The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
With smiles on their faces, toes tapping and fingers flying over the keys and strings of their instruments, the multi-talented Belekalo family is sure to be a crowd pleaser at the upcoming 6th Annual Winnebago Music Fest.
Slated for 2 p.m., Sunday, March 21, the sounds of the Belekalo’s accordion, violin and tsimbali, are sure to mesmerize the audience attending the fund raising concert at Winnebago’s First Baptist Church. The event is being sponsored by, and to benefit, Interfaith Caregivers-Faith in Action in Faribault County.
The afternoon of music will also spotlight the talents of the Irish singing duo, Dr. Joe Tempel and Richard Miller.
From Russian folk songs to Irish ballads, this year’s music fest, with its international flair, promises a little of something for everyone.
The highlight of the concert, undoubtedly, will be the musical performance by the Belekalo family who recently emigrated to the United States from Volkovysk, Belarus.
Victor and Liliya (Lily) Belekalo and their daughter, Alexandra (Sasha), are highly trained and gifted musicians. They will be performing classical, popular and Belarusian folksongs on the accordion, violin and tsimbali, which is a musical instrument in the dulcimer family.
The Republic of Belarus is slightly smaller than the state of Kansas. According to the Belekalos, it has a land-locked terrain and is low-lying with thick forests, flat marshes and fields.
They say their country was occupied by the Russian Empire from the end of the 18th century until 1918. Its independence was short-lived when it was later forcibly absorbed by the Bolsheviks into what became the Soviet Union (USSR). In 1991, the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
Born in Volkovysk, Victor says today the city has a population of about 40,000. A very agricultural area, the city is known for its meat processing plants, milk distribution to 75 other countries, concrete and machinery production.
Sasha proudly says there is a large TV tower in Moscow which sits on a base of concrete that was manufactured in Volkovysk.
There are also clothing factories in their hometown due to the cotton industry and there is also a metal factory located there.
“Austria has a billion different types of sausages they make, but we make more,” Sasha says of her homeland’s summer sausage factories.
The Belekalo family has been living and working in Fairmont since their arrival in the U.S. from Belarus on July 12, 2009.
Coming to America was like winning the lottery for this Belarus family.
About ten years ago, Victor says he applied for a ‘green card’ which would allow him to emigrate to America with his family. Annually, 50,000 of those applying are admitted into the U.S.
It was a pleasant surprise, after waiting so many years, to learn last summer they had been accepted to emigrate here.
With the assistance of his daughter translating, Victor says, “I had forgotten about making the application,”
Applicants for this program must be stable people who support the U.S., explains Victor. One must also possess good mental health and be of good moral standing to be considered.
The Belekalo family certainly met the standards, since both Victor and Lily were well-respected and talented teachers. Victor taught students ages 9-16 the accordion over a period of 33 years and Lily had taught music to children ages 6-15 for 27 years at the Volkovysk Music School.
Victor’s teaching duties were interrupted briefly, from 1979-1981, when he was required by the government, through universal conscription, to serve in the Russian Army. All males are required to enter the Army when they are 18. He served in Afghanistan when the war was first starting there, he says.
“The first year I spent in Uzbekistan, one of 15 republics in Russia, doing basic training,” he says. “The second year I was in Afghanistan. There was no pay. You never knew where you were going to be sent until you got there. You followed orders or they would kill you.”
The only good thing about entering the service, Victor says, is the fact you are guaranteed your job back once you are discharged.
Lily, like her daughter, studied music at the Minsk University Culture and Arts school. Located in Minsk, the capitol city of Belarus, it is just 240 kilometers or about 150 miles from their home city of Volkovysk.
At the time the family received their ‘green cards,’ Sasha was living in Minsk attending the university where she has completed two years of a five year master music program. She was taking music lessons there which featured jazz improvisation, in addition to studying violin and symphony orchestra conducting. Her goal is to eventually continue her musical education in the Twin Cities.
Upon learning they were eligible to leave their homeland, the Belekalos got in contact with their friend, Oksana Schrunk. Formerly of Belarus, Schrunk resides in the Truman area with her husband and children. It was because of her, the family decided to reside in the Fairmont area.
Coming to America has been a dream come true for the Belarus family. But it has not been without some stumbling blocks along the way. The major one being their inability to speak much English. Thanks to their friend, Schrunk, and their computer, they are learning the language as quickly as they possibly can.
Nevertheless, moving to the States has been a hard adjustment for the family. Not only have they missed their friends and family members, but also their teaching positions and the students they taught. They also have missed their large garden in which they grew a lot of vegetables they canned for eating during the winter.
The family has always enjoyed traveling, so they knew what they were getting themselves into. In fact, they knew when they received their ‘green cards’ they would resign themselves to just go with the flow even if they were faced with difficulties.
What they hadn’t expected though, was how jealous some of their Belarusian friends and neighbors became toward them.
“The people there think people in America are swimming in gold and diamonds,” translates Schrunk for Victor and Lily.
Upon settling in Fairmont, the family soon began working at the Pizza Ranch. When they are not working, they continue practicing their instruments and are tuned in to their computer. It has become their lifeline and English language tutor.
To read more of this story, see this week’s Register.