American Girl

 Two years of attempts to permanently leave Siberia and return to the United States  10/30/2013, 00:27
American Girl
Photography by Sergei Mordvinov

Sofia Petrova, a young girl with a Russian name, speaks Russian with difficulty: she spent most of her life in the American town of Chantilly, Virginia. Her mother Natalia took her across the ocean from Novosibirsk when she was two years old. The girl returned to Siberia unwillingly: it was a 15th birthday «present» from her parents. Her biological father wasn’t overjoyed to meet his daughter and forgot to give her food. For more than two years, she has been trying to go back, sorting out her life like an adult and hoping to reach out to her mother. Sofia told Sib.fm’s correspondent about the consequences of her unexpected exile.

By day, Sofia works in one of the city’s hostels. At night, she studies, having found a way to get high school education through the Internet, although it costs her most of the money she earns. Neither her mother, who lives in America, nor her father in Berdsk (a small town 30km from Novosibirsk), consider it necessary to help their under-age daughter.


In 1998, Novosibirsk resident Natalia Petrova was given a student visa to the United States and moved there, taking her little daughter with her. Sofia grew up, went to school and didn’t remember much about her Russian past. When she was 14 years old, her mother married an American and received U.S. citizenship. According to Sofia, her life changed from that moment on.

A few days after Sofia’s 15th birthday, her mother said that she wants her to meet her birth father, who lives in the town of Berdsk in the Novosibirsk Region, and would send Sofia to visit him for the school holidays.

«I called my mom on Skype on my first day in Novosibirsk and found out that I wasn’t only going to stay in Russia for the summer vacation. First, mom promised to take me back after a few months, then a year.

Now, I’ve been here for two and a half years and she’s still promising — she always finds a reason to refuse.

When she arrived in her native Siberia, the girl didn’t know a word of Russian. After meeting her father, she found out that he, in turn, didn’t speak any English.

«Apparently, he had some agreement with mom and knew that I was going to move in with him. He took me to a local school, but that was the limit of his concern.»

According to Sofia, living with her father was difficult not only because of the language barrier. He often drank and didn’t always buy food, but periodically «behaved aggressively» and threw the girl out of the house on several occasions. An English teacher conducted all her classes at school.

The teachers didn’t only help the girl to master the school programme, but also fed her and even supplied her with clothes.

«I once wrote a written request for help and took it to the principal. She read it and called the police. I was taken away from my father and sent to the Juno childcare centre, and then they wanted to put me in an orphanage. When mom found out about this, she called me and said that if I didn’t go back to my father, she would never take me back to America. So I went back.»

One day, Sofia’s father started to throw her out of the house again. This time, she’d had enough: she packed her things and decided not to go back to him anymore. For a while, she had to live on the street because she had nowhere to go. A woman Sofia knew, who works in a church, noticed the girl with her bags. After learning about her problem, she invited her to live at her house. A few months later, another Russian friend helped Sofia find a job at a hostel, where she talks to guests, does the cleaning and makes the beds. She lives there too.


1000 dollars — the amount Sofia stole from her parents, as the girl’s mother told TV channel WUSA

Her mother always explained the reasons for the sudden «exile to Siberia» in a confused manner, constantly coming up with new ones. When the daughter went to American television channel WUSA for help, Natalia wrote them a letter, in which she stated that her daughter was disobedient, stole money, used drugs and brought boys home.

«I was 14, it’s a difficult age. But I behaved no worse than other teens. Of course, I didn’t always do what I was told, but nothing extraordinary; there was no reason for someone to give up their own child.

When I went to the media, I warned them that I didn’t want my mother to be shown in a bad light.

I love her and don’t want her to be worried or upset. So I didn’t tell them a lot of things. I was hoping that many people would watch the report, including lawyers, and that someone would help me get back home to America. But when I watched the video, I saw that she didn’t hesitate to say bad things about me,» says Sofia.

Over more than two years in Siberia, she has got an impression of the region and country.

«The mentality is quite different, everyone’s very serious here. You go to the hospital, for example, and the doctors are so bad-tempered. Although sometimes when I speak, people just don’t understand me. It’s not easy because I don’t know much Russian. It’s very difficult to go somewhere you’ve never been before and talk to people you don’t know.

At first, I didn’t want to learn the language on principle. I was here against my own free will and hated everything.

Even when I could understand what people were talking about, I answered in English. Now I speak a little: I listen to others and remember how they say things.»


250 United States Citizenship and Immigration Services offices are located around the world

Sofia has made new acquaintances in Novosibirsk, but stays in touch with her American friends. They do everything they can to try to help her get back home. She suspects that it will be much harder for her to get into the U.S. after her 18th birthday.

«I called the consul in Moscow and was told that they can’t do anything, as I’m Russian according to my documents. I was advised to look for a lawyer, but that’s expensive and I can’t afford it. My mom’s husband works as a lawyer himself and specializes in immigration. As far as I know, he did his best to deprive me of the right to return home. I told my mom that I just want to go back —we don’t even have to see each other. It’s all the same for her, but for me it would make a huge difference,» says Sofia.

If you know how to help Sofia and are willing to contact her — get in touch with us!

Mom doesn’t spoil her daughter with calls and conversations. According to the girl, they’ve called each other on Skype a few times over the last two and a half years, and spoke a little more over the phone. In addition, mom doesn’t let Sofia talk to her nine-year-old sister.

«If you think about the real reasons why I ended up here, I think that this is the problem: mom’s husband comes first, everything else is secondary. But even if our relationship doesn’t improve, I really want to go back home to America. I want to graduate from school and university like a normal person, communicate with people without any problems and start my own family.»

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