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How a Brother and Sister Took L.A.'s Russian Immigrant Community on a Wild Ride 

Thursday, Oct 10 2013
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On a quiet, sycamore-lined street in Reseda in the sprawling San Fernando Valley, Shura Rafaelov, a 65-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, runs a small day care in her home. Rafaelov's house bustles with the pleasant clamor of a dozen children of Russian heritage, from infants rocking in cribs to 5-year-olds jumping on play sets under the shade of a towering fig.

Rafaelov, slight of build and olive-skinned, is warm, soft-spoken and exceedingly gentle. She beams as she describes how she cares for and educates those kids.

But her cheery tone evaporates when she recounts certain events of the past five years. In December 2004, Rafaelov placed ads in some Russian-language newspapers promoting her services or, as she says, "looking for children." Soon after, she got a call from a desperate-sounding woman seeking work.

click to flip through (7) The only known images of Zina and Gennady Dolzhenko
  • The only known images of Zina and Gennady Dolzhenko
 

Rafaelov didn't need anyone, and besides, the state strictly regulates day care employees. But there was something about the timbre of the woman's voice, the urgency of her plea for work — any kind of work — that invoked Rafaelov's sympathy.

An educated woman who was a pharmacist in Uzbekistan, Rafaelov knows the struggles of a new immigrant with poor language skills and an underappreciated professional background. She told the woman, Zina, she could come over and help clean her house.

Just before Christmas, a tall and unkempt woman in her late 40s arrived at the gate of Rafaelov Day Care. For seven hours, Rafaelov and Zina dusted, mopped floors, did laundry and put away toys, books, musical instruments and booster seats. While Rafaelov prepared lunch, Zina mostly sipped tea and spoke of living with her brother in squalid conditions, sleeping on the floor because they could not afford a mattress.

She had to ride the bus everywhere. Her legs hurt.

"I felt sorry for her," Rafaelov says. "How was I supposed to know who or what she was?"

Rafaelov paid the woman $60. She felt good that she'd helped a fellow immigrant.

That seemingly innocuous interaction, nearly a decade ago, launched a legal saga that has consumed Rafaelov, caused her untold grief and strained the financial resources of her modest business. When she recalls the details now, her breathing grows labored.

Almost four years after that December day, Rafaelov was home alone when her doorbell rang. A man and a woman were at her gate, each carrying a suitcase. The woman asked Rafaelov if she remembered her. At first, she did not. It was Zina. Zina told Rafaelov they wanted to move into her house.

Rafaelov was taken aback but thought that it might be some dire emergency. She asked how long they might need to stay; Zina answered along the lines of, "It will be as long as it will be."

But Rafaelov did not know the tall man, and beyond that, everyone who lives in her home must be fingerprinted by authorities, because of the day care business. Rafaelov told Zina she didn't have the room; Zina coolly replied she knew the house was plenty big. Rafaelov started to shut the gate, but the stranger put his foot against the jamb, a menacing action.

"If you are going to be a hooligan, then I am going to call the police," Rafaelov says she warned them. At this, Zina launched a barrage of threats and anti-Semitic slurs, Rafaelov tells L.A. Weekly. Zina finished her rant by calling the kindly grandmother of six a "prostitutka."

When they left, Zina promised Rafaelov she wouldn't forget her a second time.

But Rafaelov largely did forget. Some two years later, when she received a short letter in August 2010 from a "Zina Dolenko" requesting "a copy of the records pertaining to my work in the Rafaelov's Day Care," she ignored it — as far as she knew, she says, she'd had no such employee. A few months later, Rafaelov received a complaint filed by Zina Dolenko with the California Labor Commissioner.

It accused her of serious wage violations against her one-day cleaning lady.

When Rafaelov visited the California Department of Industrial Relations' drab Division of Labor Standards Enforcement office on Van Nuys Boulevard, an official advised her to talk to Zina Dolenko — the "plaintiff" — and attempt to informally resolve things to avoid a hearing. Sitting with Zina in a conference room, she says the woman recounted her work for Rafaelov — with curious discrepancies.

Dolenko, she says, claimed she'd spent two days cleaning, and each day worked nine and a half hours — above the legal limit at which overtime kicks in. Rafaelov says Dolenko also alleged she'd worked for her in December of 2008, not 2004, freshening her claim by four years, putting it within California's statute of limitations.

Watching this unscrupulous woman at work, Rafaelov thought she probably shouldn't be surprised if Zina Dolenko demanded a couple hundred dollars.

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