Russians find Canada is tailor-made for them

Shop-owning couple feel right at home

Irina Sitonin is a grateful new Canadian.

She cites the people who gave her jobs and friendship over the past five years, local consumers who frequent her new shop, the Russian Tailor, and the safety and easy nature of Canada compared with her native Russia and adopted Israel.

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But it was a simple medical test at the end of a long immigration process that has really brought her heart closer to the Maple Leaf.

A blood test on her husband, Anatoliy, during the final stages of landed immigrant status late last year threw warning flags that revealed cancerous tumours in his bladder.

The early detection and successful surgery to remove them likely saved his life, Sitonin said.

"If not for the test, who knows what would have happened?" Sitonin said as she cut dress patterns in her shop at 1517 Douglas St. "He probably would not have noticed anything until the cancer [had progressed] and was more difficult to fight. We feel that we are blessed as Canadians because of this."

Anatoliy, who is a partner with Irina in the tailor shop and works as a mechanic at a local oilchange business, said he felt fine when immigration officials asked the couple for final medical exams last November.

Subsequent tests show he is cancer-free.

"The timing was unbelievable," said Anatoliy, 47. "I was shocked because I thought I was healthy."

The couple, who met in their native St. Petersburg, have three children, ages 25, 18 and 13. They celebrated 25 years of marriage in February.

"We are so thankful. The immigration process lasted nine years from beginning to end, starting in Israel and the last five years in Canada, and it was stressful and frustrating at times.

But after this, it is our blessing. We are so thankful to Canada."

The family can become full citizens in three years.

The Sitonins moved from St. Petersburg to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee east of Haifa, in 1999. He was trained as a mechanic in the Russian army and she was an accomplished tailor and designer who wanted to make a better life for their growing family.

But after eight years in the Middle East, the Sitonins grew fearful of terrorist attacks and political tensions. A civil war in neighbouring Lebanon pushed the family to start the immigration process into Canada.

After arriving in Victoria five years ago, Irina was sponsored by a noted local tailor shop. Anatoliy toiled as a mechanic and they saved their money to open the Russian Tailor this year.

The spacious shop, in the shadow of City Hall, specializes in alterations and custom-designed bridal and formal gowns, and suits and shirts.

Having her own studio has been a lifelong dream for Irina, whose grandmother taught her to sew before she was five. By the fifth grade in Russian public school, Irina was taking sewing lessons twice a week. By Grade 8, she attended sewing college in St. Petersburg and finished her high school education over the same four-year period.

She went on to apprentice under a master tailor at a government clothing manufacturer in St. Petersburg, producing quality, durable garments for the masses. But she yearned to be creative, something that was difficult as Russia grappled with change under the Gorbachev government.

"People all had similar clothes, similar food," said Irina. "I wanted to be different, but it was hard."

As the economy in Russia faltered, the Sitonins moved to Israel as Anatoliy is Jewish.

Irina had planned to open her own shop, but ended up working from home for seven years making bridal gowns and dresses and all the suits and shirts she could handle out of a threebedroom home. The political turmoil there, however, soon had them saving for Canada.

"This work is my love, my food," says Irina. "And I like people. Seeing all the brides and bridesmaids so happy and excited, it is such a good thing.

"It is such a different life here. Canada is so peaceful and very open. People like to smile and they are very credible. I think Canadians should be very happy to be Canadians."

You can reach the Russian Tailor at 250-388-5543.

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