Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Refugee in America. Part I.

Recent political developments made me think about my family's past. We are refugees. We are lucky: we never had to live in a refugee camp. My parents and I never experienced war (I pray that neither I, nor my children, nor my children's children ever will).

There was a sequence of events that lead to a point of no return: the realization that my family had nothing left to loose except each other. That, in turn, led to the gargantuan decision - the decision to emigrate.

In the summer of 1991, we found ourselves in Latvia, a former republic of the USSR that declared its independence in 1990. Russia was just beginning to withdraw its military forces from the Baltic States. My parents were frantic with worry and were trying to figure out what to do next.

America first appeared on the horizon sometime in 1992, just a few months after the break up of the USSR.  My father had just retired from the army (he was a military doctor) and at that time he could still stay in Latvia without much difficulty. We lived in a comfortable 1-bedroom apartment on the territory of a soviet army base, outside a small town. All current and former soviet army personnel was labeled "occupants", although the local Latvian population never showed any animosity and were always helpful when my mom and I were learning Latvian language. My parents really wanted to stay there, but with new residency and citizenship laws it didn't look like we would be welcomed to remain in Latvia permanently.

There were no prospects for my parents in Russia. Or Ukraine. Or Belarus. We didn't have Russian citizenship (because we were in Latvia at the time the Soviet Union ceased to exist). My dad managed to get a Belorussian citizenship because he was born there and his parents still lived there. Based on our understanding of the laws at the time, it would have taken my mom something like 20 years before she could have applied for citizenship in Belarus. The whole thing was a circus...  Our family was split apart by newly-formed countries (each with their own currency, official language, and border patrol). I had a set of grandparents in Belarus, a set of grandparents in Ukraine, cousins in Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. Visiting each other was becoming more and more difficult.

There was no easy way out. No matter where my parents would go - they would have to start from zero. Add the economic turmoil and loss of all savings... my parents had to start from zero without any sort of safety cushion. The future looked bleak. The future looked like there was nothing left to loose (financially speaking).

I don't remember if my parents ever asked my opinion about immigrating to the US. 
Do you want to go to the US? 
Do you want to go to Mars? 
Isn't it impossible? Or, at least, very very difficult? 
Is there even life on Mars?

US made no sense. US was made up of Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, O'Henry, Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clark. American school was described in "Up the Down Staircase" by Bella Kaufman. Together with episodes of "Saved by the Bell" - none of it made sense and I wondered if any of it was real. Perhaps the whole "America" was a figment of someone's imagination.

If my parents asked, I would have probably mentioned Israel. In 1991, my cousin who used to live in Riga (capital of Latvia) made aliyah to Israel, at the tender age of 18. She was  going to college, dating, hiking, learning Hebrew...  She had a life. She even sent us the summons necessary to start  our own aliyah (it also made my life quite miserable for  the next 2 years, but that's a different story). 

If my parents asked me, I would have said "Lets go to Israel. There is definitely life in Israel."


I knew we had distant relatives in the US. My family, like most families, had its share of drama. In the early 1900s, my great-grandmother married against her parents' will. Her husband had a criminal record in Tsarist Russia: he was a communist and spent time in jail. The family disowned her and went to America. She stayed in Belarus and went on to have 7 children. 

Periodically, the American relatives tried to contact my family in the USSR. My grandfather ran into a bit of troubles in the 50's, when he received a parcel from the US and was nearly kicked out of the Communist Party for "fraternizing with the enemy". My grandfather did a smart thing that probably saved him from being arrested  - he delivered the package to the head of the local branch of the Communist Party, told him this package had nothing to do with him and this whole thing was a provocation from the "decaying West". 

What I never heard discussed was that one of my grandfather's sisters immigrated to the US sometime in the 70's or 80's. In 1992, she sent the summons to her little brother, enabling us to start the paperwork process. She passed away a few months before we came to the US, so, unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet her.

To be continued....

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