McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Mikhail Manzurin is a 25-year-old former English and Chinese-language teacher from Russia whose grasp of the English language is impeccable.
But he gets a little shaky when reliving what his young family went through for the past four months after losing his job as a teacher because he spoke out against Russia’s war in Ukraine and escaping Moscow out of fear he would be jailed.
He and his wife, Nailia, a former dance teacher, and their two young boys are currently living at a church in McAllen, Texas, which took them in on Jan. 9 after they legally crossed the South Texas border from Reynosa, Mexico. They have been granted humanitarian parole by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and are legally allowed to remain in the United States.
But their travels and travails have cost them what little life savings they had, and they are unsure how they will make it to Seattle, where they have a sponsor and will be allowed to live until their immigration court hearing in July 2024.
They spoke with Border Report this week at the Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene, where they have been staying — all four living out of one suitcase, and the young boys sharing a travel stroller and one car seat.
They said they wouldn’t have made it to South Texas without the help of the nonprofit faith-based organization Practice Mercy Foundation, which helped the young Christian couple travel to Mexico City. They found families and churches to help escort them to the dangerous northern Mexico border town of Reynosa, where volunteers provided them with food, supplies and toys to entertain 1-year-old Mark and 8-month-old Filip.
Most of all, they helped to keep them safe, Manzurin said.
“It was an experience,” he said as he recalled young Filip sleeping in a car seat for weeks in Uzbekistan.
The family also slept on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment in Uzbekistan that they shared with another family after they fled Russia.
When they left Moscow, they moved to his Russian hometown of Orsk on the border with Kazakhstan. When Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 26 announced Russian men would be drafted for the war and opponents would be jailed, they decided they would leave the country and make it to the United States to claim asylum.
“We were church leaders when the war started and it was shocking for us because we couldn’t expect the war will begin in our country where we would invade Ukraine and we couldn’t be silent because Christians from Ukraine asked us to speak against the war,” Manzurin said.
They took separate buses from Orsk over the border to Kazakhstan and then a train to Uzbekistan, 600 miles away.
But Manzurin said they did not feel safe in that former Soviet country, which had been under Soviet rule until 1990, and they worried that government forces would find them at any time and send them back to Russia.
“I was worried that maybe they will send me back to Russia. So I was afraid of that,” he said.
They were desperate to get to the United States to claim asylum. But didn’t know the safest route to get to the U.S. border.
While searching the Internet, he said he came across a mention of Alma Ruth and her Practice Mercy Foundation, and emailed her for help.
She sent them travel information to Mexico City and helped them get to Reynosa using a network of friends and contacts.
“That made a world of difference to receive an email from someone from that region that is in turmoil and said we need your direction for safety for our children. So we contacted our network of friends,” Ruth told Border Report.
“Someone received them in Mexico City, directed them, kept them safe in Mexico City, took them to a place of worship and helped them figure out where to rent an Air B&B in Reynosa. So the Lord and our intervention kept them safe in Reynosa for 40 days,” she said.
40 days in Reynosa
But 40 days living in that dangerous northern Mexican border town where drug cartels vie for control on a daily basis took all the savings they had.
Their apartment did not have heat, and they said they suffered during a Christmas cold snap when temperatures plunged into the 40s.
But he said they were grateful for the shelter, which is much more than the other asylum seekers living on the streets of Reynosa have as they wait to cross the border.
“Of course, for us, it’s shocking to see how people live there. I can’t imagine how they survive there,” Manzurin said.
Families took them grocery shopping and Ruth’s network checked in on them daily.
“Praise God that because we had our local friends there and we had one family and they helped us a lot and now they are very close friends to us. They took us everywhere, wherever we need,” he said.
Ruth took them supplies and toys. And she says they all did their best to keep them all safe and alive.
“All these beautiful people are traveling because they want to find safety for their children. That in itself should matter for us, as humans,” Ruth said.
Coming to America
On Jan. 9, the family finally got a call to report to the Hidalgo-McAllen-Reynosa port of entry and present themselves to Homeland Security officials.
They had put their name on a list requesting asylum at the Senda de Vida shelter when they first arrived on Nov. 9 in Reynosa, and had waited daily for a call from the pastor on the status of their case. When it finally came he said they were elated.
“We just trusted her and we believed this was God speaking to us,” Manzurin said. “It was a miracle.”
Pastor Ismael Flores, of Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene, said his congregation was “overwhelmingly” supportive of helping the family and opening their doors to them.
“We try to follow what Scripture says about receiving the immigrant, the refugee,” Flores told Border Report. “And so when I send an email to our church, board and leadership about the possibility of receiving this family, the overwhelming response was, why wouldn’t we receive this family? And so it was amazing just to hear their heart and say they need help. And so let’s host them, let’s have them.”
And Flores encourages other nonprofits and faith-based organizations to do the same.
“We need to be an advocacy group for the immigrant community and I think more churches should be involved in any way, shape or form. Praying for, hosting, anything that we can do to be involved and, and be a bigger network for our immigrant community,” Flores said.
More churches should be involved in any way, shape or form.”Pastor Ismael Flores, Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene
Now the Manzurins are preparing for their next journey.
They plan to head to Austin on Monday where they are scheduled to testify about their experiences to several churches.
A future in America
They are hoping for financial support to get them across the country to Seattle, Washington, where their sponsor is.
With Mikhail translating, 26-year-old Nailia, aka “Nellie,” a former Russian folk dancer, said she is forever grateful to everyone who has helped them, so far. And she has faith that they will make it safely to Seattle.
“We didn’t expect any help because living in Russia we were told that Americans don’t like Russians. We couldn’t even imagine that so many people would like to help us,” she said.
“Thank you,” she said in English.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com