First Person

Story posted on March 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

My personal connection to HIAS began many years ago in the 1970s when I was a little girl living in Russia. My parents, like many other Soviet Jews, applied to the Soviet government for exit visas to allow them to leave the Soviet Union. While Russian Jews were immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers in the late ’70s – most of them processed and funded by HIAS – my family was denied exit visas. They were given a contrived reason – that my father had access to classified information when he had served in the Soviet Army – a bitter pill to swallow as military service was compulsory for all men in the Soviet Union – and he certainly never had access to classified information while he served. As a result, my family became refuseniks for nearly 10 years.

To go back further in time, my parents were not the first refuseniks in our family. My paternal grandparents, who were born in a small town in Romania, which later was absorbed into the Soviet Union, had been trying to leave the country since the 1950s. Their four brothers – some of the first founders of Israel – had left Romania in the 1930s to build the Jewish State. My grandparents, who were too young at that time to join their brothers, had no idea that they would spend decades trying to reunite with them. They started their quest, together with my great grandfather in the ’50s and, year after year, were given various excuses for denials. During this ordeal, my great grandfather was able to see one of his sons when he visited the Soviet Union as part of an official delegation from Israel in 1966 when the Soviet Union attempted to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. By then, my great grandfather had lost his vision and was only able to recognize his son by touching his face and listening to his voice. My grandparents finally reunited with all four of their brothers in Israel in the late 1980s, all elderly people in their 70s and 80s. Sadly, my great grandfather never lived to see that day and never met any of his grandchildren born in Israel.

Throughout our own 10 years as refuseniks, we lived and breathed the dream of immigrating to America. Many of our family friends, who successfully left Russia, wrote letters with detailed descriptions of the immigration process, which only fueled our desire to emigrate. Since such information was unavailable through official channels, we collected hundreds of letters that described, step-by-step, how to prepare and what to expect when crossing the border. These letters discussed in detail the work of HIAS, which at that time was nothing more than a magical concept to us. We could not comprehend that, once we would be released one day, HIAS would actually be waiting for us on the other side with food, shelter and documents. 

Our time as refuseniks was a trying period. My parents, both young engineers in their early 30s, were formally characterized as "lacking good moral character" by the government and lost their jobs. Forced to seek employment outside of their professions, my father found work as a car mechanic and my mother became a cosmetologist. As they tried to make ends meet, they continued to petition the Soviet government every year to allow them to leave Russia. In the meantime, our family was under constant surveillance by the KGB: our phones were tapped, we were frequently followed, and our family friends were approached with offers to spy on us. While this sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, it became our everyday reality, as we were considered "traitors to the Motherland."

Several human rights organizations of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada acted in support of our family. Through the efforts of these groups, we received from the West numerous letters, care packages, newspaper and flier clippings with our photos and pleas to release us. Needless to say, we were heartened by the unbounded support and dedication they provided in our quest to escape from the Soviet Union. 

And one day, completely unexpectedly, it finally happened. My parents and I received our exit papers in September of 1987, shortly before my 17th birthday. We left the Soviet Union on Dec. 4, 1987, each of us carrying two suitcases and $70 dollars. This was all that the Soviet government allowed us to take. When we landed in Austria, the first stop in our journey, we were greeted by HIAS employees who took full care of us, provided us with a place to stay, money and immigration documents, and ensured that we safely landed in the U.S. a few months later. In reflecting back, it is still difficult to articulate our gratitude and amazement for everything that HIAS did for us as new arrivals in a foreign place.

Just like any other new immigrants to the United States, we spent the first few years learning English, adapting to the American way of life, and trying to find our unique place in this new world. 

Life in the United States has been kind to me. I was fortunate to receive a great education and become an immigration attorney. Today, I assist immigrants who wish to come to the U.S., which is a constant reminder to me of my own difficult but rewarding path to this country. Being immersed in the intricacies of immigration law makes me appreciate HIAS’ efforts even more in being able to consistently process huge numbers of refugees. 

As an immigration attorney, I feel privileged to practice in a profession that, I believe, invigorates America’s diversity and contributes to the world’s growth. I am also honored to be recognized by other members of my profession through invitations to speak at conferences and to write for immigration publications. The biggest honor of all, of course, was the invitation to serve on the Board of Directors of HIAS, of which I am now a proud member.

Today, having spent half of my life in Russia and the other half here in the U.S., I am almost at the age when my parents first entered the U.S. Looking back now, I cannot help but admire them for their strength, determination, and courage when they finally made the leap from being Jewish refuseniks in Russia to becoming Russian refugees in America, and later, American citizens. This was the biggest miracle in my life, and HIAS played a critical role in bringing our dream to fruition.