recalled.
The family bought a farm and a restaurant, and her father continued to travel to operate his international concerns.
Known within the family as Number 7, So Yong was 12 when she left Seoul for Hillsboro in rural Henry County.
“What a crazy culture shock,” she said. “In Seoul, I went to huge schools with more people than anyone could ever get to know. In Hillsboro, we took the bus down gravel roads to a school in a farm field. It served Farmington and Bonaparte, too, and there were still only 18 students in the whole school.”
She says she quickly fell in love with the southeastern version of Iowa Nice.
“People were so welcoming and kind to us. My parents were always busy working, so other parents would pick us up and take us out to play with their kids,” she said.
By the time So Yong was a sophomore in high school, her father decided it was in the children’s best interest to move to Des Moines. It was also easier for him to commute to the Des Moines Airport. They bought a restaurant, apartments and a salon across the street from Lincoln High School.
“In the early 1980s, we were rare minority students at Lincoln,” she recalled. “Once again, we were really made to feel welcome by the community. When I made drill team, pom pom squad and cheerleader, it was necessary to sew uniforms to fit. Other parents did that for me. I remember how thrilled I was once to be chosen to decorate for a party. Now I laugh at myself. ‘What were you thinking? Excited to provide free labor?’ I was also thrilled to work in the family business. I learned then and there that I loved working with people, talking to people. I did everything — potato peeling, dishwashing, cashier, janitor. It was a joy for me.”
Her father also promised each daughter that he would send them to college or invest in their own business. The only condition on the latter was that each sister would take on the next oldest sister as an apprentice. Six of the girls became owners of salons at a young age. So Yong’s younger sister still works in her salon Bella as a hostess.
So Yong has a comedian’s sense for making people laugh and for using humor to cope, even in explaining her divorce.
“My husband tells me to pick up kids at soccer, take kids to music lesson, blah, blah, blah. I say, ‘You do it.’ He says his job is too stressful. I say, ‘What stress? All your customers are anesthetized. Mine are wide awake and want to talk,’ ” she said.
Family is one of two bonds that keep her family strong. One girl or another visited each parent daily in their nursing homes until they died. All the sisters’ children are close friends. A photo of 13 of them together at Bubba restaurant in Des Moines brought tears to So Young’s eyes.
“I lost my Dad and a nephew in the last two years. Those events brought us all even closer together. My oldest sister — Number 1 — was the grouchiest one of us. I nicknamed her ‘Sunshine’ because of that. Lately, she’s become the opposite. She never forgets to thank me for the slightest favor. It’s such a big deal for me to see her happy,” she said, tearing up again.
The second family bond is Christianity. The entire family was Buddhist before moving to Iowa.
“Number 1’s mother-in-law was devoutly religious and converted my sister. I remember asking Mom if I could go to a Christian church, and my parents were totally open minded about it. I was baptized at 13. We all converted, and then Mom did and finally Dad. Christ is much more comforting than Buddha, especially in troubling times. He offers a security that is lacking in Buddhism.
“I often thought about Jesus when I was down. As a single mother, I would often say to myself, ‘No matter how badly you want to strangle someone, remember Jesus wouldn’t do that. He’d walk away.’ So I walk away,” she said laughing.
Newman said that she also finds similar, secular inspiration in Tim McGraw’s song “Humble and Kind.” She plays it, crying while she listens.
“It’s impossible to be judgmental when you listen to that. Being nice and loving is not easy. We do it because we need to set examples to others. Plus Tim McGraw is really hot,” she explained.
Newman says that her clients are de facto family.
“It’s amazing what happens in a salon,” she says. “Because it’s tactile, you touch their heads and massage their scalps. So people open up and tell you everything. When my father died, when I lost my nephew, clients would just stop in to bring condolences. Like a family. It reminds me of praying together. Some clients drive 45 minutes to come here because it feels like family.”
Newman learned her business sense from her father.
“He never took on any debt, ever,” she said. “I have had to borrow money for business, but I paid it off as fast as I could. My only debt now is next month’s rent.” Ironically, Newman’s children are all boys. Jeremy and Brian are engineers, and Austin is studying accounting at Iowa State.
“I tell my sons never buy me a card — make one. Save your money. You will need it someday,” she said.
She says her new homeland brings her an almost religious peace.
“I love Iowa. I have traveled a lot and have never come back when I wasn’t joyful to be home. I love the test of the seasons. Coping with the hot and the cold makes us stronger and more grateful, more humble and kind. People are so nice here. I mean, sometimes they offer to park my car for me because they all know I am horrible at parking,” she laughed. ♦