Russian hostage crisis stuns Valley immigrants

Natalia Holmes and her husband Wesley Holmes speak after church services at Sts. Peter and Paul Eastern Orthodox Church in Phoenix about the recent terrorism attack at Russian school.

Casey Newton -- The Arizona Republic -- Sept. 6, 2004

All week, Russian immigrant Natalia Holmes has been in shock.

The terrorist attack at School No. 1 in Beslan, Russia, has left the Laveen teacher grieving for more than 300 children, parents and teachers killed in the hostage crisis.

"I cannot imagine this tragedy," said Holmes, who teaches Spanish at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix. "For this to happen on the first day of school - that's a time of hope and dreams. I can't imagine this."

Fighting back tears as she spoke, the native of Grozny, Chechnya, explained that she comes from a family of teachers. News that so many of her colleagues had died was especially difficult for Holmes, who emigrated from Russia six years ago.

"She's totally, totally upset," said her husband, Wesley.

"She can't understand how people can be so cruel."

The attack has riveted parishioners at Sts. Peter and Paul Eastern Orthodox Church, 1614 E. Monte Vista Road, Phoenix, where recent Russian immigrants make up a significant part of the congregation. After Divine Liturgy on Sunday, churchgoers echoed Holmes' feelings, saying they were devastated by the hostage crisis that ended Friday after a series of explosions.

Some called for Russia to take swift action against those responsible.

"If they don't get rid of those people, they'll never have peace," said Tania Booriakin, a Ukrainian immigrant, referring to the Chechen militants thought to be responsible for the attack.

"Anybody who does that to children should be destroyed."

Booriakin's husband, Walter, said the attack was not surprising given Russia's ongoing war against Chechnya.

"It was just an escalation of what terrorism is all about," said the second-generation American, who lives with his wife in Scottsdale.

"But the methods they use -- it's inexcusable."

The attack has left Russians in the Valley wondering how they can comfort their countrymen.

"You feel helpless -- there's nothing you can do," said Phoenix resident Irene Wolosz, the daughter of a Russian immigrant.

The Very Rev. Gabriel Cooke said he has had to counsel several parishioners who have come to him "in a state of crisis." The church held a memorial service for the victims, and parishioners have been lighting candles to honor the faithful who died.

"Even though this terrible evil has come upon them, the light of their Christian faith cannot be extinguished," said Cooke, whose grandparents were from Ukraine.

Cooke said that now his congregation's attentions are turning from Russia to the United States, where they have begun to fear a similar incident will one day take place.

"Every American is afraid of this kind of thing happening in the U.S.," he said.

"We hope the government can learn from this tragedy how better to protect us."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-6853.

Much more information and donations:

The Russian Children's Welfare Society, founded in 1926 and based out of New York, has started a Beslan Relief Fund and will be working closely with doctor Leonid Roshall in Moscow to supply medicines, medical supplies and money directly to burn victims' families. Donations can be sent to:
Russian Children's Welfare Society
Beslan Relief Fund
200 Park Avenue South, suite 1617
New York, NY 10003

Credit card payments can be made by calling Masha or Anna at 212.473.6263.
All funds are channeled directly to victims and their care providers.
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