Monday, January 30, 2017

I rarely talk about my personal life on my blog, and I bet many of you don't know this. I was once a refugee. Yes, I came to the United States as part of a refugee program.

It was 1993. I was 24 years old. Antisemitism in my native country of Belarus was on the rise and the emigration ban from my country has finally lifted. Many of my friends and family, including my uncle and cousins, have left for Israel. My ex-husband, however, already had a brother living in the United States, and his mother wanted to be reunited with her older son and grandchildren. So Lautenberg amendment allowed our family to apply for entry to the United States.
Of course, we were vetted for entry, just as all refugees before and after us. We had to fill out a lot of different forms. We had to go all the way to Moscow, to US Embassy, for in-person interviews. We had to quit our jobs in preparation for our exit, sell our possessions, pack our life into two suitcases, use ridiculous exchange rate to convert rubles to dollars. We were lucky - we still had a place to live in while we were waiting for permission for entry.
When I read about the refugee ban enacted by President Trump, I got this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. The thought flashed in my head, What if it were me? What if our permission to enter never came? Soviet Union was breaking apart, and US relationship with it was somewhat warmer than normal, but still frosty. What if refugees from former Soviet Republics were branded as terrorists or spies (more likely at the time) and denied entry? Or what if my parents, who came a year after me, were denied entry and we would have been separated forever?
Being a refugee is hard. We left not just our possessions. We left behind our relatives, our friends, our faith in the law and order of our home countries. We came with very little cash in our pockets, but we were welcomed - both by our relatives and by New York organization supporting refugees. For nine months, we were given food stamps and about $700 per person per month - not a luxurious living as some anti-immigrants imagine our lives to be. But, more importantly, we were given free English classes, professional education classes, and resume writing help.
I came here with an engineering degree and a decent knowledge of English. Never mind that for the first few months I did not understand a word from what was spoken to me. My English language was acquired by reading books, since I have not had a chance to meet native English speakers in my native city. See, Minsk, a city with more than a million of people and a capital of Belarus, was "closed" to "unfriendly foreigners" for years, because of fear of espionage. Imagine how fun it will be to have "closed cities" like this here in the United States.
After about 6 months, with support of our host organization, I found my first job, a start up in New York City. Interestingly, almost all employees of this start up were immigrants from China or former Soviet Union - probably, because we were cheap. Eventually, this start up went bust, but I got my first real experience of working in US there, and I am very grateful to the owners for believing in me even when I told them that I have never written a line of code in Visual Basic. I got my bank account, my credit card, my own apartment after my divorce (a different story). I started hanging out with new friends - Americans and immigrants from Taiwan, Singapore, Jamaica, Australia. In the melting pot of New York City, I became an American.
It's been 24 years since my arrival. For 24 years, I am working and paying taxes. I am making a lot of money and paying a lot of taxes. As my father-in-law likes to say, paying income taxes is a nice problem to have. I got married again, this time to a German immigrant. We have an amazing, sweet, and intelligent daughter who is the first generation American of our family. And I desperately want her to live in the same country I lived in for 24 years - a country that attracts people all around the world as a place of democracy, freedom, and an opportunity. I want her to live in the country that does not repeat shameful practices of the WWII and does not turn out refugees based on their religion. Being an optimist, I want to hope that President Trump will realize how this blanket ban affects people here and around the world and how it actually makes America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks from within - by frustrated, angry, misguided people who already live here, people who lost hope that this country will treat them equally. I want to believe. I want to hope. I want the ban repealed for all refugees already thoroughly vetted and hoping to be reunited with their loved ones. Refugee ban must go.

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9 comments:

shelah moss said...

I also come from a family whose ancestors escaped oppression in their home countries. The experience made them appreciate their new homelands and inspired them to work hard and give back to their communities. My husband immigrated here as a child from a Scandanavian country. He has been told that he is an immigrant of "the right color". What does that even mean?

Terri Thompson said...

Thank you for sharing. It's so important to hear these stories.

JL said...
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JL said...
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maryanne @ mama smiles said...

I am so glad you wrote this. Honestly, I think you would be hard pressed to find an American who didn't have some sort of immigrant family history. This country has always been a country of immigrants - and that is precisely the reason it has been so successful, in my opinion.

Ticia said...

Thank you for sharing your story.

I'm not sure how this ban will shake out. Right now I see a lot of hysteria on both sides as people either openly rejoice in the ban and some of the more ridiculous news stories shared, or jump to conclusions about motives on the ban with some of the more ridiculous news stories shared.

However it ends up, there will be people hurt, and for that I'm feeling sad.

JL said...

Here's a point of view on why Americans fear refugees. http://m.motherjones.com/media/2016/11/viet-thanh-nguyen-refugees-sympathizer-pulitzer-prize-vietnam-war

JL said...

Trump's immigration ban aims to stop "foreign terrorist entry," however the U.S. hasn't had a foreign attack in over 15 years.

Since 2001, attacks have been by U.S. legal residents. —via Channel 4 News

JL said...

The ban has already hurt so many people. I just read this article which is even scarier.
https://medium.com/@jakefuentes/the-immigration-ban-is-a-headfake-and-were-falling-for-it-b8910e78f0c5#.pfs8nwdij