Layers of Identity: Self-identity in U.S. child immigrants from the former Soviet Union

Geography and history have made Russian identity hard to define. Russia spans both Europe and Asia and is split between East and West. The Soviet-era process of “Russification” imposed the Russian language on non-Russian-speaking groups and made other calculated attempts to draw each nationality’s individual identity closer to one that would be coherent with the Russian. Furthermore, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the once-stringent rules imposed on the citizens of the former USSR abated, allowing many to emigrate abroad. This led, in part, to a significant population of Soviet-born individuals currently residing in the United States. This can be viewed as a further complication of identity particularly for child immigrants, who were often born in one country and raised in another.

The present study seeks to understand various aspects of identity in a particular group of immigrants who were born in the former Soviet Union, immigrated to the United States at age 12 or younger, and are currently between the ages of 18 and 40. The study used a 59-item questionnaire (see Appendix 1) concerned with identity “markers” such as preferred language, city of residence, and perceived ethnic, national, religious, and cultural identity.

Overview of Previous Studies

According to the latest published U.S. census, conducted in 1990, out of nearly 20 million immigrants living in the United States, approximately 334,000 had been born in the Soviet Union (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Although this is a substantial group, it is not surprising that most recent research has focused on Asian-American and Latin-American groups, who together compose 75% of the U.S. immigrant population. Furthermore, few analyses have focused on child immigrants (Aronowitz, 1984; Rumbaut, 1994). The relatively scarce research that has approached this topic has emphasized child immigrants’ socioeconomic, educational, and psychiatric status, often placing these individuals at a disadvantage when compared to native-born children of non-immigrant parents (Aronowitz, 1984; Suarez-Orosco, 2001). Researchers have also consistently emphasized the importance of identity and its effects on many aspects of daily living (Tsai, Chentsova-Dutton, & Wong, 2002).

To the author’s knowledge, no identity studies of child immigrants have studied individuals born in the former USSR. However, more general studies of child immigrants can give a general picture of the demographic group. One of the earliest surveys polled 600 American-born middle-school children of foreign parents (Young, 1936). Fewer than 15% considered themselves fully Americanized and fewer than 10% perceived no conflict between standards of American society and those of their parents’ country of origin. Since those born abroad were not included, it is difficult to say whether birthplace was a factor in identity.

In a more recent study (Rumbaut, 1994), U.S.-born and foreign-born children of Asian and Latin American immigrants were asked to name their national identity. Twenty percent of U.S.-born children of immigrants identified themselves as American, and 49% claimed a hyphenated identity. In contrast, 3% of the foreign-born children of immigrants viewed themselves as American, while 32% declared a hyphenated identity. Based on these results, it appears that place of birth and its confounding factors affect self-identity.

Another study by Tsai et al. (2002) investigated notions of “being American” expressed by Chinese-American, Hmong-American (an ethnicity from Southeast Asia), and European-American groups. Asian-Americans were more likely to refer to “ethnic diversity” or “traditional behavior,” whereas European-Americans tended to refer to “patriotism” as an important aspect of “being American.” The authors suggest that this results from a significant number of Asians in America having been born abroad, while respondents of European descent had more often been born in the United States. The researchers speculate that ideas regarding “being American” will eventually become more congruent. Interestingly, however, little significance emerged between the number of years spent in the United States and notions of “being American.”

Tsai et al. (2002) did find that convergence might be correlated with the presence of concentrated populations of immigrants: Chinese-Americans held views more similar to those of European-Americans than did Hmong-Americans. The researchers attributed this, in part, to the idea that there were more Chinese-Americans in California, where the first group was tested, than there were Hmong-Americans in Minnesota, where the second group was tested. The Chinese-Americans were thus better represented, enabling them to become a larger demographic of mainstream society and therefore integrate better with that society.

Not all researchers agree with this. Berrol suggests: “What is certain is that for those immigrant children who came in larger numbers and were seen as more foreign and less welcome, marginality was a central facet of their experience” (1995). Regardless of which theory holds true, community seems to be an important aspect of defining one’s identity; context is a critical factor for analysis in such studies.

One problem with identity studies is that many, including the study discussed in the present paper, rely on self-reported measures. Researcher theirry Devos (2006) used a less obvious measurement of identity. Through use of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), he studied identity in Asian- and Mexican-American college students. The IAT is a tool used to measure associations between certain variables by measuring the quickness of response when associating given variables. For instance, if one is quicker at pairing words related to oneself to symbols of Mexican culture than to American culture, it is assumed that one identifies with Mexican culture more strongly. Though it is difficult to say whether the IAT is a valid measure for identity, no measure used thus far is foolproof. Devos’ results suggested that participants in his study identified equally with both cultures. While the current study did not use IAT, developing such a test for immigrants born in the former Soviet Union might produce interesting results.

Overview of the Present Study

The present study is based on the results of a survey.[1] Participants are asked to make a self-definition of their race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. These terms are purposely not defined for the survey-takers, as the survey seeks to explore understand their understanding of the terms. The differences between ethnicity and nationality might be exceptionally interesting in the case of Soviet-born individuals. The infamous “fifth point” (pyatyi punkt) in each Soviet citizen’s passport was his or her “nationality” (natsional’nost’), a term which carried essentially the same meaning as the English term “ethnicity” (Simonson, S.G., 1999). Thus, it is especially interesting to ascertain the trend of responses to “nationality” and “ethnicity.”

To examine the differing theories of Tsai et al. (2002) and Berrol (1995), the participants’ location is also considered in relation to the strength of their self-perceived “Americanness.” Residents of New York City and Chicago, home to the largest Russian-speaking communities in the United States, are compared to those who spent most of their time living in other U.S. cities.

Feelings of “Russianness” versus “Americanness” are also examined to see whether these identities are mutually exclusive, whereby feeling more of one diminishes the strength of the other, or whether both (or neither) of the identities could be assumed simultaneously. These constructs are then compared to participants’ perceptions of the extent to which others label them as “Russian” or “American.”[2] Perceptions of accents are also measured to see if self-identity is correlated with the frequency of being told that one has a foreign accent. Both citizenship and age of arrival are also cross-referenced. Finally, ratings of the importance of culture, nationality, and ethnicity are compared to the extent of feeling “Russian,” “American,” or other.

Overview of statistical jargon and abbreviations

M=mean; SD=standard deviation; p=p-value; N=sample size; r=correlation; F=F-test; t=t-test.

The greater the standard deviation, the more responses tend to deviate from the reported mean. Several tests are conducted to deduce the significance (i.e., whether a relationship between given variables has been statistically determined). Results of these tests are reported via the type of test and its numerical outcome, followed by the p-value (a continuous probability distribution). The lower the resultant p-value, the more likely that a relationship between the tested variables exists in real life. Results are often considered significant only when the p-value is less than .05. A p-value of .05 signifies that there is a 5% chance that the null hypothesis (i.e., the lack of a relationship between given variables) holds true. Generally, low p-values are difficult to achieve when relationships between variables are not obvious and when the sample size is low. P-values can be determined via t-tests (which measure difference) or f-tests (which measure probability distribution) and via other methods.

Correlations (symbolized as r in the text and also reported in Tables 1 and 2) are numbers between -1 and +1. Negative correlations suggest a negative relationship between two variables, while positive correlations indicate positive relationships. In Tables 1 and 2, correlations determined to be significant at different p-value levels (explained above) are marked with asterisks.


Individuals who were born in the former Soviet Union, immigrated to the United States at age 12 or younger, and were at least 18 but no older than 40 years old at the time of the study were selected. Twenty-five females and 21 males completed the 59-item survey at (see Appendix). Among the questions were open-ended measures of identity, where participants could freely respond regarding their perception of their ethnic, national, cultural, and racial identities. Another measure asked them to rate, on a Likert scale,[3] the extent to which they felt American, Russian, or as having another former-USSR identity, as well as their perceptions of how strongly others viewed them as being American or Russian.

Survey-takers were recruited by means of advertisements hung up in Pittsburgh, PA, and advertisements placed on the Internet (e.g., forms and mailing lists). Fifty-six sets of results were obtained. Ten sets were eliminated, as nine respondents did not meet the requirement of the maximum age of arrival to the United States and one resided in Canada.

The final sample size that was included in the final analyses was N=46. These individuals were required to have been born in a former republic of the USSR, which include present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. However, the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are not represented in this survey. Twenty respondents were born in Russia, 20 were born in European republics of the former Soviet Union, and 6 were born in Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. The respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to 30, with a mean age of 21.33 (SD=2.85). Thirty-six participants were college students. All of them came to the United States at age 12 or younger, ranging from 1 to 12, with a mean age of arrival of 8.04 years (SD=2.97).


All figures and tables are included in Appendix 2. Figures 1-4 represent respondents’ self-identification based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, and race respectively. Table 1 correlates the self-perception of being “American” or “Russian” versus others’ perceptions of the same as interpreted by the survey-taker. Table 2 represents correlations between identifying oneself as “Russian” or “American” and the survey-taker’s rated importance on a five-point scale of nationality, ethnicity, religion, and race in determining that identification.

Areas with large and small Russian-speaking populations were compared to test for the effect of community on identity. Fifteen survey-takers lived in New York City or Chicago, which host the largest Russian-speaking populations in the U.S., while 25 lived in other areas (M=2.24, SD=1.61), and (M=2.93, SD=1.28). In terms of the degree to which one felt American, no significant effect was observed between these two groups, F(2,40)=2.00, p=0.17.

U.S. citizens perceived themselves to be more American than non-U.S. citizens, t(41)=2.86, p=.01. However, the relationship between age of arrival and one’s perception of being American was not significant, with r(41)=-0.25, p=0.10. Age of arrival was also not significantly correlated with perceptions of being Russian, with r(42)=-0.10, p=0.52.

While a negative correlation was observed between judging oneself as having an accent and judging oneself as being American, it was short of reaching statistical significance at the p<.05 level, r(41)=-0.276, p=0.07. The same was true of participants’ replies regarding others noting that they had accents and others considering them American, r(40)=-0.26, p=0.09. A relationship was not found between one perceiving oneself as speaking English with a foreign accent and perceiving oneself as being Russian, r(42)=-0.130, p=0.40. Likewise, no significant correlation was found between the participants’ responses concerning others regarding them as being Russian and noting that they spoke English with a foreign accent, r(37)=0.13, p=0.42.

Four subjects (M=1.00, SD=0) preferred Russian or Ukrainian as their spoken language, twenty-three preferred English (M=3.13, SD=1.58), and sixteen had no preference (M=2.06, SD=1.24). The effect of preferred spoken language was significantly correlated with one’s perception of being American, F(2,40)=5.46, p=.01. However, no correlation was observed between preference of language and considering oneself to be Russian, F(2,41)=0.70, p=0.50.


Participants who were American citizens tended to view themselves as more American than those without American citizenship. However, age of arrival was not a significant factor. Perhaps this can be attributed to the idea that certain “markers” (e.g., citizenship, birth) are more important in shaping one’s concept of identity than more abstract or gradual constructs, such as the number of years spent in a given culture. This is consistent with the results of Tsai et al. (2002), who did not find a significant age of arrival effect in the similarity of responses between Asian-Americans and their European-American counterparts counterparts. Perhaps, especially when not born into a culture, individuals need notable, concrete symbols of identification in order to feel that they belong to a given culture. Citizenship could be one such symbol.

Table 2 depicts the survey-takers’ ratings of the importance of each of the following identities: national, cultural, religious, and ethnic. The results suggest that the more importance one places on one’s national and ethnic identity, the less one judges oneself to be American, while a positive correlation emerged between judging oneself as being strongly Russian and finding national identity to be important. Thus, it can be assumed that individuals who are raised with a strong emphasis on national, ethnic, or cultural identity tend to carry this idea into adulthood, clinging to their original national and other identities.

The role of community is unclear. It may be that living in a community with a large Russian-speaking population would allow for views and traditions to converge with the mainstream, thus allowing for the two identities to be more compatible. Conversely, it is possible that this could lead one to identify more with a “Russian” identity since access to this culture is more readily available. In relation to the discrepancy between the explanation of results in the study by Tsai et al. (2002) and the theoretical implications of Berrol’s work (1995), the results obtained in this study did not significantly favor either supposition in terms of community. However, the general trend was for participants residing in New York City or Chicago to rate themselves as more American than those who lived outside these two cities.

As suggested by Table 1, there was a tendency for self-identification as “Russian” to be negatively correlated with one’s judgment of being “American.” However, this relationship did not reach statistical significance. When other former-USSR identities were incorporated, however, this negative relationship was significant. Since the majority of participants were not born in Russia but in other former-USSR countries (especially Ukraine), it is expected that not all of them would identify themselves as being Russian. Thus, for each individual the higher score of either judging oneself as being Russian or as having another former-USSR identity was taken, and these scores were combined in order to establish a data set of the participants’ highest rating of their most salient former-USSR identity. That is, if one participant rated his identity as “Russian” as a 5, he would receive a score of 5. Likewise, if another participant rated her identity as a 5 on the former-USSR identity scale, she would also receive a score of 5. In this way, former-USSR identities in general, and not just considering oneself to be Russian, were compared to feelings of being American.

A negative correlation was noticed between self-identification as American and having an accent. This, however, was just short of reaching statistical significance. Increasing the sample size could be expected to result in a lower p score for this correlation.[4] An accent is often regarded as a strong indicator of foreignness, and it would seem that others would therefore view individuals with conspicuous accents as being more foreign. Based on the relationship between self-identification as American and others’ judgments, this may also have an effect on the individual’s own identity.


Particularly when survey-takers were divided into two qualitative groups (e.g., citizens and non-citizens) and compared, the sample sizes were relatively low, making it difficult for the results to indicate statistical significance. Also, the surveyed individuals were relatively young, so it is difficult to generalize the findings to child immigrants who are now older. In future studies, this could be improved by recruiting more diverse participants.

Another concern is that identity priming may have occurred. That is, participants were made aware that this study was a survey of identity, and they were recruited based on having been child immigrants from countries within the former Soviet Union. This may have caused respondents to fixate on this part of their identity. Making questions less explicit may help in future studies. It is also possible that participants’ understanding of the principal investigator or “audience” (who is herself a child immigrant, born in Russia) could have influenced their responses (e.g., Barreto et al., 2003).[5] For a more accurate data set on others’ judgments of the respondents’ “Russianness,” others who know the respondents would need to be polled.


The results of this study generally imply that U.S. child immigrants from the former Soviet Union identify themselves less as being “American” and more with some other nationality related to the former Soviet Union (see Fig. 1). This study was a preliminary approach to empirically quantifying this particular group of child immigrants’ perceptions of identity. No judgments are made regarding whether participants’ perceptions had positive or negative effects on them or their roles in society. As such, the aforementioned arguments regarding dual identity made by Pipher (2002) and Laitin (1998) remain largely theoretical in terms of this study. Considering the large U.S. immigrant population and the relative lack of research on child immigrants especially of former-Soviet descent, it is important to expand our knowledge on this topic in future studies.>


[1] Presented in full in Appendix 1

[2] This idea of dual identity is a common topic of research, with arguments both for its positive and negative effects. In her book, Middle of Everywhere, Mary Pipher discusses refugees’ quests for identity. “This shouldn’t be an either/or, but rather, a both/and situation,” she claims (2002). Extrapolating this idea to immigrant groups, Pipher’s claim is that the ideal situation would be for one to feel included in both identities. According to Laitin, however, it is unclear whether a hyphenated identity is advantageous, giving one a richer culture and a greater scope for understanding oneself, or if it diminishes one’s affiliation with either of the components of such an identity (1998).

[3] A Likert scale is one that measures a respondent’s agreement with a particular statement based on a point scale. The present survey uses a five-point scale.

[4] Statistical power is increased with larger sample sizes, thus allowing for stronger correlations and lower p scores.

[5] The target audience generally had a similar heritage or at least one distinct from mainstream American society. While this was not explicitly made known, participants could have deduced my ethnicity (I am also a child-immigrant from the Former Soviet Union) based on something as simple as my name, which was revealed to them.

Appendix 1: Survey Questions

Participants were instructed to answer the following questions in the order in which they are presented and to not read ahead. They were asked to not alter previous answers if they felt they were inappropriate after reading subsequent questions. All questions were optional, and if participants were asked to skip any questions that they were not comfortable answering. Survey-takers were informed that all responses were confidential and anonymous.

  1. Hometown*
  2. Age**
  3. Sex (Female, Male, No response)
  4. Present location (city, state)*
  5. Are you enrolled in a college or university? (Yes, No, Other)
    If so, which college, university?*
  6. If enrolled, what is(are) your major(s)?*
  7. Have you lived in any countries outside of your country of origin or the United States (Yes, No, Other)

If you, which country(s)?*

  1. In how many different locations have you lived since you came to the United States?**
  2. Present-day name for city and country of origin*
  3. Age at which you left your country of origin**
  4. Age at which you arrived to the United States**
  5. Occupation*
  6. City and state in which you lived the longest in the U.S.*
  7. Are you a citizen of your country of origin? (Yes, No, Other)
  8. Are you a U.S. citizen? (Yes, No, Other)
  9. Do you currently live with your parents? (Yes, No, When not in school, Other)
    If not, where do your parents live? (In your neighborhood, In your city, In your state, A nearby state, Elsewhere in the U.S., In Canada, In your country of origin, In another country, Other)***
  10. Have you ever participated in study abroad? (Yes, No)
    If so, where did you go?*
  11. Please answer how you would most closely identify yourself in each of the following categories: Religion, Ethnicity, Nationality, Race*
  12. Please answer how you would most closely identify your mother/parent/guardian 1 in each of the following categories: Religion, Ethnicity, Nationality, Race*
  13. Please answer how you would most closely identify your mother/parent/guardian 2 in each of the following categories: Religion, Ethnicity, Nationality, Race*
  14. Which language(s) do you speak fluently?*
  15. Which other, if any, language(s) are you currently studying or have studied in the past and how did you learn them (e.g., school, friends, study abroad)?*
  16. In which language are you most comfortable speaking?*
  17. Writing?*
  18. Which language(s) do you use at home?*
  19. Which language do you use most frequently at home?*
  20. Which language(s) do you use with your friends?*
  21. Which language do you use most frequently with your friends?*
  22. Do you think you speak English with a foreign accent? (Always, Often, Sometimes, Rarely, Never)
  23. Do others tell you that you that you speak English with a foreign accent? (Always, Often, Sometimes, Rarely, Never)
  24. When asked where you are from, which city/state and country do you tend to reply with?*
  25. Out of your closest friends, how many were born in the U.S.?**
    Former USSR?**
  26. If you have a significant other, was she/he born: (In the U.S., In the former USSR, Elsewhere, N/A)
  27. When do you feel it is appropriate to collectively call all the ethnicities/cultures/nationalities of the former Soviet Union “Russian?” (When in the United States, When in any of the former Soviet Union republics, If the person considers him/herself to be Russian, If the person speaks Russian, If the person lives/was born in Russia, If the person is Russian Orthodox, Always, Never, Other)***

Please place a checkmark in the box you feel most accurately represents your answer on a 1-5 scale (1=never, 2=rarely, 3=sometimes, 4=often, 5=always, N/A).

  1.  How often does your family celebrate holidays specific to your country of origin?
  2.  How often does your family celebrate holidays specific to your religion?
  3. How often does your family celebrate holidays that were not celebrated in your country of origin?
  4. How often do you celebrate holidays that your parents/guardians do not?

Please place a checkmark in the box you feel most accurately represents your answer on a 1-5 scale, with 1 representing “not true at all” and 5 representing “completely true” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, N/A)

  1. Your mother/parent/guardian 1 speaks English very well.
  2. Your father/parent/guardian 2 speaks English very well.
  3. Most of your family is in the U.S.
  4. You often have family get-togethers.
  5. You keep in touch with family abroad.
  6. You keep in touch with friends from your country of origin.
  7. Your family values traditions specific to its culture.
  8. You think of yourself as an American.
  9. You think of yourself as a Russian.
  10. Others think of you as an American.
  11. Others think of you as a Russian.
  12. You think of yourself as a Ukrainian, Latvian, Uzbek, Kazak, or any other national/ethnic label of the former Soviet Union (except Russian).
  13. Your cultural identity is very important to you.
  14. Your ethnic identity is very important to you.
  15. Your national identity is very important to you.
  16. Your religious identity is very important to you.
  17. You are NOT concerned with your identity in terms of ANY of the following factors: cultural, religious, racial, national, or ethnic.
  18. Being “Jewish” refers only to a religious identity.

Please place a checkmark in the box you feel most accurately represents your answer on a 1-5 scale, with 1 representing “minimally/not at all,” and 5 representing “maximally” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, N/A).

  1. How involved are you in the ethnic community of your country of origin?
  2. How involved are you in your religious community?
  3. How involved are you in your community, non-specific to religion, culture, race, nationality, or any other such category?

* Questions allowing open-ended answers
** Questions requiring numerical answers
*** Questions allowing for the selection of multiple answers
All others were close-ended questions that allowed for a single or no response.

Appendix 2: Graphs and Figures

Table 1. Correlations of Self-Perception of Being “American” or “Russian” vs. Others’ Perceptions as Interpreted by the Survey-Taker
American (Others)
Russian (Self)
American (Self) -0.275
Russian (Others) 0.349* -0.021
American (Others) -0.143 0.646*** -.255
Russ and Other USSR (Self) -0.375* -0.199
Note. The “Russ and Other USSR (Self)” group consolidates the “Russian (Self)” and the “Other USSR (Self)” constructs by taking the higher identification number. That is, this row displays identifying oneself with any of the former Soviet Union republics.
* significant at p < .05 level; ** significant at p < .01 level; *** significant at p < .001 level
Table 2. Correlations Between Identifying Oneself as “Russian” or “American” and Importance of Four Types of Identities
National Identity Cultural Identity Religious Identity Ethnic Identity
American (Self) -.0426** -0.464** 0.098 -0.416**
Russian (Self) 0.390* 0.252 0.067 0.371*
* significant at p < .05 level; ** significant at p < .01 level
Figure 1. Perception of national identity in U.S. child immigrants born in the former USSR
* Including Russian-American (1) and Russian-Jewish (2), and combinations of former Soviet identities (2)

Figure 2. Perception of ethnic identity in U.S. child immigrants born in the former USSR
* Includes “Slavic”
** Includes “White”
*** Including “Polish-, Ukrainian-, and Russian-Jewish”

Figure 3. Perception of religious identity in U.S. child immigrants born in the former USSR
* Includes “secular” and “none”
** Includes “Russian Orthodox” and “Eastern Orthodox”

Figure 4. Perception of racial identity in U.S. child immigrants born in the former USSR
* Including “Jewish/white,” “Slavic,” “Russian,” “Jewish,” and “Other”


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Barreto, M., Spears, R., Ellemers, N., & Shahinper, K. (2003). Who wants to know? The effect of audience on identity expression among minority group members. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 299-318.

Berrol, S. C. (1995). Growing up American : immigrant children in America, then and now. New York: Twayne.

Devos, T. (2006). Implicit bicultural identity among Mexican American and Asian American college students. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12, 381-402.

Laitin, D. D. (1998). The Russian-speaking populations in the near abroad. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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About the Author

Natasha Sumetsky

Natasha Sumetsky received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Bachelor of Arts in Slavic Studies from the University of Pittsburgh in December of 2006. She is currently applying to graduate programs in social psychology.

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Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

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