Inter-race marriages are on the rise with more Ukrainians willing to marry foreigners from Africa and Asia.
to hear whispers from passersby: “Look, there goes a nun with an Arab!”
Pale-faced Fryndak, who wears a hijab (a Muslim headscarf) and loose clothing that covers her entire body, except for her face and hands, may indeed be mistaken for a Christian nun every time she leaves home – but only by those who don’t know better, she said.
“Fortunately, it’s not as bad now as it was 10 years ago when we’d just gotten married,” said the 28-year-old Fryndak, sitting in the small library of Kyiv’s Islamic Cultural Center. “Today, Ukrainians know more about Islam and the Muslim dress code, and so they react more casually.”
Like some other Ukrainian women married to Muslim men, Fryndak chose to convert from Christianity to Islam. In Fryndak’s case, however, meeting her husband was an incentive, but not the sole reason for her conversion. Coming from a family of devout Orthodox Christians, Fryndak found Islam’s stricter rules easy to adjust to, she said.
Her husband Hussam said that Muslim men are allowed by their religion to marry Christian women. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, Vira’s conversion has made their family relations easier and smoother. His wife agrees.
“In every family, a certain compromise is usually found for harmonious relations to exist there,” said Fryndak. “For us, Islam initially became a common ground that eliminated any potential cultural and religious clashes.”
According to Fryndak, around a third of all visitors to Kyiv’s Islamic Cultural Center are Muslims born in Ukraine or Ukrainian families that converted to Islam. The rest, she said, are interethnic families in which Ukrainian wives increasingly convert to Islam.
Specialists at the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the registry of marriages nationwide, said that official statistics on interracial marriages were not available because they are not required by Ukrainian legislation.
But according to information available at Kyiv’s central civil registry office, or ZAGS, the number of interracial marriages involving Ukrainians – particularly with Africans, Asians and Middle-Easterners – is still insignificant as a percentage of the total number of marriages registered in the capital, but has been growing since 2001.
The list of interracial marriages in Ukraine is traditionally topped by unions that include Middle Eastern Muslim men who initially came to the country to study, said Natalia Naberezhna, the head of Ukraine’s central ZAGS. While in 2001, she said, her office solemnized 24 marriages with Iranians, 12 with Pakistanis and five with Syrians, in 2005 the figures were 37, 13 and 10, respectively.
For comparison, in the same year, ZAGS registered 34 marriages between Ukrainians and British citizens, and 76 with Americans, said Naberezhna.
There were five matrimonies with natives of Nigeria in 2001, she said, with the number rising to 13 in 2005, while marriages with Chinese increased from seven in 2001 to 13 in 2005.
“Ninety percent of all interracial couples involve foreign men and Ukrainian women,” said Naberezhna, adding, however, that she had seen more marriages between Ukrainian men and women of other ethnicities in the last few years.
“Ukraine has been opening its borders and attracting more young people from the Middle East, China and Africa, who have mostly been coming here to study,” said Kyiv native Heorhiy Holovkov, 33, who thinks that the number of interracial marriages will only grow.
Holovkov himself has been married to a Chinese woman and does not regard his family as unique or very unusual.
“When I got to the point when I realized that Yuan was the right woman for me, I didn’t look at her as Chinese anymore,” said Holovkov, who met his wife in Kyiv’s central post office, where he helped her to send a letter to her parents in China. Yuan was then a first-year student at one of the capital’s universities.
The two had known each other for six years before they tied the knot.
Holovkov admits that studying Chinese and mingling with Chinese people before meeting his future wife helped their relations. For her part, Yuan made a great effort to understand Ukrainian culture and people. She was also very quick at picking up the Russian language, Holovkov said.
Holovkov sounds at ease when talking about the behavioral characteristics that make his wife culturally different from his previous Ukrainian girlfriends.
“For instance, Yuan would never tell me if she is upset about something I’ve done. She would show it instead with the way she acts and looks at me,” Holovkov said, adding that he knows his wife well enough to manage such moments to his advantage.
Holovkov said there are fewer couples with Ukrainian men and Chinese women because “those Chinese girls who come to Ukraine to study tend to mingle within their Chinese circle and have Chinese boyfriends here.”
“I think our relationship worked because Yuan was different from a typical Chinese woman and was very eager to adjust to life in Ukraine,” he said.
Vira Faleeva, chief psychologist at the Kyiv-based psychological center Gran-Veresk, calls women like Ukrainian Vira Fryndak and Chinese Yuan “wise”.
Faleeva said that when a woman gets married, she typically enters her husband’s family and culture, and not vice versa.
Families where the men assimilate into their wives’ cultures are typically weaker, she said, adding that this also has a negative affect on the couple’s children.
“Archetypically, in all cultures, the man is the head of the family,” said Faleeva.
“The children are the offspring of the family created by the man, so ideally, they should be brought up in his culture.”
Vira and Hussam are bringing up their two sons, Abdurrahman, three, and Muhammad, one-and-a-half, according to Muslim tradition. They have sorted out the language issue, too, speaking with each other and to their children only in Arabic at home.
“We have read that in families like ours, it’s better to speak at home the language which our kids will not hear on the streets or in kindergarten,” Hussam said, adding that his children are learning Ukrainian and Russian anyway.
“Our kids go to a Ukrainian kindergarten, all the relatives here speak Ukrainian, and on the streets they socialize in Russian,” he said.
Heorhiy and Yuan say that as they have decided to live in Ukraine, their children will be brought up as Ukrainians.
“We realize that for a child to be Chinese, he would have to be brought up in China, among those rituals that the Chinese culture is built on,” explained Heorhiy. He said that his children would speak both languages - Ukrainian and Chinese.
Faleeva said that the most important components of a successful interethnic family are respect and a total acceptance of each other’s ethnic attributes, adding, however, that “full acceptance of your partner’s family is often a challenge within the same culture, let alone when he or she is of a different ethnicity.”
For Titi, a Congolese who has lived in Ukraine for over a decade, the experience of marriage to a Ukrainian woman featured some cultural misunderstandings.
Titi said his wife didn’t like his frequent invitation of many friends to their apartment for long and loud socializing after he came home from work.
“It’s in our culture – we rest through socializing with our relatives and friends, but she found it difficult to understand,” said Titi, who divorced his wife this summer after a five-year marriage.
The reason for the divorce, Titi explained, was that his wife cheated on him with another African whom he had invited to stay in his apartment.
"I was ready to kill her when I learned she got pregnant from another man," Titi said angrily before switching easily to admissions of his own extramarital affairs.
"African men are more polygamous than men of other ethnicities. It's in our blood," said Titi unpretentiously, adding that he's always had relations with other women on the side, but would always do so "nicely, so that his wife wouldn’t know about it."
But even if interethnic couples do find common ground on which to build their relations, Ukrainian society is not yet ready to accept them, Faleeva said.
“Ukrainian society is still very homogenous, so attitudes toward interracial relations are more negative than positive,” she said, adding that these prejudices come from fear of the unknown, which originates from a lack of knowledge.
Titi said his Ukrainian wife’s parents refused to talk to her and closed the door of their home to them, when they married and she had his child.
Vira Fryndak said her parents were more opposed to her conversion to Islam than her marriage to Hussam.
But now they are okay with it, seeing her happy family, she said.
“We created a new culture of our own by taking the best from the Ukrainian and Arab cultures and fusing them together,” Hussam said proudly about his interethnic family.
"I love it when my wife reads books in Ukrainian with our sons and sings Ukrainian songs to them."“But Islam for us is the plate where our cultures mix,” he added.
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