PITTSFORD — A young boy walked into the room, modeling a pair of jeans.
“Very good,” Zamira Iskandarava said to her cousin with broken English. “Very good.”
The boy, grinning with pride, spun around then returned into the dressing area.
This experience is a simple exchange for many people. But for Iskandarava and her family, this is a true blessing.
“We come to America with nothing,” she said tearfully. “We had nothing.”
Just two months ago, Iskandarava and her family arrived in Rochester as refugees from Uzbekistan.
“My parents died in 1944 under Stalin,” Iskandarava said. “My own family has lived in Georgia, then Uzbekistan. We live in different places. (I have seen) houses burn. Money taken. No jobs. Treated very badly.”
Iskandarava is a Meskhetian Turk, who as a people have faced ethnic persecution in Russia for decades. Tensions have continued to escalate in the region to the point where in 2004, Russia and the United States adopted a program to resettle refugees to other countries. As of September 2006, 10,000 refugees have been relocated to America.
“They are known as a people without a country,” said Patricia Corcoran, an interpreter hired by diocesan Catholic Charities. “They have suffered so much and moved around. They are educated people. Life has been so hard for them, yet they are a loving people.”
Iskandarava believes her arrival in America is the beginning of a new life for her family, and part of that new beginning involves Saint’s Place.
Founded in 1998, Saint’s Place assists refugees with basic living needs such as furniture, blankets, kitchenware, clothing and school supplies.
Iskandarava accompanied her young cousin to Saint’s Place recently, along with another refugee, Shakhsieya Aliyva.
“I’d give you a great speech, if I knew better English,” Aliyva said, giving the thumbs-up sign. “People (at Saint’s Place) are beautiful. Beautiful.”
Saint’s Place originated in founder/director Colleen Knauf’s three-car garage and has grown to its own 2,800-square-foot house located at 46 S. Main St. in Pittsford. Since 2001, the ministry has been sponsored by Pittsford’s St. Louis Church and serves anywhere from 350 to 500 clients a year.
Saint’s Place operates with only a few paid staff and more than 150 volunteers. One such volunteer is John O’Dell of Rochester. O’Dell came to Saint’s Place through Freedom House, a substance-abuse program operated through Rochester’s Catholic Family Center. As part of recovery, residents are required to volunteer their time.
“Once I completed my assignment I was so inspired by the work here, I decided to continue,” O’Dell said. “There’s a sense of service to God when I’m here. It’s just inspiring watching everyone unite and see the good being done.”
In addition to supplying living needs, Saint’s Place offers a tutoring program at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit on South Avenue and a refugee child-care center on Heart Street, both in Rochester.
Saint’s Place receives funding from church tithes, grants, private donations and a Hunger Relief grant, which is funded in part by proceeds from the annual Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal.
“The appeal helps us to fill any unmet need we may have,” Knauf said. “Some families may need food, so we try to address that. Or another family may need personal-hygiene products, so we try to address that. We may have a family with a teenager, and we don’t always have items for every age, so we try to address that. It just depends on the day or week sometimes. We want everyone here treated with dignity. They are starting over, and we want to help them with that.”
“I never imagined I would be a furniture lady,” Knauf laughed. “I’ve raised five kids, and I thought I would just have this time for me. But the Holy Spirit was chasing me. I knew there were needs for refugees, and God just kept calling me. And there, by the grace of God, go I. I knew I just needed to give it up, and do what he wanted. I also never imagined it would grow into what it has. We never turn our heads away from people.”
“Thank you, Saint’s Place,” Iskandarava said with tears in her eyes. “They helped me, my family, with clothes and furniture. They help us learn English. We come to America for our children. Thank you, America. Thank you, government.”