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My refugee journey

IRINA YUFA's story posted on August 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm. IRINA emigrated from Kharkov, Soviet Union (USSR) to Flint, United States in 1991

Looking back twenty one year ago at my immigration experience I can say that it was very difficult physically and emotionally.  At that time I did not feel how difficult it was because it was not only difficult for me, but for many other people who lived near to me; the only difference was that most people came with their family and I was alone.  I left my family in the Ukraine and I was lucky to be accepted as a free case to Flint, MI.  I cried the entire way from Moscow to New York because I was so scared of a new life, new people and I did not know anyone.  When I came out from the plane in Flint I was already stressed, confused, and horribly scared.  I saw a big group of people at the airport with balloons, and signs that said “Welcome”.  It was the Flint Jewish community waiting for me.  I started crying immediately because it was so warm, and welcoming and unexpected.  I still have tears when I think about it.  So many people that I never met before were welcoming me to this new place.  Anyone who came from the former Soviet Union knows that something like that would never happen in that country, because people were not raised to be welcoming and nice to someone new and different.   

When I came to the United States as a refugee, Social Workers helped me with everything, including: Housing, Financial Aid, Work Placement, and Education.  The first years I was working three or more jobs with minimum wage and study English.  It was difficult but everyone worked hard to create a future and it was the norm.  Now looking back I realize how overwhelming my life was.  I was cleaning Dunkin Donald’s in the morning, had English class in the afternoon, and was a waiter in the evening.  On weekends I babysat children.  On top of this, I did every possible job that was offered to me.  I do not see anything special in my daily routine, because otherwise I would not have a chance to survive.  Later I worked for years at the factory and took some classes at the local college.  It gave me a chance to find my first professional job late when I worked as a computer programmer.  All these years I was not involved in any activities with my community. 

In 2001 when I was unemployed and took classes at the college again, my friend asked me if I wanted to work as an interpreter for Russian speaking seniors at the Jewish Community Services and run a senior club teaching seniors English and citizenship preparation.  I decided to do it, and this decision changed my life because I developed a passion for this job.  Later I became a full time employee of the Jewish Community Service, Flint.    When I was offered the chance to be an interpreter for non-English speaking people, I was glad for the opportunity to help people the way I was once helped.  As a full time social worker, I not only help people concur the language barrier, but I also help people apply for services that are available to them.  When I started working, I helped senior citizens apply for the United States citizenship.  Now, after seven years, all of my senior citizen clients are United States citizens.  As a result, they did not lose their benefits and they have a stable financial future. I would like to receive better knowledge of Social Work rules and availabilities that will benefit not only me, but also my clients.

I worked full time as the Adult & Youth Services Coordinator at the Jewish Community Services for 7 years.  My work deals primarily with immigrant families and seniors, along with youth programs.  I help people adapt to a new culture, find a job, and feel comfortable dealing with financial and social service problems.   At the same time I took social work classes at the Flint University.

Presently I am working as a Bilingual Case Manager at the Detroit Jewish Family Services with senior refugees from the former Soviet Union.  I believe that continuing my education in social work will enable me to better help people who have a lack of income, lack of services, limited language access, and are faced with the cultural barrier.  

I decided to continue my education through the Michigan State University MSW program because even with receiving some social work training from my work and University of Michigan-Flint I feel that I need to improve my knowledge in order to provide better services to my clients.  Every class I have already taken in the Masters in Social Work Program has helped me and led me in the right direction to solve some of the questions that my clients have come to me with.  Working with the geriatric population requires not only information that relates to the Major, but also information that is received from general education and from life experience. 

 Continuing my education has helped me move toward my goal to improve myself because it helps me build both confidence, and pride in myself.  I can help people and do my job knowing that I am giving them the right information and guiding them towards the right path.  I love my job and I am confident in my job, but better knowledge and a degree will give me more chances to assist people and improve the services that I provide.  

In addition to my work, I am raising two children.  I encourage them to strive in all areas, and develop multi-faceted skills.  My son is an Honor Roll student at Carman-Ainsworth District and my daughter is a student as the University of Michigan.  I think that I reached my immigration goal when my children were able to attend Ivriah Hebrew school, had Bar/Bat-Mitzvah and finally developed pride to be a Jew.  My daughter was actively involved in the Holocaust community project. My son is presently enrolled in Hillel day school.  I think that in this country I was able to give them what I wished.  Through raising and encouraging good qualities in my children, I have seen the importance in continuing my ever growing education.

All of these experiences have helped to shape me.  I have faced many challenges, balancing work and school, and I have willingly given my time.  My goal is to receive a Masters in Social Work so that I am able to continue to do my job on the higher level and more successfully.  I have learned a lot from my co-workers and supervisors, but the educational program pushes me toward learning even more and maybe helping other people in the future.