Tanya Stepanova never won anything in her life until last year -- when she hit the jackpot.
The Russian woman entered a lottery and won green cards for herself, her husband and three boys, and the whole family has moved to Juneau to start a new life as Alaskans. The lottery is sponsored by the United States government, and offered internationally.
Sons Ivan, 15, and Dmitry, 14, are now students at Juneau-Douglas High School. Son Iliya, 20, plans to attend the University of Alaska Southeast this fall.
``I feel at home here,'' Stepanova said. ``It's strange, but I immediately felt at home. Maybe it's the friends, but everyone here has been so friendly and open and helpful.''
One of the friends is Ann Boochever, a teacher at Auke Bay Elementary School. The two women met in 1992 when Boochever took a group of 15 teen-age exchange students to Saransk, Mordovia, Stepanova's former home. Stepanova, 44, is an English teacher and helped translate for the group.
``They could have moved anywhere,'' Boochever said. ``She decided of all the places in America, this would be a good safe place for her children.''
Over the years, the two teachers maintained their friendship. Stepanova, an active, athletic woman who loves the outdoors, was intrigued by what she learned about the Juneau area from her friend. She scouted out Juneau on the Internet, and even e-mailed Gov. Tony Knowles and received an encouraging response.
She said she learned that Alaska is not like the rest of the United States.
``It's different. The history, the traditions, the isolation. It's closest to Russia,'' she said. ``Life here is not so hectic. I prefer to live closer to nature, and know people face to face. Alaska seems like that, and Juneau in particular.''
Janna Lelchuk, another Russian who immigrated to Juneau with her family years ago, also sent encouraging e-mails. Stepanova's family is now living in Lelchuk's furnished apartment, thanks to serendipitous timing.
George Stepanov, 48, said his family had a good life in Russia, successful careers and friends. He has a doctoral degree in linguistics and master's degrees in education and teaching administration. He served as the principal at the school for talented and gifted students where Tanya taught English. Both won awards and commendations for their work, he said.
``We had almost everything,'' he said. ``Out of the blue sky there came this lottery. It was like something was sending you something -- a choice, a challenge, and a chance. God was sending us a chance to try ourselves again, depending only on our our skills, optimism, you know, human qualities.''
He said he would like to continue working as a school administrator, if he can brush up on the Alaska qualifications.
One major factor that influenced their decision to leave was the war in Chechnya. Russia has a mandatory draft, he said.
``We don't want our sons drafted, and to kill their own people. We are very against this war.''
Mordovia is in the heart of Russia, 400 miles from Moscow. Although their former home of Saransk is a city of 300,000, Tanya said it has a rural feeling and is surrounded by deep forests. The boys love to fish, and have been enjoying school and the outdoors.
The high-school age boys said JDHS is very friendly. Ivan, a sophomore, found that he's advanced enough that he can skip his junior year and will start as a senior next fall.
His father said their life before was marked by many accomplishments, and now they are poised to start anew. He said their arrival in Juneau was a historic moment for the family.
``Before our life was full of events,'' he said. ``Now our life is full of discovery,''
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