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Where are they now? From Russia, with love

Amanda (Refsland) Hinson has been living out her dream in Russia along with her husband, Steve, and their four children. She poses with her family in front of a snow sculpture of “Grandpa Frost,” the Russian version of Santa Claus. Submitted photo1 / 3
Amanda wrote a book based on her experience of being pregnant and having a baby while in Russia. That book, ‘Wide Open Curtains,’ was one of Amazon’s top-selling e-books in 2012. Submitted photo2 / 3
The Hinson family while in Russia. Steve is holding Michael, while Iva sits on Amanda’s lap. Riles (left) and Aurora (right) are in back. Submitted photo3 / 3

Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing occasional series of stories on Perham High School graduates who now live out of the area and are involved in unique and interesting things. 

Amanda Hinson (formerly Refsland) seems to have done a little bit of everything since graduating from Perham High School as valedictorian in 1998.

She graduated from North Central University in Minneapolis with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and music in 2001.

That same year, she also married her husband, Steve. The couple now has four children: Aurora, age 10; Riles, 9; Iva, 5; and Michael, 3.

In 2010, the Hinson clan made an unconventional move to Khabarovsk, Russia, so Amanda and Steve could study Russian language and culture at the Far East State Transport University.

“I always wanted to go to Russia,” said Amanda. “It’s been my dream since I was 11 years old.”

“In 1991, when Russia’s doors opened… it was in the news a lot,” she explained. “Unfortunately, the news was always negative. I thought to myself ‘there have to be people there who are normal … And there has to be a culture there, and I want to know about it.’ I didn’t want to take the word of a journalist; I wanted to find out for myself.”

Amanda was determined to experience real Russian life. She even resolved to give birth to her youngest child, Michael, in Russia and preserve her thoughts in a journal.

Later, she collected those journal entries and published them in a book.

That book, “Wide Open Curtains: A Journal of a Pregnant American in Russia,” went on to become one of the best-selling e-reader books on Amazon in 2012.

“I chose this path of mass communications, journalism and writing,” said Amanda. “It was kind of on that route to discover Russia on my own and tell from my perspective what it was.”

Her future plans go beyond continuing to write. She and her family have just returned to Minnesota for a while, in order to prepare for a much larger endeavor that will require four more years in Russia. This December, Amanda earned her Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate at Hamline University. With this certificate in tow, she plans to establish a school “for people of all ages” in Khabarovsk.

Amanda said that Russia’s education system is in an adjustment period. For years, the birth rate in Russia was very low, so there weren’t many students entering school. Now, there are more children, but not enough teachers.

She said this is why she feels the need to help existing schools or start her own international school.

“My hope is to use English as a platform to build relationships with at-risk kids,” she said. “It’s hard work, but I have some girls out there who want to help and do this, too. We’re working together, making a ‘super cool English school.’”

When asked how they would translate that name into Russian, Amanda laughed: “We wouldn’t.”

While back in Minnesota, Amanda is working at Nasha Shkola, a Russian-based charter school in Minnetonka. She is teaching Russian-speaking kindergarteners who have never spoken a word of English.

“She’s living her dream,” said Amanda’s father, Larry Refsland, in a phone interview with the Focus. “I don’t think anyone ever threw cold water on her plans. If they had tried, it might have just had the opposite effect and made her say, ‘I’ll show you.’”

Larry admitted that having his daughter and her family live a 30-hour flight away isn’t always ideal, but technology has helped him and Amanda’s mother, Patti, stay in touch with them.

“We’re thankful for Skype,” said Larry. “Still, it’s not the same as holding your grandkids on your lap.”

While they miss their families back home, there’s another part of Minnesota that the Hinsons don’t really get the chance to miss: the weather. Khabarosk and Minnesota have very similar temperatures, Amanda said. Yet, in Minnesota, there tend to be better tools for dealing with the snow.

Here, shovels for clearing snow are wide and able to scoop, she said, but in Russia, they use something that looks more like a garden hoe.

“We have the same temperatures,” said Amanda. “But, (in Russia) we do the temperatures in Celsius, which always is more depressing. They also do not count the wind chill factor. There is just one number.”

So what does she think of all the talk about the Winter Olympics, being held in Sochi, Russia starting today (Thursday, Feb. 6)?

First of all, she points out, Sochi and Khabarovsk are in completely different parts of the country. Sochi is in southwestern Russia, on the coast of the Black Sea. Khabarovsk is a 12-hour flight away, located near the Chinese-Russian border in the southeast.

Despite the distance, she did have an opinion to share about the Olympics’ host city: “I don’t always see the same view as what other journalists say and what’s on the news,” she said. “It’s hard to come back to America and hear again on the news, ‘Oh Russia … bad bad bad.’”

“It’s going to be fun, and I think that the police will have it taken care of,” she said, while adding the caveat that she isn’t an expert about Russia’s national security.