A Matter of Perspective: A Ukrainian in America

Rutgers–Camden librarian reflects on the life she left in Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine

Rutgers–Camden Robeson Library Associate Director Regina Koury may spend her days keeping up with circulation, research, and student requests, but when the day is done, her thoughts turn to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Koury was born in Russia, and her family relocated to Ukraine during her childhood. Having lived in both countries gives her a unique perspective of life in the region.

For Koury, it’s very personal. She knows that flow of information is unreliable because there’s no specific source of clear facts. “I watch the television news here, and I also check the Russian news, but it’s very biased. I read a newspaper from Ukraine that has a better local perspective, and I put that together with the conversations I have with my mom in Ukraine to formulate a full image of what’s going on.”

Koury’s mother lives in Nikolaev, a city of 500,000 in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. There, nobody talks about the situation or what lies ahead. They all have it in the back of their minds, she says, but it’s not discussed aloud. “They go to the market, get their food, and act like everything is fine. They don’t talk about possibilities. They don’t hear the news we’re hearing, so they don’t feel a lot of anxiety. My mom hopes she’s not subjected to bombing, and she wonders how long things will last, yet she’s not disturbed. But I am, because I hear a fuller story.”

Remembering it Like Yesterday

Koury knows the feeling well. Growing up, she saw Ukraine turn from lush and prosperous to untended and impoverished as the economy deteriorated. “Ukraine has wonderful people, great resources and incredible beauty. But without support and relationships with other countries, it can’t move forward. I’ve seen the areas where I grew up fall into disrepair and it’s sad. I used to spend many happy times at the Black Sea, but now I can hardly recognize it. The beaches are overgrown and there is no infrastructure in place. No lifeguards or shops to visit, no boats on the water.”

Koury’s love of the Black Sea is one reason she loves New Jersey. She’s visited the Jersey Shore and it reminds her of her childhood days by the sea, though the water is chillier than what she grew up with.

“There is so much about New Jersey that is like Ukraine,” she says. “The climates are very similar—humid in the summer, and cold in the winter, but the winters are soft—not as extreme as some parts of the country. There were lots of fruits and vegetables, and my mother made wonderful cakes and pastries. It was a terrific place, but when I went back to visit in 2015, it was empty, run down, and very different. New Jersey takes care of its facilities because the US economic situation is so different.”

Regina Koury in Nikolaev, Ukraine

Regina Koury in Nikolaev, Ukraine. Image courtesy of Regina Koury.

Regina Koury in Nikolaev, Ukraine. Image courtesy of Regina Koury.

Regina's mom, Olga Tikhonova

Regina's mom, Olga Tikhonova. Image courtesy of Regina Koury.

Regina's mom, Olga Tikhonova. Image courtesy of Regina Koury.

Coast of the Black Sea in Chornomorsk, Ukraine

Coast of the Black Sea in Chornomorsk, Ukraine

Coast of the Black Sea in Chornomorsk, Ukraine

A Proud New American

Even though she has warm memories of her years in Ukraine, Koury has no interest in repatriating.

“I’m happy to be away from the stress,” Koury says. “I love New Jersey and it’s my home now. I became a United States citizen in 2019 and voted in the 2020 election. It felt unreal that my voice could be heard. I’m an immigrant, yet I can make a change in the country. It was fabulous, indescribable. Becoming a citizen took a lot of hard work and gave me a tremendous sense of pride. Everything this country stands for is so valuable. When I lived in Ukraine, it was communist and there were no elections. Now, I vote religiously.”

Koury intends to stay in America and participate in the freedoms she now has. “I even want to be on jury duty,” she says. “I want to experience the process. I love this country and I never have a thought of going back to Ukraine. I want my mom to move here, but she’s independent, active, and very tied to Ukraine. We’ll have to see about that.”

Koury arrived in the United States in 1996, with a degree in English and German education from Tomsk State Pedagogical University in Tomsk, Russia. She received an M.Ed. in instructional technology from Idaho State University and a Master of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2016, she joined Rutgers–Camden as the associate director of the Robeson Library.

Regina Koury, Associate University Librarian

Regina Koury, Associate University Librarian

Regina Koury, Associate University Librarian

Professionally, she enjoys her current library work. “This is a fast-paced job that gives me new challenges every day. I hope to pursue my Ph.D. in library science.”

Now that she’s an American, Koury hopes to stay close to her 17-year-old daughter, who will be off to college soon. “If she goes on to have a family, I know I’ll want to be near them.”

Hope for the Future

Still, she can’t help but think about all that’s happening in Ukraine. “I’m optimistic. I have to be. Maybe not in my lifetime, but at some point, it’s possible for Ukraine to become a functional country with a decent economy. I hope the relationship between Ukraine and Russia can improve so they develop a government that is not corrupt. Other former Soviet countries have built better lives, so Ukraine can and should, as well.”

When you hear Koury speak, you can feel her conviction that the American dream is very real and still exists. “My husband tells me how things were different here years ago, but I see what I see now, and it’s fabulous. Even with its flaws, America is amazing.”

“Once the Soviet Union dissolved, we were faced with a lack of opportunities. Young people wanted to move to Poland or Germany just to have a chance for something better. Looking back at my life, I’d have never achieved what I’ve done here if I’d stayed. Simply having a car, traveling across the country—those things would have never been possible.”

It’s easy for Khoury to maintain a positive outlook. “This country has been so good to me, with work, opportunities and even in times of disagreements. It can’t compare to Russia or Ukraine. People there get put in jail if they complain about life or politics. Here, we have the freedom to object. Even though we face difficulties here, it’s still full of wonderful opportunities and privileges. There is much to improve here, but by far, it’s the freest country.”

Creative Design: Douglas Shelton