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An inside look at the 'mail-order bride' industry in America — it may not be what you expect.

You'd be surprised to learn how some relationships (maybe in your own social circles) came to be.

An inside look at the 'mail-order bride' industry in America — it may not be what you expect.

Mail-order brides are still around.

You thought mail-order brides were a thing of the past? A tired old trope relegated to downtrodden damsels in distress in ramshackle countries, preyed upon by any schmuck who could pull together the money to swoop up the bride of his choice?

You may be surprised to learn that international marriages facilitated by brokers and dating tourism sites are more common than you'd think, and they're not always the tawdry affair they get painted as.


As with most things in the world, these relationships are more nuanced and multifaceted than they seem at first glance. Sure, horror stories of fraud and abuse abound, and we'll explore those, too, in this two-installment glimpse into a world of which most of us have only started to scratch the surface.

Those gold nuggets were pretty, but they weren't much for companionship.

How did placing an ad for a wife or husband even become a thing? There are instances of the practice as early as the 1800s, when American frontier life was lonely for men trying to blaze a trail in the unsettled West.

"Ahoy, friends! Did you bring any women?" Image via G.F. Nesbitt & Co./Wikipedia.

The discovery of gold in the Western frontier led a mass migration of eager, optimistic men hoping to strike it rich. But the extreme lack of ladies was kind of a drag (at least for the heterosexual among them). American men in the West would take out ads in East Coast papers (and sometimes in other countries) and write letters to churches, all in the hope there'd be some available unmarried woman who was up for adventure and blazing a trail herself.

And sometimes women would place their own ads:

"A winsome miss of 22; very beautiful, jolly and entertaining; fond of home and children; from good family; American; Christian; blue eyes; golden hair; fair complexion; pleasant disposition; play piano. Will inherit $10,000. Also have means of $1,000. None but men of good education need to write from 20 to 30 years of age."
— excerpt from "Hearts West: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier."

Once he'd sufficiently wooed her via their torrid pen pal affair (can you imagine how long they had to wait for the mail?), often the man would propose via letter and if the woman accepted, he'd pay her way to the West.

As usual, at some point, a clever entrepreneur noticed the trend of women with limited opportunities craving a chance at a new life and the men looking for [beautiful] women. And thus the "mail-order bride" — or as more gentle (and probably accurate) people would call it, "international marriage" — practice took off. It would become, over decades, a booming industry.

Flash forward to 2015.

Things look very different. Instead of being compelled to marry a man based on a few letters and a picture, technology has created a new dynamic. Consider it Match.com but on steroids and with higher stakes. And to be clear, the term "mail-order bride" is a loaded one — hotly contested at that. The connotation is ugly: that a woman is a commodity to be selected nearly at random or based on shallow measures and bought and sold with little agency of her own over the transaction. While there are disreputable agencies engaging in those practices out there in the world, in this piece, we'll be focusing on more reputable outlets. Such outlets typically eschew the term "mail-order bride" for obvious reasons.

There are two segments to differentiate between in the international relationship market — dating sites and marriage brokers. The latter is responsible for more of the tawdry concepts the media portrays, like picking out a wife based on broad criteria and paying a sum for a broker to arrange your union. But the former, dating sites, are an entry point into international marriages that often fall more on the side of the conventional, and with outcomes that may surprise you. Too often, though, relationships arising from international dating sites get conflated with "mail-order brides."

Truth is, international dating sites are a lot more like regular online dating sites than you might think.

That's a distinction that Anthony Volpe is quick to make when speaking about it. Volpe is the CMO of AnastasiaDate, one of the most popular sites in the world for men who wish to meet Russian women. AnastasiaDate began in 1993, when an American man and Russian woman, who met and married through a matchmaking agency, decided they wanted to facilitate relationships for others in the same way. Now they run similar sites for men who wish to meet women from all over the world: AmoLatina, AsianBeauties, and AfricaBeauties.

He makes the case that AnastasiaDate probably has more in common with a traditional online dating site than it does with an international marriage broker. He insists that the company is agnostic toward what kind of relationship two people embark upon once they meet, and AnastasiaDate is interested only in serving as a communications platform to serve many different relationship goals. Volpe breaks those goals down into four camps; human warmth and connection, flirtation and escape, serious relationships, and marriage.

I asked him about the commoditization of women that can happen, as demonstrated in the international dating documentary "Love Translated" — in it, men continually say after a nice date with a gorgeous woman that they're going to keep looking to see if there's a better option before they settle. Volpe balked a bit at that. "If we start with the presumption that whatever someone's ultimate goal is in dating — flirtation, escape entertainment, human warmth, serious relationship or marriage — they want to have the best experience possible. When people are presented with choices, the more choices they have, in some cases, the better."

The paralysis of too many choices. GIF from "Love Translated."

In some ways that's true. One has to stop and wonder if the seemingly endless choices can be paralyzing to someone who might be seeking idealized foreign romances out of an inability to connect in everyday spontaneous situations. But on the flip side, one also has to wonder if that dynamic is any different on AnastasiaDate than it is on, say, Tinder, or if both of those examples are just emblematic of how technology can amplify the shortcomings that can just be an aspect of human nature.

Volpe offers one way that his company differs from sites like Match.com — its verification system. He assures that on the women's side, they have partner agencies who confirm their identities via ID or passport. Vexingly, on the men's side of things, they only need a credit card for verification, which calls into question exactly how even-keeled the dynamics really are. If both sides' interests aren't equally protected, are both genders really whom AnastasiaDate considers its customer — or is one set actually more the product?

Josh and Ekaterina's story offers a glimpse into a success story for international marriages.

AnastasiaDate was kind enough to introduce me to a happy couple who married after meeting on the site. Their names are Josh and Ekaterina, who goes by Kate. Josh and Kate seem to have a pretty normal, if a little old-fashioned, kind of relationship. They connected in 2012 through the site, after Josh had decided that the dating pool in Akron, Ohio, wasn't "high-quality" enough.

"It didn't seem like in my immediate locality like in Akron, there was ... I mean, there were some quality people there but it was a lot harder to find. On AnastasiaDate it was a lot easier to see higher quality people."

They got serious quickly, marrying about a year later in Ohio with a small ceremony (Josh's parents are deceased and he has little family) and moving to the Northwest shortly after. In Russia, Kate was a physical therapist, a degree she was able to get for free. It afforded her an independent lifestyle with a modest apartment she was content with; she wanted her free time and money to go to traveling. She was on AnastasiaDate, she says, not to try to solve financial troubles (as the stigma around international relationships implies) but because she was really looking for a life partner. Josh says Americans are so convinced that this is the best country in the world that they often think people are just desperate to come to America no matter what, but depending on what you're valuing, in some ways, life in Russia is better. Kate agrees.


Josh and Kate on vacation. Image used with permission.

Is their relationship one of equals?

When it comes to being on even-footing financially (and economic parity often lends itself to equity in relationships, like it or not), some dynamics from America's financial model actually put Kate at a disadvantage now that she's here. For instance, she would love to practice physical therapy here, but to get an American degree, she'd have to take a loan she'd potentially be "paying back for the rest of her life" and it would take another six-seven years to earn the degree. To compound matters, it puts her at the heart of a conundrum many couples face when it comes to child-rearing. Josh and Kate are considering having children soon, and in the traditional values they both appear to hold dear, Kate's education would definitely take a backseat while she takes on the role of primary caretaker for their future kids. She's able to achieve some financial equity in the partnership via her work in translating, but Josh is the main breadwinner as a programmer analyst.

Still, Josh is sensitive to Kate's situation (being Russian in America, with a certain amount of dependence on him) and wants to make sure she's an equal partner in decision making. In his words:

"We make decisions together. The way I look at it, if someone's not happy, eventually they're going to leave. You don't want to put someone in a position where they feel like a prisoner or they don't have a say because if you do that eventually they're not going to want to stick around."

And Kate is pretty clear about how she likes to carry on with their relationship. Here's how she explains it (in pretty darn good, though not perfect, English):

"[It's a] cultural difference. In my country it was natural when you wake up a little bit earlier than your husband you make breakfast and you have breakfast together, for example. It's just natural for me. So I don't feel discriminated or something like this. I like this."

Kate and Josh's story is incredibly interesting, and they're not alone.

There are other great international marriage stories, including ones that did originate from marriage broker agencies that people would be tempted to refer to as "mail-order," where the couples feel secure and the marriages do what the best marriages do — make each other add up to more together than they could have been separately.

The more you know about international marriages, the more questions it raises about American dating.

One interesting thought rabbit hole that came out of talking to Josh and Kate and Anthony Volpe revolves around the contrasts between American dating culture and international dating culture. Josh pointed out that in American relationships, often times people kind of bounce from one experience to the next, not knowing exactly what it is they're looking for, and probably still hurting from the last relationship they had. He thinks for international dating, you have to know yourself better than that and get pretty clear about what you want. It stands to reason, if one is going to spend thousands of dollars on travel to meet someone (and isn't obscenely wealthy) that one would want to be pretty efficient about it and not waste their efforts.

And the questions to explore here are almost endless. What is the motivation for men on AnastasiaDate to seek foreign companionship? Is the draw an idealized hope of a woman with "old country" traditional [read: non-feminist] ways of thinking who won't challenge them — as they're finding some American women inclined to do? And how can that result in tragedy for women who might be easy targets for abusers? And what about when the woman only wants a green card or to scam a man out of money? In the follow-up article, we'll explore some of the caveats and nightmare stories from international dating and marriages.

But, in the meantime, it's worth giving your preconceived notions about international marriage arrangements another think.

Just like anything, there are shades of gray, nuances, and extremes of both good and bad experiences. Technology is more often than not a tool, and how good or bad it is depends on the person using it. When you think about it like that, international marriages don't sound so different from marriages that start from Tinder.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

True

2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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