When Elsa Rafikova arrived in California eight years ago from Uzbekistan in Central Asia, her desire to meet "real" Koreans led her to Koreatown. But when Koreans tried to communicate with her, Rafikova felt embarrassed.
An ethnic Korean and the second generation in her family born in the former Soviet Union, Rafikova could not speak Korean. Her mother tongue is Russian.
"Because my face and skin look Korean, they automatically thought I was Korean," said Rafikova, 58, whose maiden name is Choi. "They would talk to me naturally, but I would look at them with blind eyes and deaf ears, and being a Korean in blood and skin, I felt ashamed."
Rafikova is one of thousands of ethnic Koreans whose ancestors immigrated to Russia's Far East in the second half of the 19th century, seeking to escape famine, economic hardship and the threat of Japanese imperialism in their homeland.
Then, in the 1930s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's government sent about 200,000 ethnic Koreans thousands of miles west to Central Asia -- in particular to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- on the premise that otherwise they might act as spies for Japan.
With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, life for about 450,000 Soviet Koreans was disrupted again. In newly independent Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, discrimination against people other than Uzbeks and Kazakhs became common.
Thousands of ethnic Koreans joined ethnic Russians in leaving Central Asia for Russia in the 1990s. Some, however, made it to the United States.
Many of those who landed here, like Rafikova, now yearn to learn more about their cultural heritage and develop closer ties with other Korean Americans. But they often find that the Korean community has not fully embraced them.
Rafikova is intent on bridging the gap between Korean Americans -- most of them originally from South Korea -- and Russian-speaking Korean immigrants, for whom she also wants to carve out a special niche in Los Angeles.
"I am trying to build a Russian Korean American community," said Rafikova, who recently married an ethnic Russian and merged his sons -- ages 14 and 11 -- and her 16-year-old daughter into one family. "I want to unite our people."
The gregarious former university academic knows firsthand the feeling of being left out.
Her first husband died in 1995, the year before she first visited the United States. So with few friends and only her preteen daughter for company, her early years in America were ones of isolation. But not a person to give up without a fight, she decided to do something to combat her loneliness.
Building on a few phrases of an antiquated Korean dialect she had learned from her now-deceased parents, Rafikova taught herself Korean, which she now speaks fluently -- though with a Russian accent, she acknowledged.
A staunch born-again Christian, she studied theology using books and other materials gathered from Christian academic institutions with the help of John Kim, a local Korean American pastor who sponsored Rafikova's initial visit to America.
In 1999, she was able to start a church with the financial backing of Kim, whom she met during one of his many missionary trips to Uzbekistan.
Today, the little house of worship, in a small hall on the first floor of the World Agape Mission on South Lake Avenue on the outskirts of Koreatown, provides a sanctuary mainly for Koreans who came from Uzbekistan. Their first language is Russian, and they were weaned on the cultural norms and political dogma of the Soviet Union.
Rafikova now spends most Sundays ministering to the congregation. She also works on a contract basis as the Russian program director for Angels' Haven Outreach, a Santa Clarita-based international adoption agency. The remainder of her time is filled helping Russian Koreans deal with the process of gaining refugee status and settling into life in the United States.
"This is my great concern," Rafikova said. "When people come, they need shelter. They need help."
Most of the Russian Koreans are in the United States as refugees. In Uzbekistan, Koreans have become increasingly marginalized because of their ethnicity, language and religious beliefs. Most are atheist, Russian Orthodox or Christians of other kinds, whereas the dominant faith in Uzbekistan is Islam. Uzbek -- a member of the Turkic family of languages -- has become the official language of the republic, further alienating Russian-speaking ethnic Koreans.
Rafikova's aim is to ensure that newcomers to America have a safety net that allows them to more easily adapt to their new land.
To give the immigrants a stronger chance of gaining access to the vast business empire run by Korean Americans in Los Angeles, Rafikova is seeking to raise funds that would allow her to organize Korean-language classes for them.
"The church has united us, but the Russian Korean American community will develop us," Rafikova said.