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Getting Out of the Rain

Yana Kachalova's story posted on August 31, 2012 at 3:14 pm. Yana emigrated from Nikolayev, Ukraine to New York, United States in 1997

           The story of my immigration from Ukraine to the United States starts before my birth. It begins with my mother and her mother. As Jewish women with Jewish names and a declaration of their “Jewish” nationality on all their documents, injustices were a part of everyday life. These seemingly small hardships were like the pitter patter of a drizzle, leaving splotches in some places but leaving them generally unharmed. Yet there was an inexplicable fear engulfing their lives – small threats, rude words, disapproving looks…they accumulated dangerously.  The clouds were darkening and rumbling treacherously, threatening to rain down harder on their already fragile lives. Rather than attempt to endure the rain of anti-Semitism with an unreliable umbrella, they arranged to leave before the impending storm.

         Though I was a perfectly capable four year old, my parents and grandmother decided against seeking advice from me on the matter of our immigration. This was probably wise, as I would have told them I preferred to go to a country with free cookies, lots of juice, and stuffed animals for me to play with. I do not think it is possible to immigrate to Build-A-Bear Workshop, so their decision was probably better. I followed them obediently – be it to the American embassy in Moscow, the place we had our passport photos taken, the two planes we took to get to New York, and to the United States itself.

         We traveled all the way to Moscow to try and secure refugee status. I was brought along because there was no one to watch me back in Ukraine. My grandmother was interviewed with us all in the room, and she described what life was like as a Jewish woman in Ukraine. A majorly disheartening, unspoken truth was the fact that Jewish people were unlikely to be admitted to good universities. To grasp the severity of this for her, you must know that I come from a family of teachers. My great grandfather was a teacher; my grandmother was a teacher; my mother is a teacher. To them, and to me, there is nothing more valuable in the world than a good education. To be denied that was the ultimate blow. My mother and her sister knew that despite their perfect grades, their chances for getting into a prestigious university were minute. Apart from that, they were all truly frightened. The anti-Semitism in the former USSR was not exactly official policy, nor was it blatant. But it was very clearly there.

          Luckily, we were granted asylum. My parents set forth to make arrangements for our departure. They painstakingly prepared our papers and passports. They encountered several issues – the people in the OVIR (Office of Visa and Registration) nitpicked and gave them trouble. My father’s deceased mother had a minor inconsistency on her documents – an extra letter in her last name. My father was told that he would have to go to court and prove that she was his real mother. My mom tells me the blood drained from his face; he remained a shade of ghostly white while she went to talk to another representative. The second official looked inside a book and declared that the letter didn’t matter – it was the same last name, just spelled differently. They were cleared.

        My family refrained from announcing that we were leaving until our last week in Ukraine out of fear that people would react negatively. The stories my mother tells me make it seem like people truly didn’t want anyone leaving the country, but I am at a loss for why. My mother feared that my cousin might not be granted a gold medal for completing her schooling with perfect scores, simply because we were leaving. Alas, these illogical discrepancies in the actions of official institutions were common and expected.

        Our final week was a busy one. People – mostly my grandmother’s colleagues – visited during the entire week. My family tried to sell their furniture and belongings, though this proved difficult. Everyone knew you were leaving and it was understood that if you couldn’t sell everything, you would just wind up giving it away. We didn’t know what to bring with us, either. My parents brought some trinkets with sentimental value, and they brought a lot of books. If there is one thing I remember from my grandmother’s old apartment, it’s that it was covered wall-to-wall with bookshelves. Who needs wallpaper when you have books to fill your walls?

         We had a family friend drive us to the airport in Kiev. Customs gave us some trouble – my mom had three small gold rings and they told her she would have to remove them, so she gave them to my uncle. The officials were also suspicious because they deemed our cargo “too heavy.” I suppose we must have been a formidable group – a small child, a grandmother, and a married couple – clearly the epitome of dangerous. I mean, for all they knew, I was a criminal mastermind and my family was actually a group of accomplices I had selected myself to aid me in robbing the duty free store of all its goodies. Jokes aside, eventually (but not without hassle) they let us through. We finally got on the plane.

        We had a layover in Frankfurt, Germany. A lot of other refugees were on the flight with us, and none of them spoke English. My mother did, however, and she made sure everyone stayed in one group while we were waiting for the second plane. She could read in English and she translated a lot for the frightened passengers. My grandmother somehow wound up befriending the women’s basketball team from Russia on the plane ride, which pleased her. On both planes, I was fortunate enough to get little gifts – each plane gave me some little colored pencils and a small teddy bear. My delight at having two teddy bears and two packs of colored pencils was unparalleled. I still have one of the teddy bears (to my great dismay, my grandmother gave one away to my cousin) and I still have the colored pencils.

         Once we got to New York, we were greeted by officials from HIAS and NYANA. Both organizations helped my parents get on their feet once we were in the United States. After my parents spoke to the representatives, we were greeted by a crowd of about fifteen people – relatives and family friends who had come to the airport to greet us. After a flurry of hugs and kisses, I busied myself with the automatic sliding door in the airport. A family member gave me some pink heart-shaped plastic sunglasses and some bracelets as a gift; I adorned myself with them and pranced through the sliding doors with glee.

          My parents tried to get work right away – my dad was briefly a refrigerator mechanic and my mother cleaned houses until she got a job as a teacher again. Though the United States is far from perfect, it is better here for us. We have opportunities here that we would never have dreamed of back in Ukraine. We avoided the storm – for when it rains here, it is purely physical.


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Very interesting, very well-written account --thanks,

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