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What We Carry

Marina Korkmazsky's story posted on August 31, 2012 at 7:59 pm. Marina emigrated from Chernivtsi, Ukraine to New York, United States in 1994

My parents left behind the stability of careers, culture, life-long friendships and moved our family to the United States for the dream of a better future. But, in leaving Ukraine, my parents also shed years of painful anti-Semitism, religious repression, and a system steeped in cronyism and corruption. My father, having received national awards and excellent grades, could not be admitted to the prestigious Moscow University as a Jew. He attended St. Petersburg University, but his years of dissertation were made difficult and long due to anti-Semitism.  Even I, as a child, remember an anti-Semitic slur yelled at my grandfather and me when we were standing in line at the grocery store. Still, by the time we moved to the United States, I was old enough to remember the country I left, but too young to understand most of its difficulties. My parents had done everything possible to give my brother and me a happy childhood.  I had good friends and enjoyed summers at my grandparent's dacha, unaware of the daily struggle and limitations my parents faced to raise us.  Although my parents never had a chance to learn and observe Judaism, they wanted me to have a strong Jewish identity. Officially, conditions had improved slightly for Jews, and I was able to attend the first Jewish school in the Ukraine.  Many of my classmates were immigrating to Israel, Germany or the US.

Finally, it was time for us to go and my father’s family sponsored us for a visa.My mother, a pediatrician at a government health clinic, had not been paid salary for 3 months.  But, she had to give a bribe to the health director so that he would sign her documents for leaving the country. My father would listen to Russian-English language tapes at night. My parents packed based on necessity and hearsay about what was needed in our new country. My parents quietly sold our apartment, furniture, and belongings-carefully, so as not to alert neighbors and other people that we were leaving- and packed the rest into lightweight, hand-sewn large duffel bags. The corners were packed with matchboxes, convenient to take up extra space, and apparently in large deficit in this new country we would be traveling to. Our flight from Moscow to NYC was fortunately uneventful as direct flights were available by that time for Jews immigrating to the United States. So, my parents, my brother, my grandparents, and I all arrived at the NYC airport to the welcome of family. It was all unexpected and foreign.  The first months were rocky with many silly cultural mishaps that my mom shares with guests around the dinner table to this day. A Jewish organization, Nayna, provided financial assistance and classes in everything from counseling about paperwork to English classes that made the transition slightly less nerve wracking for my parents. We lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn, my brother and I started an American school, and my parents looked for all available jobs. My father, a computer scientist, got a job, and we were able to move to a quiet suburb in NJ. I still remember my first day of 4th grade. I arrived dressed in my best blue dress with flowers for the teacher. Needless to say, I was an unusual oddity that day for my classmates, and they would tease me about it later. Over time though, I picked up English by reading a lot and made friends, both American and Russian. My parents worked tirelessly to build a life for us in this country and to become role models for us, their children, of how to achieve the American dream. After a six-day workweek, my father would come home and do math logic problems with my brother and I. My mother was a practicing pediatrician for many years in the Ukraine, but in the US, she had to start from the beginning with the added challenge of raising two young children. And yet, despite her long hours studying for the USMLE and subsequent sleepless residency years, my brother and I felt more lucky than deprived.  Somewhere between my middle school years and finishing the last box of matchboxes we brought over from the Ukraine, my family moved into our own nice house in town. We had demanding but loving parents and somehow, they always had time to support us even if they could not cook daily dinners or attend after school sporting games. Today, I’m in my mother’s shoes except I’m younger and doors open easier for me as a US medical student. I’m a native of this language and culture and am surrounded by professors, family, and friends who can support and advise me on my path in life. I don’t have my own family yet to worry about. And yet, despite all of my advantages, the challenging questions of balancing things in life do come up. It makes me appreciate more; how was my mom able to do it in a foreign land ?

Thus, I feel that the gift my parents have given me in this country is also a weighty responsibility. If they could achieve so much, starting from so little, then I should constantly challenge and better myself and better the community around me. A few years ago, I found my old expired childhood passport from the Ukraine. The word “Jewish” was stamped in big red letters, prominently on the first page. I caught my breath and thought about what it would have been like to grow up in a country that divided its citizens so, by religion, to have been defined not by my own observance of Judaism, but the government’s heavy hand. My parents knew this, and they, like many other immigrants took a leap into the unknown by coming here. I am grateful to them, and grateful to the Jewish community and the United States that welcomed and gave us opportunities, when we landed here.