For Russian immigrant in sanctuary, pierogi business taking off

  • Irida Kakhtiranova makes pierogies Tuesday in the basement kitchen of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She did not want her face shown because she is in sanctuary at the church, in fear of deportation by ICE. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Brian Haas holds pierogies he just bought at the Northampton Farmers market made by Irida Kakhtiranova. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Joshua Raposa, an intern at the Workers Center, and Janet Bush, the minister at the Unitarian Society in Northampton, sells pierogies made by Irida Kakhtiranova at the Tuesday farmers market in Northampton to Brian Haas, left, and Anne Knauf. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


  • Joshua Raposa, an intern at the Workers Center, and Janet Bush, the minister at the Unitarian Society in Northampton, sells pierogies made by Irida Kakhtiranova at the Tuesday farmers market in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2019 10:34:20 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Entering the basement of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence on Tuesday, a visitor might expect that the church was empty. The meeting room was dark and quiet, the only light coming from a small kitchen. 

But inside that kitchen, a one-woman gourmet food operation was underway. Irida Kakhtiranova bounced about, putting on a hair net and sanitizing the countertop. She then opened the fridge to take out homemade dough and white farmer’s cheese for her in-demand specialty: pierogies, dumplings of eastern European origin.

“It’s some sort of meditation,” she said, flattening the dough with a rolling pin. “I think about food and not problems.”

Kakhtiranova, a Russian immigrant who has been in the country since 2003, began living in the church for 15 months to avoid deportation after she was denied a stay of removal under the new policies of the Trump administration. Faced with likely long-distance separation from her American husband and their three children, who live in western Massachusetts, she chose to live in sanctuary in the church — a “sensitive location” where federal agents won’t conduct deportations.

Beyond just meditation, the pierogies also provide an important source of income for Kakhtiranova’s family. And after they became increasingly popular over the past year, she recently began selling the dumplings at two prominent Northampton institutions: the Tuesday Farmers Market and the natural foods store Cornucopia.

“It is incredibly important for me to still be helpful while I’m in here,” Kakhtiranova said. She was her family’s primary breadwinner before entering sanctuary, she said, and is striving to keep the family afloat financially while confined inside the church.

Kakhtiranova said she first started making pierogies several years ago at home because she didn’t like any of the ones she could buy at the grocery store. She said it took her a year to perfect the craft.

“After that, my kids don’t touch any other pierogies anymore,” she said with a smile.

Kakhtiranova came to the United States in 2003 on a work-travel visa that she eventually overstayed. She married her husband in 2007, and moved to western Massachusetts to be closer to his family.

Under the Obama administration, immigrants without criminal backgrounds were not deemed a priority for deportation, and were frequently granted yearly stays of removal. That was the case for Kakhtiranova.

But under President Donald Trump that policy has changed, and in June 2017 Kakhtiranova was denied a stay of removal for the first time. She entered sanctuary at the Unitarian Society the day before a scheduled check-in with ICE, during which she was likely to face deportation.

One day, after she began living in the Unitarian Society, Kakhtiranova made some pierogies for her family and ended up having extras. So she brought them to a staff meeting upstairs, where a thought occurred to Janet Bush, the church’s minister.

“You should try to sell these,” she remembers telling Kakhtiranova, who had been looking for ways to support her family.

And that’s how the business started. On a quiet week, Kakhtiranova said, she will make 15 dozen pierogies. And on a busy week, she can make as many as 50 dozen.

Kakhtiranova makes her dumplings with all of the fillings typical in Russian cuisine: mushroom and onion, farmer’s cheese, potato and onion, cabbage. But now that she is selling her culinary creations at Cornucopia, she is offering a unique flavor exclusive to the grocery store: strawberry-rhubarb.

The treats certainly have a bit of a following in the area, as was evident at the farmers market Tuesday.

“We sold out the first batch within 10 minutes,” said Joshua Raposa, an intern with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center who was manning the pierogies table on Tuesday. Raposa had to call over to the church to have another batch sent over.

One of those who purchased the dumplings was Kym Freedman of Suffield, Connecticut. She was at the farmers market last week when she ran across the pierogies by chance.

“I was able to get two packages,” she said. “I went home and made some and they were insanely good.”

This week, Freedman drove the 30 minutes to Northampton to buy four packages of four for $40.

Kakhtiranova dreams of continuing her business when she gets out of the church. But at the moment, she doesn’t know when that will be. She said that reality — being unable to live a normal life with her family — can weigh heavy on her. 

But reflecting on her situation, she said she wouldn’t change her decision to live in sanctuary.

“It was the best choice ever, honestly,” she said. “It might suck for my family, but they’re still with me.”

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