I came to America in 1979. That I am an immigrant is common knowledge among friends, acquaintances, and anyone who’s sat on my schmata-covered couch (it’s not plastic, OK?). But many people do not realize that I am also a refugee.
My family fled the Soviet Union about 37 years ago so that we could buy quality toilet paper at Walgreens. That, and something about an oppressive regime. I’m too young to remember growing up under authoritarianism (though I’m getting a bit of a real-life lesson now), but my mom tells me that life pretty much sucked.
I think nothing of my neighbor overhearing Britney Spears blaring from my apartment, but when my mom was young, her family used to listen to BBC Radio at home at barely audible levels. They did this in spite and because of the fear that neighbors might discover and report the illegal act, ensuring shipment to a camp (not the summer kind), or worse.
Like most Russians, my mom wasn’t allowed to say anything she wanted, live anywhere she wanted, or work anywhere she wanted. But hey, at least she could vote. The choice was always Candidate A or Not Candidate A. Not Candidate A consistently lost by a landslide.
There were also economic problems. You know, Jews. Many Russians understood the obvious: Money-hungry, cheap Jews were manipulating the ruble. Actually, you could trace pretty much everything wrong with the country back to the Jews. Forced to queue for toilet paper, bread, or whatever surprise staple awaited you (if there was a line, you got on it)? Blame a Jew. Lost a job? Blame a Jew. Stuck in traffic? Blame a Jew. Bad hair day? That’s on you, but take it out on Ilya Cohenbergman anyway because you know he’s doing something to ruin your life.
The Problem of Smart Jews
You’d think the rampant anti-Semitism would inspire the Soviet government to kick out Jewish people and slam the door, but it mostly refused to even open the door. Things worked differently then. Although Jews were less than 1% of the population by the late 1970s, they accounted for 20% to 30% of the nation’s university students.
A country needs its doctors, lawyers, scientists, and professors, so lawmakers required all college-educated emigrants to pay a “diploma tax” that sometimes equaled 20 times one’s annual salary, essentially making it impossible to escape. The rule technically applied to anyone who sought to leave, but given that educated Jews were most likely to want to bid dasvidaniya, the international community saw the law for what it was—an act of anti-Semitism. (Sound like a familiar scenario?) Following Western pressure, the government repealed the tariff.
Eventually, policymakers eased restrictions, allowing Jews like us to depart as refugees. Not all wanted out, though. My father was one of them. He worried about moving to the United States, where scary homeless people littered every single sidewalk. He also didn’t want to live in a place where the sun rarely shined. That’s not a metaphor. He really believed America was usually dark, having bought into the USSR’s bizarre propaganda about its Cold War nemesis.
Nonetheless, we left our birthplace behind, along with almost everything we owned. We also paid the Soviet government a crazy amount of money to leave, arriving in New York with nothing. By nothing, I mean nothing.
“No One Leaves a Good Situation”
The only reason America took us in is because of our legal status as refugees. I guess back then, you didn’t have to fear being shot, beaten, kidnapped, or enslaved in your homeland to qualify as a refugee. Then again, a whole segment of our population thinks none of this is enough today.
How is it that Russian Jews in 1979 were welcomed but Syrian Muslims in 2017 are not?
One answer I get is that Jews weren’t plotting to blow up or impose shariah law on Americans. Neither are Muslims! Like my family years ago, today’s refugees want only to live freely and safely.
My mom likes to say that “no one leaves a good situation.” It’s such an obvious statement, but one apparently lost on many people. Families do not abdicate all they’ve ever known to head to a strange, new place just because. Syrians aren’t running from Aleppo because Bashar al-Assad cut off their Netflix.
I get so frustrated by Americans who don’t realize how good they have it. That the majority of people in this country don’t personally know what it’s like to live without basic freedoms is not the problem. It’s that many cannot or will not imagine a life other than their own. In America, “basic freedoms” for so many mean cable TV, smartphones, microwaves,
and health care.
Smiling American Idiots
My family went on to live the American Dream. We learned English. Some more than others. We became citizens. We bought homes. We took vacations. We got jobs. We got laid off from jobs. We found new jobs. We ate lots of sugar. And fat. And salt. Some more than others. And hey, if writing an HR blog doesn’t symbolize the American Dream, then what does?
All of which is to say that refugees do not all look the same, but they do feel the same. They yearn for an existence impossible in their nations. I owe my life to my mom’s tough decision to choose hope over fear, and I’m thankful to her, to those who helped us, and to Don King’s America.
I’ll close with this: When my mom and my aunt first walked the streets of New York, they’d see scores of people smiling and laughing. They’d say to each other, “What is wrong with Americans? Look at these idiots. Why are they smiling so much?”
It didn’t take long for them, and so many immigrants like them, to become those same smiling American idiots.
My man Neil said it best: “Far, we’ve been traveling far, without a home, but not without a star. Free, only want to be free. We huddle close. Hang on to that dream.”