Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Refugee in America, Part III

In May of 1994, when we were about to fly out of Moscow to JFK, I saw my father for the first time in about 9 months. Because of  new visa requirements in Latvia, it was deemed too difficult and too expensive for him to come visit us. He did come once during that last year in Latvia - I can't exactly remember why. It was some emergency-type situation, something to do with paperwork and emigration, and he had to come right away. His brother-in-law, my uncle Boris, who lived in Riga most of his adult life and was a legal resident (but not a citizen) took an overnight train to Grodno, Belarus. My dad took his passport and took the next train to Latvia. Uncle Boris and my dad look nothing alike, aside from stereotypical Semitic noses. Eye color, height, hair - all different. It was a huge risk - but it all worked out. Dad smuggled himself into Latvia, took care of whatever it was that needed to be taken care of, and went back to Grodno to give uncle Boris his passport back. 

You need to understand - border patrol - that was no joke. Those men - they were always men - had power over the simple mortals like us. When USSR fell apart, my family ended up separated in different, independent countries. My mother and I were in Latvia. My father and his parents were in Belarus. My mother's sister and parents were Kharkov, Ukraine. My mother's brother was in Russia. Visiting each other became a nightmare. Each country had its own currency, its own laws, and its own border patrol. There were sanctions against people smuggling stuff from one country and into another. You were not allowed to bring more food than what you could eat on the train. You were not allowed to bring anything that could be identified as potential merchandise, to be sold for profit, by the border patrol. 

We never ran into problems - perhaps because my mother always put some crisp dollar bills into her passport. One poor lady failed to do so, on the way from Belarus to Latvia. She was bringing a large chunk of cheese with her. "It is for my son! he loves this cheese and it is impossible to buy in Riga!" - she screeched. The patrol forced her off the train. She reappeared 30 minutes later, minus the cheese, ruffled up and furious. It is a somewhat amusing story - but this is what I mean. Power corrupts. Those men - they knew they could do anything they wanted and there would be no consequences. They were in control.

Those guys were puppies compared to the border patrol in Sheremet'evo, when we were leaving Russia. Each refugee was allowed  to have 2 bags with very specific weight limits and dimensions. We were very careful about the weight part. These were canvas bags, made from the army-grade tent fabric. Very sturdy, very light. The problem with canvas bags - they were a bit shapeless. They had budges, bumps, and sometimes got a bit distorted - depending what was inside. 

Think for a minute - if you had to move to another country, a place so unknown and so alien that it may as well be Mars - what would you bring? We kept asking our relatives who already were in the US - what should we bring? They said - don't worry about anything, we'll provide everything you need. You can buy anything here, this is America. Bring things that are meaningful, nothing else. No plates? No tea sets? No pots and pans? Really? We brought our treasured cassette player. It was rather big and bulged out. Grandma brought her favorite pillow. Another gigantic bulge. It was less than an inch, but two of the bags did not fit the standard dimensions. The border patrol said - go over there, take stuff out, until the bags are of proper size.  Grandparents were sitting on chairs safe distance from Tamozhnya, they were not aware what was happening. Parents asked how  much. It was $300 dollars and we got our bags through. The guy in the line next to ours was only charging $200. "Don't say anything to grandpa" - my parents hissed at me.

Inside the airplane, the flight attendants,  smiles plastered on their faces, gestured for us to move, move, move, keep going, going, going. There were no assigned seats and everyone assumed those at the head of the line would get the best seats. Nope. We were one of the first families to get on board - and we ended up in the very tail, right next to the bathrooms. My mom made a long-suffering face, no doubt thinking about the smells we'll be experiencing for the next 8 hours. My grandparents, who went into a sort of hibernation, did not have far to walk  to the bathroom - and that was a very, very good thing.

I ended up being one of the only people on the flight who spoke any English. I felt so grown up and proud to be translating various requests.

In a few hours, we would be landing in JFK. It was terrifying. It was exciting. I kept thinking about my best friend that I would probably never see again. I thought about a bitter poem by Lermontov that we had to memorize in school. He wrote it as a good-bye note to Russia when he was exiled for his political views. I tried to not think about the future - it was so close I could almost touch it and yet, I had no idea what to expect. Ahead was all darkness, the absolute unknown. It was a little like dying, I thought. 

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