CHICAGO — Anna Tabakh didn’t know a word of English. At age 5, a stranger in a strange land, she was en route with her parents from the Soviet Union to a new home in Kansas City, Mo. But she understood the intent when security guards at a New York City airport suspiciously eyed her stuffed animal, a rather rotund plush toy pig.
“They thought we were smuggling diamonds in my stuffed animal friend,” Tabakh, now 27, says, recalling how her mom, pleading in broken English, persuaded the guards not to tear apart the toy to search its contents.
Tabakh still has the pig in her New York apartment, “to remind me how far I’ve come since those first days.” The beginning was traumatic, she says, but the transition to American life was relatively smooth — a result that some social scientists would say was partly due to her age.
There is, in fact, a term researchers use to describe young people who, like Tabakh, were born in other countries but came to the U.S. between the ages of 5 and 12 and have a foot in two worlds. They call them “Generation 1.5.”
They remember the places they came from but come of age in their new home — and research shows that, while they may struggle at first, many end up adapting better than immigrants who arrive as teenagers.
It is a dynamic that could help explain why the two brothers suspected in the Boston bombings had seemingly different experiences in this country, in terms of how well they adapted.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother, was about 9 when he came to the United States from the Russian Caucasus region. He was more integrated in daily American life, according to accounts from friends and relatives.
By comparison, they say older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev — who came to this country in his mid-teens and died in a gunfight with police after the bombings — had a more difficult time fitting in.
He once told a journalist that he had no American friends. And yet when he returned to his homeland last year, relatives said he had trouble fitting in there, too — that he seemed more American than Chechen.
Experts say that inability to fit into either world is a common predicament for immigrants who came here as teens, though many of them eventually adapt much more successfully than Tamerlan Tsarnaev did.
“Being a teenager itself is such a hard journey. That, coupled with being an immigrant, is very, very difficult,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who ran an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit at a hospital in New York for many years and whose patients included young immigrants.
She says the teen years are a particularly difficult time to fit in because social groups have formed, and cliques are tougher to break into.
“When you’re a little kid, social groups are more in flux,” says Greenberg, who still specializes in adolescents in private practice in Connecticut.
Of course, she and others note, there are many other factors that likely led the elder Tsarnaev brother to allegedly mastermind the bombings — factors that many hope will become clearer as the investigation continues.
Did the absence of their parents, who moved back to Russia, play a role? Did Tamerlan Tsarnaev become a father figure to his younger brother and lead him astray? Were there mental health issues? Did extremist religious views play a role?
“It’s just sad that they lost their way,” says Marko Mamic, 27, a Croatian immigrant in suburban Chicago. His family moved there a decade ago, in search of the one thing that motivates many immigrant families — opportunity.
It was a tough move for a teenager, Mamic recalls. He left his friends. He left his basketball team. He only knew the British form of English he’d learned in school, but had never really used it.
“I was crying so bad. I wanted to go back home my first year,” says Mamic, now 27 and a third-year medical student at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine in suburban Chicago. “You have to start from scratch.”
But Mamic had a strong support system — a tightknit family and a large and active community of Croatian immigrants. He also had sports, a shared love for basketball that helped bridge the gap.
And, he says, he and his sister were very social and made friends easily, a factor that Greenberg says is key.
“Kids who are flexible, kids who are engaging, kids who have a likability factor ... and who can engage both adults and kids — these are the ones who are most resilient,” she says.
Tabakh, the Russian immigrant in New York, says she also watched her mother work her way through dental school here because her Soviet dental degree wasn’t fully recognized in the United States. Tabakh’s parents then set up a dental practice that still exists today.
That gave her motivation to succeed, she says.
But for teens who arrive today, there can be a whole new set of pressures.
In Minneapolis — where a number of disaffected young Somali men have been recruited to fight with a terrorist group in their former homeland — community members such as Abdirizak Bihi are attempting to build a support network. Bihi, whose nephew died in Africa after being recruited, says he and others are trying to teach parents to recognize when a child is being recruited, and involve kids from a young age in positive activities like sports.
He said an early, erroneous report about a black immigrant being connected to the marathon bombings had the community worried, “and when they found out it was not a Somali, there was a tremendous sense of relief.”
Young immigrants who lack legal status face additional stresses. One support effort for them was a handbook for schools written by a Polish immigrant in Chicago, Sylvia Rusin, 21.
Among other things, the book suggests creating “safe zones” so students can openly talk about their immigration status and get support. Many of those students deal with depression and anxiety.
The Boston bombings have only added to the anxiety — by creating more anti-immigrant sentiment and potentially increasing opposition to proposals to allow more immigrants legal residence.
“It’s very difficult to develop a sense of belonging, especially if you’re part of a community that is not positively recognized,” says Leisy Abrego, an assistant professor of Chicano studies at UCLA.
That often includes Muslim and Arab immigrants, says Saeed Khan, a lecturer at Wayne State University in Michigan, whose expertise includes ethnic identity and Muslim culture.
“They come into a culture that has really been defined by 9/11,” Khan says, as the Tsarnaev brothers, both Muslim, would have done.
Hassan Bawab, a native of Lebanon, was a college student in Texas when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened.
“All of that put extra pressure on me. They think that you are that person,” says Bawab, who came to this country at age 18 and sometimes has faced taunts and aggression.
Some friends changed their names to blend in, he says, but he chose not to.
“I’m proud of where I came from and I’m proud of who I am,” says Bawab, who eventually started a Web development business called Magic Logix in suburban Dallas.
Now 32, he also became a U.S. citizen recently — and says he’d rather focus on helping people in his adopted homeland better understand who he is.
“You have to accept the fact that you’re coming into their country,” Bawab says. “You have to be patient.”
That can be difficult for a young person.
But when it comes to the Boston bombings, Khan also thinks it’s a mistake to focus only on the suspects’ immigrant status.
“We’re missing a point of a broader social malaise,” Khan says, noting that the suspects in the Colorado movie theater and Connecticut school shootings were not immigrants.
“We’re living in a time where alienation of youth is becoming an epidemic.”