Brokered brides seeking better life
By ANDREW MARTON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Ralph Lauer
December 7, 2007
Natasha Henderson was a Russian bride brought over by an older man that had been married twice before with five children. She is now divorced and has a son by her ex-husband, and lives in Irving, Texas.
FORT WORTH, Texas — Web sites pair American men with Russian women. But mismatched expectations on both sides can turn dreams of marital bliss into a true nightmare.
Back on Dec. 4, 2000, a sloe-eyed Nataliya Robertovna Yamayeva arrived in the United States wearing a $200 engagement ring from her American fiance. On the surface, “Natasha” Yamayeva was like all other newly minted fiancees, brimming with affection for her future husband. She was also filled with pastel visions of her future life in a Southern town bordering a leafy college campus, where Yamayeva could add to her Russian-earned college degrees in English and French and the couple could raise the child they were expecting.
But Yamayeva's new American life would gradually darken. While she blames her husband, their painful misalliance was facilitated by an international marriage broker boasting rosters of compliant women once quaintly labeled “mail-order brides.”
“I badly wanted to chase a dream about the overseas prince,” says Yamayeva, her smile tugged by an undertow of sadness. “But how could I know I would become a hostage to my own husband?”
Yamayeva's story arc – from her first encounter with her American suitor, through her falling down a marital rabbit hole – is a window into the murky subculture of Internet-brokered marriages, which often are built over a cultural chasm of mismatched expectations.
That Yamayeva is Russian is hardly coincidental, as she is part of a recent wave of fashion-shoot-primped, well-educated Russian (and, often, Ukrainian) women who, in the wake of the `90s collapse of the Soviet Union and the recent loosening of visa restrictions, have set their sights on improving their lives through an Internet matchmaking agency.
The primary motivation pushing many women is the desire to find a supportive, stable husband – and a lifestyle approaching the Hollywood-tinted visions they've long nurtured.
And the men? “Essentially, the men are looking for a housewife, reminiscent of American life in the 1950s,” writes Lisa Schwamkrug, a Denton County, Texas, assistant district attorney, in an independent report published in 2005, titled, “The Russian Mail-Order Bride Industry: From Russia for Love, to America in Danger.”
“Many men state they are either tired of or turned off by feminist American women and want a wife who is not obsessed with her career or her rights,” the report says.
To some, the bride is little more than a commodity. At datingdepot.com, clients were urged to “Add Olga (48872) to my order,” according to a report by the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center, a legal services agency serving immigrant women. And armcandyinternational.com, according to the Tahirih Center, brashly dismisses the $10,500 fee as “less than (the price of) an economy car.”
To be sure, a mail-order-bride system – where men page through a thick catalog filled with thumbnail pictures of women before initiating a letter-based courtship – has been around for decades. But lately, this process has ramped up to an Internet-woven network of international matchmaking or marriage brokers – often notable for cheesy handles such as First Dream (based in Carrollton, Texas), Cherry Blossoms and Hot Russian Brides – all peddling a virtual runway of comely women, from Russia, Ukraine and the Philippines, to Costa Rica and Brazil.
More than 400 international marriage brokers are based in the United States, according to the Tahirih Center. It estimates that one-third to one-half of foreign fiancees coming to the United States – between 11,000 and 16,500 a year – encountered their future husbands through an international broker.
Born 34 years ago in Vologda (north of Moscow), Yamayeva spent most of her student years in the central Russian town of Tambov. She graduated from Tambov State University in 1996 and later earned a master's degree. Starting out as a language teacher, Yamayeva lived with her parents and found it “really difficult to meet anybody,” she said.
Part of her social problems stemmed from disappointment with Russian men. “A lot of them drink heavily. And when they drink, they can be violent,” she says. “I just knew that a foreigner would be different.”
In the former Soviet Union, women outnumber men, in part because alcoholism and wars have taken their tolls, Schwamkrug said. That's why educated women employed as engineers, college professors and doctors are avid participants in the international marriage souk, she added.
“And when you throw in the age bias – meaning that a 23-year-old woman, especially if divorced, is often marginalized as an old maid – then one understands why women like Yamayeva are likely to look aggressively beyond their own country,” Schwamkrug said.
In the summer of 1999, Yamayeva had her life-altering, “Sex and the City” moment, thanks to an afternoon spent with her friends, commiserating over coffee about their atrophying social lives.
A close friend piped up, “asking me,” recalls Yamayeva, “since I speak English, why don't I look for a better life with someone who will really respect me as a woman?”
Yamayeva contacted five matchmaking-marriage agencies' Web sites and submitted a profile filled with pictures. Her Web portfolio soon became inundated with responses. In September 1999, one American, Glen Joseph Henderson, rose above the pack of cyber suitors.
Henderson said he came across Yamayeva's profile by accident. “I'm a computer person, and I happened to be divorced at the time, working at night,” he said in a brief interview. “I didn't know such a thing existed.”
Yamayeva was impressed that Henderson was doing some computer technical and maintenance work at a job that paid $75,000 a year and had been the pastor of his own church. Henderson was pastor at 42nd Street Church in Panama City, Fla., according to F. Nolan Ball, pastor of The Rock of Panama City, who said he has known Henderson since 1970.
“He had been in the ministry … and in Russia, this connection to the church made him possibly an almost perfect new husband,” says Yamayeva. “I got so, so very happy that I didn't pay attention to me being 26 and he being 49.”
Culminating a months-long letter and telephone courtship, Henderson went to Moscow in April 2000 to meet Yamayeva – who was taken aback by the contrast in how his once-dark hair (in his dated online picture) was heavily sprinkled with cinder gray.
“But we were still really happy to meet each other,” says Yamayeva. “It got romantic pretty quickly, I think because we didn't have much time to spend together.”
And then, Henderson popped the question.
Amid the initial euphoria of her greased-lightning engagement, Yamayeva said she sensed that Henderson's financial circumstances were not as stable as he had suggested – a not uncommon bit of deception with Internet-brokered marriages.
But after Yamayeva discovered that she was pregnant, Henderson seemed genuinely thrilled and rushed to complete her immigration paperwork, she said.
Yamayeva said she was so swept up in Henderson's enthusiasm that she brushed aside any early warning signs about the relationship.
LIFE IN THE STATES
It didn't take long after Yamayeva's arrival in the States for her to see Henderson differently. She found out that in May 2000 he had received a D.U.I. that suspended his driver's license. What's more, only months after their engagement, he had lost the job with the comfortable salary that had impressed her. Ball said that he hired and fired Henderson from a computer job with The Rock church in 2000.
Yamayeva remembers “that by the time I arrived to the States, I discovered that not only didn't Glen have a job, but he didn't have a car or a real place to live.”
Before the January 2001 birth of their son, Yamayeva had to pack her bags for the first of a dizzying series of job-to-job moves. The first of those stops was Marion, N.C., where the couple got married Feb. 14, 2001. They chose a justice of the peace at the jail to conduct the ceremony – and a police officer and a fellow member of Henderson's defensive-driving class served as last-minute witnesses.
Cost of the ceremony: $10.
No reception followed.
The family darted between two small cities in North Carolina before motoring on to Newton, Texas, and a job with the fledgling wine business run by Henderson's eldest son. After a short time, they moved to Dallas, then the trek churned back to Newton, where Henderson took a different job before becoming unemployed.
During this Texas chapter, Yamayeva said, a more complete picture of Henderson's prior life began to spill out. She said she learned that Henderson had more children from a previous marriage than the two she believed that he had. Records show a Glen J. Henderson with his date of birth also had a 1993 arrest on suspicion of carrying a concealed firearm.
It is common for an Internet bride to be unaware of unflattering parts of her new husband's background. Addressing this, Congress passed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, which requires brokers to collect personal background information on the U.S. client – including specified criminal and marital history – before providing information on how to contact the foreign client. The law, enacted last year, also requires a criminal background check of anyone seeking a visa for an immigrant fiance or spouse.
The law's aim is to protect immigrant women from emotional or physical abuse.
“Since 2000, fully 50 percent of those legal service providers we contacted – those representing physically abused foreign fiancees – report many of these women met their abusers through an international marriage brokerage,” says Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih's director of public policy.
Yamayeva was not physically abused. But she said that Henderson isolated her and harbored suspicions about her fidelity.
“He really never let me communicate with anyone, and I became very homesick to speak my language,” she said. “Oftentimes, I didn't have food, friends or a car, and I was just left to sit alone in the house.”
Yamayeva said that Henderson, over a two-year period, secretly recorded all of her Russian-language phone conversations and had them translated.
Henderson told one of his bosses that he had purchased computer software that would eavesdrop on, and translate, her e-mails. And after Yamayeva landed a job at a department store in Jasper, he would linger outside her work as she emerged to go to lunch, wanting, she said, to make sure she wasn't using her 30-minute break to cheat on him.
The store manager, Kay Lane, recalls seeing him sitting in a car in the parking lot on several occasions while Yamayeva was working, and sometimes coming into the store to ask if she was there.
“Often, she would be upset because he was coming in to check on her,” Lane said.
Yamayeva said she felt powerless. Like other immigrant brides, she believed her husband would have the legal right to take their son if she tried to get out of the marriage or objected to any treatment.
“I really felt like a hostage at this point,” Yamayeva said. Still, a combination of Russian cultural qualities may have kept Yamayeva invested in her eroding marriage.
“Remember how tough life has been in Russia,” says Schwamkrug. “And so, culturally speaking, a mail-order bride from there knows how difficult it can be, so they can be very forgiving, not faulting someone for not having a job, and, instead, trying to help each other out. Culturally, it is Russian tradition of being driven to build a family and then hold it together that oftentimes will keep a Russian woman in a cross-cultural relationship – perhaps to her ultimate detriment.”
Says Yamayeva: “I told him that I would stay with him in spite of anything.”
GOING IT ALONE
By July 2004, the family had moved back to Florida. Then, Yamayeva said, Henderson sold most of their belongings to finance a move to Cody, Wyo.
Arriving in January 2005, Henderson and Yamayeva began working as house parents for troubled kids at Sonlight Shelter Youth Homes.
“Then after a little more than three months, my husband woke up and decided that he didn't like Cody because it was too cold,” she says.
Yamayeva had had it. When Henderson was fired by his boss, James Stockberger, then-executive director of Sonlight Shelter Youth Homes, and left Cody, Yamayeva and her son decided to stay, and they moved into the city's women's shelter.
She filed for a divorce, which became official in September 2005.
Henderson, who apparently now lives in Mississippi, has a jaded view of Internet marriages. In a brief interview, when first contacted, he said, “After we were divorced, I was casually discussing with Natasha how I thought some of the Russian women were scamming Americans by getting married, and she said, `Let me correct you on that: All of them are scams.' It was her opinion that every Russian woman that hooks up with an American man is trying to screw him.”
Some men, because they are guileless, are easy marks, he said. “All I can tell you is that I'm just that kind of open-book guy,” he said. Henderson later, via e-mail, declined further interviews and did not respond to written questions.
Looking into the rearview mirror of her Internet-brokered marriage, Yamayeva says she is still proud of her quest for a better life. Following the advice of another Russian Internet bride, she settled in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. In 2006, Paul Keyes Elementary School in Irving, Texas, hired her as a special-educational aide, working with children with severe learning disabilities.
She fully accepts doing whatever it takes to maintain her life here.
“I cook, and I clean the house,” she ticks off. “I do everything. I take extra jobs, I raise my child. I simply don't give up. I wanted to tell my story, because when it comes to Russian or other foreign women, they think they will find a better relationship here, but the truth is that sometimes it turns out to be worse.”
McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Marcia Melton and Cathy Belcher contributed to this report.