A weekend vacation in Cleveland, Tenn., won Lyudmila Voytso's heart and led her to move five years ago to the small Southern city.
"I feel like I am at home here. I feel good, the climate is good, jobs are good. It's all in one package," said the 46-year-old accountant and teacher who moved from Ukraine to Rochester, N.Y., before heading south.
During the last 10 years, the Slavic population, especially from Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union, has gradually increased in the region, local residents say.
"I've lived in Cleveland 14 years and, since about 2000, I started noticing it because I saw some people coming to where I work," said Deborah Jones, a Cleveland resident who teaches elementary in Dalton, Ga.
In order to meet one of the needs of this growing community, her church, Ridgeview Baptist Church, is offering free English classes once a week for Russian-speaking adults, with the help of Ms. Voytso as the interpreter.
Last Thursday, they had 10 people register and church members hope more will join, Mrs. Jones said.
"There's a lot going on for Hispanics, and we didn't want to leave the Slavic community behind," she said.
After Hispanics, immigrants and refugees who come from the former Soviet Union make the largest foreign-born group in Cleveland.
"About 10 years ago, it was only six families here in Cleveland," said Ms. Voytso. "Now we have a lot more, at least 250 families," the majority from Ukraine followed by Russia.
There are at least four Slavic churches in Cleveland alone, said Ms. Voytso, who's also a member of the Cleveland Church of Evangelical Faith, which has more than 200 members.
Although some are refugees resettled by Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services in Chattanooga, there's a lot of secondary migration, which means, said Marina Peshterianu, office manager for Bridge and a native of Ukraine.
"They are big families and Cleveland is a good community, very affordable and strong (church) roots appealing to this population," she said.
In Tennessee, there are close to 1,800 residents from Russia and about 900 from Ukraine.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 1,705 foreign-born from Russia in Tennessee.
* 849 foreign-born from the Ukraine in Tennessee.
* 340,177 foreign-born from Russia in the United States.
* 275,153 foreign-born from the Ukraine in the United States.
Source: Migration Policy Institute, 2000 Census data
* Classes are held Thursdays from 6:30-8 p.m. at Ridgeview Baptist Church, 1501 S. Ocoee St., Cleveland, Tenn.
* For more information or to enroll in the English class, call 423-310-1152 in English or 423-505-6552 in Russian.
Still, the majority of Russians and Ukrainians live in New York, California and New Jersey, said Jeanne Batalova, policy analyst for the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
"There is a movement mostly driven by economic conditions," she said. "Housing prices are higher and job opportunities are drying up in traditional states, so people are moving to other parts of the country like Tennessee, Ohio, where there already are established communities, families who can help with the initial integration."
Another reason might be a desire to have a middle-class life that is affordable and provides better opportunities for their children, she said.
Myron Napora, deacon at the Cleveland Church of Evangelical Faith, moved from New York City after visiting some friends.
"As Christians, we believe in letting our kids grow without TV, Internet, more accordingly to the biblical way," said the 32-year-old who came to the United States 22 years ago from Ukraine.
Cleveland is a place where he can raise his five children according to his family values, he said.