Teen immigrant angst — a factor in bombings?

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 6 2013 6:38 a.m. MDT

In this image provided by Anna Tabakh, she and her older brother, Ilya, stand with their family after arriving at the Kansas City, Mo. airport in December 1990, a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. At age 5, Anna didn't know a word of English, en route with her parents from the Soviet Union to a new home in Kansas City, Mo. The beginning was traumatic, she says, now 27, but the transition to American life was relatively smooth.

Anna Tabakh, Associated Press

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, a 27-year-old 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.

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