Koryo-Saram in America: meet the Korean-Uzbeks who fled prejudice in Russia and made Brooklyn their home 

How do the descendants of Stalin’s mass deportation maintain their mixed cultural heritage in the United States?

17 January 2020
Introduction: Liza Premiyak
Interviews and images: Emanuel Hahn

Getting a green card is a costly and complicated affair. The Diversity Immigration Visa Programme, better known as the green card lottery, is a rare golden ticket to the United States. It was conceived in 1990 to give people from countries with low levels of immigration to the US the chance to move to America for good. Even today, it remains “one of the simplest visa programmes” out there. Not only is it free to enter, but it also removes the need for a migrant sponsor. The visa programme was built on the same promise as the American Dream: that everyone should have the opportunity for a better life, no matter where you are born or what class you are born into.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a winner of the programme who hasn’t had to struggle to get to America.

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Uzbekistan is one of the largest recipients of green cards through the visa lottery. Among them is a population of Korean-Uzbeks whose ancestors lived through Stalin’s brutal repressions, which saw millions of ethnic minority groups forcibly transferred to remote, often very inhospitable, parts of Soviet territory. The self-designated Koryo-Saram are ethnic Koreans living in Soviet countries. In the 1930s, under Stalin’s instructions, many Koreans living in the Soviet Far East were put on freight trains in the middle of winter and taken to Central Asia, where they were forced to give up their mother tongue and adapt to a more “Soviet” way of life. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Korean-Uzbeks moved to Russia for better economic opportunities, only to face prejudice and persecution for their Korean heritage.

As many as 1,000 Korean-Uzbeks have laid down roots in the US via the green card lottery in the last 30 years. Hundreds more came to the country after seeking asylum. But in 2017, US President Donald Trump vowed to end the programme, calling immigrants coming through the lottery the “worst of the worst”. In the midst of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, many Uzbek natives are finding it much harder to get their applications processed.

Pastor at All Nations Baptist Church, Brooklyn. By way of Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Russia
Martial Arts Instructor/Competitor. By way of Russia, Uzbekistan and South Korea
Owner of Cafe Lily. By way of Uzbekistan and Russia

Born to Korean parents in Saipan, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean, photographer Emanuel Hahn has long been fascinated with the Korean diaspora around the world. “For a long time, I had a deep desire to travel to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan to work on a photo project about the Koryo-Saram,” he says. But that was until he found Maksim Khon, the first subject for his portrait series Korean-Uzbeks in Brooklyn, a little closer to home; in a barber shop in New York. He decided to focus his project on the small community of Korean-Uzbeks living in the city. He stumbled upon Uzbek restaurant Cafe Lily through a New York Times review and was then introduced to the All Nations Baptist Church via the restaurant’s owner. There he met and photographed many more Russian-speaking Koreans.

Lunch is served at the All Nations Baptist Church, Brooklyn

“I scoured the internet for any information relating to Koryo-Saram,” says Hahn. “Beyond lots of YouTube videos, I discovered Victoria Kim’s moving documentation of her family history, and the beautiful photos of Korean Kazakhs by Michael Vince Kim.”

Hahn’s own grandfather escaped from North Korea to South Korea around the same time as the Soviet-Korean deportations. He attributes this history to the instant connection he felt with the Korean-Uzbeks he documented, “despite not always being able to communicate smoothly”.

“I suppose I’m generally interested in Korean diasporas around the world because of my own search for my place in the world,” Hahn explains. “As a third-culture kid, I never fully felt like I belonged in any one place or culture.”

Elegant Barber Shop, Brooklyn

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Korean-Uzbeks in New York generally don’t identify with other Asian-Americans, but rather the Russian-Americans, due to their similar language and worldview. Many are drawn to neighbourhoods and areas where there is already a Russian community that exists, such as Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and Rego Park in Queens.

How each person identifies often depends on their generation they belong to, says Hahn. The older people he spoke to felt more in touch with their Korean identity because they still had access to the culture and language of their ancestors. By comparison, younger Korean-Uzbeks share more in common with other Russian-language immigrants, and approach their Korean identity more from the standpoint of curiosity. With Russian as their mother tongue, Korean is seen as a foreign language.

“Many people I spoke to seemed to derive a lot of their worldview from Russia; in their mannerisms, behaviour, and beliefs. They have familial and economic ties to Russia and are still connected in that way,” says Hahn.

But even if explaining to confused New Yorkers that you are both of Korean-Uzbek descent and a Russian-speaker is perhaps not the easiest introduction to the United States, it is a small price to pay for freedom, they say. “Korean-Uzbeks are a group of people who have been oppressed since the 1930s and immigration is often the only way out of poverty and a difficult life,” Hahn says, reflecting on his time spent shooting the series. “They are some of the most resilient people I’ve met because they’ve been through so much.”

Many Korean dishes were adapted in Soviet times to cater to local tastes that preferred less spicy and more pickled flavours

What Trump and critics of the green card lottery fail to grasp is that getting past the US border is only half the battle. Seeking out the “American Dream” does not come without sacrifices, as Hahn’s interviews make evidently clear. All of the people Hahn spoke to share a history of discrimination and oppression; but their new lives have also posed other challenges, including low salaries, debt, and depression.

Yet they also share an appreciation for their new home in the US. “None of the people that I spoke to have returned to Uzbekistan for good,” says Hahn. “Even those who were initially hesitant about moving to the US acknowledge that the economic opportunities here are too great to abandon.”

Read an except of Hahn’s interviews below, with an introduction by the photographer.

All Nations Baptist Church, Brooklyn

Lilia Tyan

Lilia Tyan moved to the United States and decided to start an Uzbek restaurant to serve her community. Growing up with her grandmother in Uzbekistan, she learned not only to cook, but to communicate with her grandmother in Korean. When she opened Cafe Lily in 2012, her restaurant attracted not just Korean-Uzbeks, but many other Russian-speaking communities that missed food from back home.

Korean-Uzbek food has become a surprisingly common ground for various Russian-speaking communities. While many Koreans lost the ability to make authentic food from their homeland, they were able to innovate and create new dishes that became loved by their new neighbors. The deported Koreans in Uzbekistan were put in the harshest conditions and forced to adapt to their new environments, making them both resilient and resourceful. These qualities continue to serve the Korean-Uzbeks in Brooklyn, well as help them adapt to their new homes.

“We look Korean but we took some Uzbek culture. Uzbek culture is far closer to us because it has the same values as us: like having guests over all the time, to respect elders the way Koreans do. In terms of percentages, I have always felt like I am Korean — or 90 per cent Korean, 10 per cent something else.”

Maksim Khon

Maksim Khon arrived in the US as a teenager to reunite with his mother, who had been granted asylum there six years earlier. Khon worked various odd jobs making minimum wage until a chance meeting with a Russian business owner gave him an opportunity to become a salesman. Through hard work and his own innate sales acumen, Khov was able to quickly rise through the ranks and brought on as a partner with his own store in Brighton Beach just two years later. Khon describes the moment of being given a “taste of life” and thought to himself that his “dream was done”.

Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit and flooded Khon’s entire store, damaging more than $1m worth of his inventory and essentially bankrupting him. Khon describes the moment as the worst period of his life, feeling as if “the whole world was against him”.

Khon, however, was used to setbacks, and found the resilience to push through. Through various friends, he found his way into the hairdressing business. He was willing to start from the bottom and learned the trade through an apprenticeship, before borrowing enough money from family and friends to open his own store in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

Over the next five years, Khon, who says he’s continued to work hard for his achievements, was able to grow his business to four shops. “I’m successful, but I work seven days a week. I’ve got no time to spend my money,” he says. But he’s grateful for the opportunity to make his own success. “America gives you opportunities if you work hard,” he says. “In my country, I would not be able to give my kids what I can give them right now.”

“For us, since we don’t have our own country, we love [this] country that gives us our opportunities. And we say thank you to this country. They accept us for who we are and give us opportunity. And we’re honored to say we’re Americans. We took citizenship in a heartbeat.”

Nikolay Shegay

Originally born in Uzbekistan, Shegay moved to Russia as a child with his family so that his father could run his successful plastics factory. Growing up in Russia, Shegay was often subject to racism and physical assaults due to his Korean appearance. As Shegay entered into adulthood, the physical harassment grew and extended to the rest of his family, who by then were also targeted due to his father’s business. Shegay says his family was forced to resort to extreme measures, acquiring guns to protect themselves.

Eventually, the painful day arrived when Shegay’s father was beaten up so severely that he was unable to fully recover. The family returned to Uzbekistan to recuperate from the ordeal, while Shegay traveled to South Korea to train under a martial arts master in hopes of exacting revenge. But while in training Shegay received a phone call from his brother who informed him that he had won a green card and to return home immediately.

Within a week, Shegay had arrived in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to begin his new life. On the second day of his arrival, his area was hit by Hurricane Sandy. Shegay recalls looking out the window and seeing cars washed down the street. It was a rough transition to his new life, which mirrored his own journey searching for jobs, working as a mover, a busboy, and in a stockroom before finally landing a job as a fighting instructor. On the side, Shegay trains in Muay Thai competitively and dreams of representing the United States in international tournaments.

“I don’t feel that there’s a special city or country which is my home because we live on Earth, and I feel like Earth is my home. Wherever I go, me, myself, that could be a home.”

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