My family and I immigrated from the Soviet Union in March of 1991, less than a year before the USSR collapsed. We encountered anti-semetism, and life was overall unpleasent. We knew that there were countries where people lived freely, without government officials breathing down our necks and telling us what to do. We wanted our children to be able to grow up in a free country, and have a good life. In the USSR, this was not possible.
It was practically impossible to immigrate from the USSR. the last immigrant left around 1980, and after that no one was allowed to leave. Before this, the government allowed Jews to leave, but no one was allowed after the late 1970s. Then, Gorbachev came to power in 1985. At first we didn't think that anything would change. Then, we heard rumors from the Jewish community that people who had wanted to leave before were being let go to immigrate. They would just pack up and leave.
People started to discuss amongst themselves what was needed to leave, what documents were needed. We too started to think about possibilities of leaving. Everybody we talked to was already in one of the stages of leaving. To leave, we would need to get a immigration visa. To get this visa, we had to show the authorities an invitation from relatives in Israel. From Israel, we would go to the USA...direct immigration to the US was not allowed.
There was an organization in Israel that helped Soviet Jews by sending these invitations, posing as relatives. We asked for such an invitation from distant friends (all diplomatic actions with Israel had to be performed through Holland, as the USSR did not think Israel as a worthy country) who would be able to arrange it. They took our address, and a month later we got a letter with the invitation.
When I received the letter, I was terrified, imagining all the things we would have to go through, and all the things that could go wrong. At one point, I almost threw the letter out. Thankfully, I was able to stop myself. In about a week, I went to the office where we would be able to recieve the visa. The officer on duty looked at the letter as if it were a slug, and threw it almost into my face. When, my husband went, he got the documents.
We submitted the documents to get the visa, and waited anxiously for about 7 or 8 months. We got the paper, but in the meantime, the USA agreed to let Soviet Jews in. We had to go through many official documents, allowing us to leave the country. We hit a small snag when my parents did not want to sign the document required to let us go to the US. There were many long lines and headaches.
Finally, we got the documents allowing us to leave the country. We almost jumped for joy. We had to sell our tiny apartment, and pay to get rid of Russian citizenship. There was a scary moment when we were without documents, and the government could do whatever they pleased with us.
We packed our few belongings into 8 suitcases (2 per person), and set off to Sheremetevo airport, waiting all night for the plane. At about 6 AM, my husband and I, my 2 1/2 year old son. my 6 year old son, two dogs, and our 8 suitcases boarded the plane to our dreamland.
It took about 16 hours to get to the USA, with stops for gas. At one point, when we stopped, my husband joked that its the end and we were landed in Siberia, near a Russian concentration camp.
In the JFK airport, we got our first glimpse of America. We were met by HIAS, who drove us to a hotel, then to another airport to fly to Savannah, Georgia. We started out in Savannah because of our relatives who had come before us. In Savannah, the Jewish community helped us gat back on our feet.
We were helped with essentials (job, synagogue, food, home, etc.), and made sure that we had a part in the community.
We could not stop breathing the air of freedom. Everything was a lot nicer in America. People were more helpful, and the atmosphere was a lot better. We were eventually able to get back on our feet, and live a nice life here in the USA.
I was a doctor in the USSR. I was able to get my papers again, here in America, so technically, we didn't come with completely empty hands. It was hard to learn the language and adapt to the culture of this new world that we were in. But I was amazed by the fact that people smiled at me. It was weird to live in a country where everyone is a lot more helpful and considerate.
In the end, it was a choice between living in a country that was not free, where you were told what to do and life was hard; or a country where everyone was free and everyone had oppertunity. Despite tha hardships, we chose to come to America.