For Bukharian Teens, Shelter From The Storm

Teen lounge offers a sanctuary for latchkey generation struggling with acculturation.

Yevgeny, a high school student from a Bukharian Jewish family in Queens, had too much time on his hands.

Like many children in émigré families, he would return to an empty home after school each afternoon — both of his parents, working long hours, were still on the job.

Like a small number of Bukharian children, Yevgeny (not his real name) turned to drugs. He stopped going to school, says Maria Pinkhasova, a fellow member of a Bukharian Jewish family who has known him for several years. He started hanging out on the street with the wrong crowd, and appeared likely, as his older brother had, to lose his life to drugs.

Then, influenced by other friends in Queens’ Bukharian Jewish community, he started coming to the Bukharian Teen Lounge, a Forest Hills program under the auspices of the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA). Since the launch of the lounge five years ago, it has increasingly become a sanctuary for teens like Yevgeny, giving them a sense of belonging and camaraderie. A hangout for dozens of young Bukharians at the end of the school day, the lounge allows them to let off a little steam playing pool and ping-pong in the 5,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of a new apartment building on Yellowstone Boulevard. And should they need it, the lounge’s rabbis and social workers are on call for a full range of personal and academic issues.

Time at the lounge “helped him,” Pinkhasova says of Yevgeny. “It gave him a distraction” from the streets. He’s off drugs, has completed his GED degree and, Pinhasova reports, is working at a local kosher restaurant.

The lounge, says Pinkhasova, who has been going there for four years, has helped “a lot” of her peers — those, like Yevgeny, who had begun to engage in at-risk behavior, and other members of a latchkey generation who may have turned to gangs and petty crime without a productive alternative. “It gets people off the streets.”

The lounge — which gets financial support from the city, UJA-Federation of New York and various private foundations — is open five days a week, from the time school gets out. Most of the crowd is junior high and high school students, but also some college students attracted by the myriad activities.

On a recent afternoon, half a dozen Bukharian Jewish teens sat around a conference table in the lounge and described how it has given them confidence, the ability to write a résumé or speak with strangers, to plan for the future and apply to college.

“It’s very valuable — it gives us a sense of pride,” said one girl.

Without the lounge, said 15-year-old Ariella, who declined to give her last name, “I would be sitting at home not doing anything.”

Added Nick Kakuriev, 16: “I would just be hanging out with the wrong type of people.”

It was a familiar refrain.

If not for the lounge, “I would be out on the streets,” David Musheev, 17, said. Eli Zavlunov, 15, who sees kids from his background hanging out, doing drugs, said, “I think I would be one of those kids.”

The lounge helps give the teens a shot at a better future. “They probably wouldn’t go to college,” says Zhanna Beyl, director of Bukharian youth services at the Teen Lounge. Beyl emphasizes that the rate of at-risk behavior among teenage members of the Bukharian Jewish community here is much lower than among the general population, and calls the lounge a “preventative mental health center,” geared to prevent problems rather than deal with existing ones.

According to Debby Perelmuter, JCCA vice president for services, Bukharian Jewish teens, growing up in families whose parents are largely unfamiliar with the ways of America and have not mastered English, “do not see themselves as Americans or as part of the organized American Jewish community.” The parents know little about the college application process, can offer scant career advice and often depend on food stamps. Hence, the kids are at risk of straying.

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