“When I was a little girl, kids would call me names. I didn’t even know what a ‘communist’ was at the time. I’m not sure they did, either. But that’s what they called me.”
Julie Smolyansky isn’t surprised that the idea of resettling thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States makes some people uncomfortable. She faced similar suspicion when her family was resettled in the United States from the former Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
Today, Julie is the CEO & President of Lifeway Foods. They make a popular kefir drink that you’ve probably seen at your grocery store. But before she became the youngest-ever female CEO of a publicly traded company, she was something else – a refugee. When she was only a year old, her family fled the former Soviet Union. They left Kiev in 1976, and spent three months in Rome before being resettled to Chicago by HIAS. She says she cannot help but empathize with the Syrian refugees who are now in the news almost daily. Their story is her story.
“As a refugee myself, I cannot sit quietly during the biggest refugee crisis of our time. My parents were fleeing persecution and violence when they brought us here. And yet, when U.S. politicians debated whether or not to allow Soviet Jews into the U.S. in the early 70’s, the same things were said.”
Seeking asylum in the United States during the Cold War wasn’t easy for the Smolyansky family. “There was a lot of suspicion,” she recalls. “People were saying, ‘why should we let these people in? they’re probably KGB spies’ — which was absurd.” Her family had no intention of spying for the regime that had oppressed and persecuted them for so long.
Today this is obvious, but back then it was seen as highly controversial. That’s why Julie feels so compelled to add her story to today’s debate over the admission of additional Syrian refugees — something non-governmental organizations and even former officials have argued is necessary given the ongoing crisis.
“Taking in 1,500 Syrian refugees this year is just not acceptable. I understand we have the continued fear and threat of terrorism to our great country. However, we are confusing people that are fleeing terror in Syria with the terrorists,” she says.
It's a shame, she continues, because refugees have a lot to offer their host countries. “Every day I see the positive impact refugees have on our communities. I am living proof of what refugees can contribute. My company is worth $300 million dollars and employs 350 people.”
When they first arrived in the U.S., HIAS connected her father with English language classes and helped him with his resume. Within two weeks of setting foot in Chicago, he’d gone to work as a draftsman. Meanwhile her mother, after starting out as a hair washer and nail technician, went on to open the first Russian delicatessen in Chicago, Globus on Devon Street.
Julie would like to see others get the same chance she and her family had, to start over in safety and to contribute to their new homeland. “The refugees leaving Syria are highly skilled professionals, women, and children. We should welcome them to our great nation.”