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As a Russian Jewish Immigrant, I Know the Pain of Seeking Asylum

refugee

I remember it clearly: We had 22 suitcases for the five of us. This was a time when suitcases with wheels had just made their way into the former Soviet Union, so a few of ours did, thankfully, have wheels. But just a few. Mostly, the responsibility of moving all of our family’s possessions fell onto my parents — who are both about 5’4” tall — as they loaded and unloaded the suitcases on and off various airplanes and trains.

I was just 10, and throughout our six-month immigration journey, my younger sister and I mostly just stood next to our grandma, clutching her hands. Those grey suitcases were our one constant as we fumbled our way through the terrifying process of being refugees, strangers in a strange land.

It was 1989 when my parents decided that life in the former USSR was no longer bearable for Jews, and that the lands unknown were better than the land we know. During 1970s, due to the international condemnation for Soviet human rights violations, Soviet authorities decided to raise emigration quotas. Simultaneously, the United States was creating policies to make it simpler for refugees to find an asylum in the U.S. Finally, in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev completely lifted restriction on emigration from the Soviet Union. All these forces created the perfect storm which sparked huge waves of Soviet Jewish immigration during that time.

Armed with appropriate documents, Soviet Jews were leaving their homeland by the thousands in the 1980s. My family was among that sea of escapees, Jews seeking religious freedom as well as safety and economic opportunities for themselves and their children. But then, isn’t that what all refugees usually seek?  Our experience, so seemingly unique to our family, was — and in many ways, is — very universal.

Our immigration process was arduous, but thanks to HIAS — a Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees — we had a place to live and food to eat at every stop. We spent three weeks in Vienna — a transit point which I recall being a miraculous place. I had never been outside of my country, and everything in Western Europe seemed inconceivable to me. I remember walking up to a grocery store and having its gleaming glass doors quietly slide open — an invitation to come inside, where I was greeted by shelves overflowing with goods I have never seen before: 24 flavors of coffee, 15 kinds of cheeses, chocolates of all shapes and sizes.  

After Vienna, we spent five months in a small town in Italy, another transit point. It was here that my parents had their interview with a U.S. immigration officer. They had to prove to this woman in uniform that we were truly worthy of entering the country, that we categorically could not stay any longer in our homeland, that this was our only way. Our whole future was riding on this interview; half an hour for the next 50 years, a gamble on your children’s lives.

When I think back on this now, my heart shatters into a million pieces for my parents, and for all the parents who endure such journeys and risk everything for the unknown. While I was marveling at Italian pastries we couldn’t afford at the local bakery, my parents were preparing for their interview, worrying about every last detail: What to wear? Bring the English-Russian dictionary to “prove” they’re learning English, or no? Display their Stars of David necklace on top of their clothes, or keep them underneath, so not to be too obvious?  

Necklaces out or not, the facts were simple enough: We were Jews, born in a place where Jews were not wanted. And we were seeking refuge in a country that has, for hundreds of years, offered sanctuary to those that needed it most — regardless of religious beliefs, or economic or social status.  

It was 28 years ago that we immigrated to the U.S. A final flight on Pan American airlines brought us to Atlanta, where we all live today. As I watch the refugee crisis unfold at our country’s Mexican border today — the detention centers, children being ripped from their parents, the chants to “build the wall” — I feel my heart tumbling  out of my chest.

I’m a parent to two daughters myself now and I feel for these parents who are risking everything to offer their children the chance for safer, more stable future.  Whether these parents are from Ukraine, Moldova, Honduras, or Nicaragua makes no difference — our country, which I still believe is the greatest in the world, is made only stronger through the fusion of cultures, languages, and nationalities it encompasses.  

Occasionally, someone asks my opinion about the immigration situation in the U.S., being an immigrant myself. The first thing I say is that my parents did all the heavy-lifting — they assumed all the risk; they wagered their lives and ours; they struggled, toiled, and suffered. Everything I have in this country and everything I became I owe to them.  

As a parent, I am in awe of their courage. I also know that when people come seeking asylum in a foreign land — when they have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, and have left behind everything they know and love — it is only for one reason: They simply had no choice.

These decisions are not made on a whim. They’re made out of a necessity so dire that it shatters everything you are and forces you to reinvent and rebuild yourself, your life, your character. It means that escape is the only option, knowing that the road is long, the end is uncertain, and that the life of a refugee is grueling and punishing.

It is under those circumstances that people approach the U.S. border. The only thing they want is a chance, an opportunity, a hope for a future that is not as bleak as their past. What our country does with these vulnerable souls will demonstrate the true character of the American people — now and for centuries to come.

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