Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Refugee in America. Part II.

Back to 1992. After the breakup of the USSR, things got rough. Everyone lost their savings in the early 90's. Economy was non-existent. I remember, how in the course of a year, the price of bread went up from  20 kopeck (cents) to 5 rubles (dollars). My family went from being fairly well-off, by Soviet standards, to nothing. 

You may have heard about stores with empty shelves during the 80's-early 90's, how hard it was to buy basic necessities (all true...). Early 90's in Latvia were a little different - there was a lot of stuff being imported, including food and clothing. We could afford almost nothing. 

When we lived in the Far East in the 80's, because of the deficits of - everything - my father received part of his salary as canned and dry goods. We had boxes and boxes of canned fish and meat, flour, sugar, and dry milk that pulled us through the three years, 1991 to 1994 in Latvia. We only had my mom's part-time job's salary (music teacher) to live on. Dad's military pension was in Belarus (in Belorussian currency known as "bunnies"). He calculated once that his monthly pension was enough to buy 20 loaves of bread. My parents decided to set that money aside as savings (whatever was left after dad supplemented his parents' pensions to pay for apartment and food). 

Don't get me wrong - I am not complaining. I never went hungry. I was sometimes cold, but that was because of fuel shortages ("extras" like running hot water got cut off first). Some people installed little stoves in their apartments that burned kerosin. We used a little space heater when things got rough in the winter (electricity was expensive). There were some inconveniences, but no more than that. We did not have a telephone. My parents never bought anything for themselves. I wore lots of hand-me-downs. Through it all, my parents payed for my private English lessons. We had it much easier than our family and friends in Ukraine (every time we came to visit, I felt like a rich little brat).

In  the fall of 1993, we got an invitation for an interview at the US Embassy in Moscow that would determine whether or not we would be granted the refugee status.

Fall 1993 in Moscow was the Russian Constitutional Crisis, the standoff between Yeltsin and the parliament. Tanks in the streets, tanks were firing shells at the government building, an attempt to take over the Ostankino broadcasting tower .. it was madness. Dad was unable to get a legal residency in Latvia and was staying in Belarus (there were also some weird guest visa issues, I don't remember details). Communication between my parents was spotty (remember - we had no phone; letters got lost half the time). My mother was going through the roof with worry. It was an absolute miracle and unbelievable luck that the crisis got resolved just  days before we arrived in Moscow for the interview. 

At the interview, we never got past the first question. Where do you live? Latvia and Belarus. Two countries? Are you divorced? No. Why don't you live in one country?  ....Because we can't. My father, as ex-military, couldn't get residency (equivalent of a green card) in Latvia . He could not work there. In 1993-1994, he needed  a visa if he wanted to come visit us. My mother and I were legal residents in Latvia, which meant that I could go to school and mom could work. However, we didn't receive citizenship because we were not ethnically Latvian and did not have immediate family who lived in Latvia prior to 1945. I could become a citizen if I married a Latvian citizen. My parents weren't enthusiastic about me marrying anyone at that point in time.

In Latvia, we had a place to live - an apartment on a former military base. We didn't own it, we payed rent - but somehow, my parents managed to put a claim on it, their names were assigned to that apartment. In Belarus, where my father lived, my mother couldn't get a citizenship. Because she wasn't born there. Remember, all these countries became independent, sort of, and established their own laws, their own currencies...  It was madness. Mom was married to my father, who was born in Belarus, but based on our understanding of Belorussian laws of that time, it would take something like 20 years before she could apply for citizenship. The biggest problem was - we had nowhere to live in Belarus. My father lived with his parents, in a small 1-bedroom apartment. Everyone was less than thrilled at the idea of all of us moving in together with grandma and grandpa's.

The embassy official who interviewed us looked confused. In the end, she granted us the refugee status. Mom and I went back to Latvia, and dad went back to Belarus. We would be allowed to bring 2 bags per person on the flight to the US. We were forced to become minimalists, to purge, to discard almost everything we owned. Some things we sold (piano, some books, furniture), some things we gave away (most books, music records, clothing), and some things got thrown out (I don't want to think about that). I stood on a street corner and sold stuff... fancy pencils and markers that I never used, books, random souvenirs, tea cups and fancy spoons... That was an interesting experience and more fun than I expected. It was kind of like a game, trying to figure out who was going to stop and look at what, who would pay without bargaining, and who would argue about the price (I was under orders from my parents to agree to whatever price people named). Best part - I got to keep the money. After currency exchange, I had about $5 - it was a start!

To be continued...

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