Mosaic Stories

    Nikki and Hikmat Family

    They were the obvious questions, but they didn’t need to be asked. The answers were clear from the minute Nikki and Hikmat opened their front door.

    Signs of what they left behind are sprinkled throughout their sunny apartment. The Azerbaijan national flag, dolls handmade by relatives dressed in traditional national costumes, and favorite children’s books in their native language decorate their new home.

    The questions are scribbled on a note pad. Why did you move 6,372 miles away from your large community of loving family and friends? Why did you give up careers in banking and pension administration? Why did you settle in landlocked St. Louis when you lived in a mountainous country near the Caspian Sea?  The answers quickly become obvious: their two precious children, Max, 9, and Tansu, 6.

    “We moved here for our children’s future,” Hikmat explained.  “We didn’t have a serious reason for leaving. We had good jobs there. Not like some people who are trying to run away from something. America is the country of opportunities and the best education system for children.”

    Nikki and Hikmat have held green cards (permanent resident cards) since 2013 after entering the Diversity lottery system while in their home country. Every year since, they came to the U.S. to visit New York, the District of Columbia, Connecticut  and New Jersey as they weighed the decision of whether to immigrate to America with their growing family. By 2017 they were ready to make the move. “I suppose it had been a dream of mine since childhood,” says Nikki. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, my father was one of the first people who came to the United States. He wrote to us about America and brought home pictures and mementos.”

    “We were planning to settle in New Jersey. There is a large Azeri population there and we had many friends. But one of my husband’s former colleagues lives here and offered Hikmat a job. At first, actually, I was afraid because of what I read about crime here. But my brother-in-law, who had gone to Washington University, said, ‘No, it’s a beautiful place’. My sister-in-law also studied here and she, too, said it was really a great place.”

    While Max and Tansu were the reason they came to the U.S., it was up to Nikki and Hikmat to make a life for their family in St. Louis. Hikmat went to work immediately as dispatch manager for his friend’s transportation company.

    Nikki’s initial job was to establish roots in St. Louis for her family. Through her brother-in-law’s contacts at Washington University she was introduced to James Wertsch, former Vice Chancellor for international relations.  He connected her to the St. Louis Mosaic Project which provided not only encouragement and support but some job experience and networking opportunities. Nikki joined their international spouses group and was assigned a local mentor who continues to offer advice and help when problems arise.

    Through a  job shadowing program offered by Mosaic Project, Nikki spent a month in the Human Resources Department at  the Woodard Cleaning and Restoration Company where she gained invaluable insights. “ My previous pension job experience was in a state institution under the shadow of the Soviet regime. It was very interesting and refreshing to be exposed to a professional, independent private company. I was surprised by the very flexible organizational structure. It made communication very accessible and effective. That was unusual for me, as I had worked under a typical vertical subordination structure for employee communication.

    Nikki also immersed herself in learning, taking adult education courses at St. Louis Community College, the St.Louis International Institute and University City. She expanded her computer skills earning certificates in Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and Excel.

    But before she was ready to join the workforce full-time, her top priority was to ensure a quality education for their children.  Mosaic Project’s Executive Director, Betsy Cohen helped her find the community and public school system that would support that goal. Max had completed first grade in Azerbaijan which, in part, convinced Nikki and Hikmat that it was time to leave. Although Azerbaijan is technically an independent nation, remnants of its past as part of the former Soviet Union Republic still linger. For example, at Max’s school in Azerbaijan, children were expected to sit at their desks, hands folded on top. Max explains that they learned similar things, but in Azerbaijan, it was taught the “hard way”. “The teacher passed out work and we sat at our desks for hours completing it. We could only walk around during short breaks; there was no recess.  We couldn’t speak to each other and couldn’t question the teacher. Here learning is easier because the teachers make it fun.” 

    Max is at Meramec Elementary School in the Clayton School District and thriving. Azerbaijan Turkish is Max’s native language, he is fluent in Russian and he has clearly begun to master English. He politely helps his parents fill in phrases here or there and excels in his ESL (English as a Second Language) class offered by the St. Louis International Institute. His father laughs as he recounts a recent conversation where in one six-word sentence Max intermingled Russian, Azerbaijan Turkish and English words.

    Tansu is shy and quiet, listening intently to the conversation and occasionally whispering something into her mother’s ear. She was only four when they moved to St. Louis. But it is her educational journey that convinced Nikki and Hikmat that they had settled in the right city.

    “Everything depends on people. The people here are very kind,” says Hikmat.

    Nikki elaborates on her husband’s sentiment. “After we found a school for Max, I was looking for a preschool for Tansu. I was surprised, preschools here are very, very expensive.  I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe we should send Tansu back home to live with her grandparents. After a year we could bring her back to start kindergarten. I sat on the sofa and Googled ‘preschools near me.’ Samuel Church preschool popped up so I called and left a message. When the director, Jane, returned my call, I explained that we had just come to the country and we did not have much money.  Jane invited us to come in to talk and offered to cut the tuition in half. Then she immediately asked what would make Tansu feel welcomed. She wanted to know what holiday was special to Tansu.

    “I told her about Nowruz, a public holiday which is celebrated in March around the same time as Easter. Then I forgot all about the conversation. That was in August. In December Jane asked me about Nowruz again because she been searching for more information and couldn’t find anything more about it. By February, Nowruz was the last thing on my mind. My uncle had died and I was under a lot of stress.”

    In early March, Jane called Nikki to announce proudly that she had bought sabzeh seeds. These are planted in advance of the holiday so they sprout on time for the spring ritual. “I was so moved by her kindness,” Nikki says, tearing up as she relates the story. “My daughter is from a tiny little country that most people have never heard of and yet Jane was determined to celebrate Tansu’s special holiday with her and her little classmates.”  It is a kindness they will never forget.

    Nikki and Hikmat have taken advantage of the many networking opportunities that Mosaic Project has afforded them as well. 

    “At the World Trade Center-St. Louis Growing Global 2018 event,” Nikki explains, “I had a chance to meet with various people including the European Union Ambassador to the US, Ms. Caroline Vicini. Since I chaired the EU funded twinning project in Azerbaijan it was very nice to meet her. These types of events make us feel important and part of this magnificent and amazing community.”

    Nikki, Hikmat, Max and Tansu will be celebrating the second anniversary of their arrival in St. Louis in August. Nikki leveraged many of her administrative skills in Azerbaijan to secure a position with a home health care agency as the office coordinator. Hikmat has started his own enterprise in the transportation field having purchased a semi-truck/trailer.   And the kids are soaking up American culture. Little Tansu let her parents know about the big St. Louis Blues hockey game coming up ( game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals).  Max bounces between video games and books.

    Hikmat will tell you that he feels freer than he has ever felt, but, at the same time, he misses his parents and friends, connections that were 38 years in the making.  Nikki is doing all she can to keep the Azerbaijan culture alive for her children. The Azeri community is very small in St. Louis, no more than 20 other families. Last year the Mosaic Project loaned her the space to host an event to bring these families together and to share their rich culture with all who were interested. 

    On this night Nikki showcases Azeri hospitality which is warm and generous. She has prepared a feast of authentic Azeri cuisine. The food is delicious and the hosts are so kind and willing to share their experiences.  St. Louis is all the richer for having welcomed this family into the community. Their gratitude to the Mosaic Project is clear. What advice would they give to other international newcomers? Without even a moment of hesitation Nikki says, “Call the St. Louis Mosaic Project.”




    Interviewed and written by Harriet Blickenstaff