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A cross-continental black sisterhood rekindled

by Ann Simmons

Almost 30 years ago, while I was a college student pursuing bachelor’s degrees in Russian and Norwegian, one of my summer jobs involved escorting American high school students on tours of the former Soviet Union and Scandinavia. The students were mainly juniors and seniors from schools across the United States.

I would meet the students in Helsinki, Finland, and eventually we would take a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, in Russia. An official Russian “Intourist” guide would meet us there. This was the normal practice for foreigners, and in particular Westerners, visiting the Cold War-era U.S.S.R. So I was essentially the Western liaison (some would say chaperone) between the students and the guide.

Simmons, Ali, Khanga

Briton Ann Simmons met American Maryum Ali and Yelena Khanga, a Russian, 30 years ago in Moscow, Russia. They never expected they would ever all see each other again. Credit: Yuri Zinchenko

In 1985, one of my student groups came from University High School in Los Angeles. Among the students was a 17-year-old African-American girl named Maryum Ali. It turns out that she was the eldest daughter of boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, traveling with her best friend, Kelly Richardson, the only other black student in the group.

When the Russian media found out that Ali’s daughter was visiting, a young female reporter for the Moscow News newspaper decided to snag an interview. The name of the reporter, a black Russian, was Yelena Khanga. In fact, she is today one of the country’s most well-known so-called Afro-Russians. Her father was from Zanzibar; her mother was the daughter of an African American agronomist from Mississippi and a Polish Jewish American from New York who settled in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s.

The three of us — the black American, the black Russian and me, a black Briton — took a photo together. And then we went our separate ways. Maryum back to the United States, Yelena remaining in Russia and me to England.

We never really thought we would see each other again, at least not as a group. But as fate would have it, almost three decades later, during one week in August 2014, we all found ourselves in Los Angeles. It was time for a reunion.


  1. October 21, 2014, 3:46 pm

    What a fateful journey over so many years! All things work together for good…

    By: pashade
  2. November 20, 2014, 9:47 am

    great interview/conversation!

    By: Jaleel
  3. July 11, 2015, 6:20 pm

    24 years after I first met Yelena, I am still fascinated by her incredible story. I was the first Afro-American Businessman to organize a business in Moscow after the Cold War . I met Yelena when I was publishing the Moscow Busimess Journal. I hosted a book signing party for her Soul TO Soul book at my home in. Missouri City , Texas. She is a loyal and cherished friend whom I loss contact and have not seen nor heard from in some 22 years. It would be great to hear from her after so many years.

    Bill Ellis

    By: Bill Ellis

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