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Feature Story

Love will keep us together


What is your favorite true-life love story? Always an interesting question when getting to know someone, it can solicit many different answers. Achilles and Patroclus’ love story has been both cherished and debated for 3,300 years. It was also far more honorable than the love “that launched a thousand ships,” between Helen and Paris. 

The love of Peter Abelard and Heloise Argenteuil has become the prototype of tragic and forbidden love, inspiring literature as well as honor killings for 800 years. 

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett’s story is eternalized in their poetry and in their famous kiss under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. That kiss inspired one of the greatest love story movies — George Roy Hill’s “A Little Romance” in which young teens run away from Paris to reenact that kiss. 

We sought special love stories in Des Moines and found one that involved extreme testing and dedication.

Dmitri Iakovilev and Irina Kharchenko

Love will keep us together

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 central Iowa.

The couple met in the Black Sea resort 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; it’s Russia’s Florida. So, I thought I was done with cold winters,” she laughed.

Everyone in her family had been teachers, pilots or engineers, but Irina wanted something more adventurous.

“I got my college degrees in international finance and accounting,” she recalled, adding that, in 1996, she and Dmitri won a lottery for temporary work visas to Canada. 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. One time, I remember we were painting ceilings, and I would push Dmitri in a shopping cart — to work faster. That kind of work kept us eating.

“Then one day we got dressed up, Dmitri in a suit and tie and me in a black dress with stockings and 3-inch heels. I am sure I came off 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, that’s what 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 at one time. At least in Los Angeles, it was warm enough to sleep in the car. Our last $200 car took us from Montana to L.A. and on to Iowa. When we bought that car, there was grass growing on the dashboard,” she recalled.

They also worked their first “good job” in Los Angeles, caring for a house and children of 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, until Irina became pregnant. They then began looking for a place more suitable for starting a family. 

“We heard that Iowa was good for that. We also knew that there was a community of Russians in Postville, so we 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 including 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.

They moved to the Des Moines area where both landed jobs at an Ankeny fiberglass company. Dmitri worked the assembly line, and Irina operated a forklift, stacking 50-pound boxes, without the 3-inch heels. “I had to hide my pregnancy to keep that job,” she recalled.

After that, Dmitri became a project manager for a construction company and Irina a jewelry manager for Younkers. 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 remembered.

Irina says those were scary times because they had just bought a house. However, serendipity came to the rescue, and she began her favorite job ever, working at Homemakers in sales.  

In 2006, the couple quit their jobs and opened Irina’s restaurant at 50th and E.P. True Parkway. Business grew well, but there were problems with infrastructure crumbling. 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,” Irina 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. There was a strange green goo all over,” she recalled.

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 it,” Irina laughed. Maybe because of that stash, the place was vandalized one night.

To drum up business for six months without a liquor license, they offered a “pay what you want” service. That got publicity from Europe and England as well as across the U.S. They actually increased their revenue during the offer, by 46%.

Then came the flood of 2010. While a new roof was being installed, a roofer failed to secure plastic covering during a rain.

“There were 12 inches of water on the floor. 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 23 years since the couple became U.S. citizens and 14 years since the last biblical-sized setback. The couple now owns Irina’s Steak & Seafood in West Des Moines. 

“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,” she concluded. ♦

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