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An Incredible Journey: The Immigration of Igor Gershman

Igor Gershman's story posted by Gary Dreyer on October 19, 2013 at 2:32 pm. Igor emigrated from Kharkov, Ukraine to New York, United States in 1996

I am writing this story on behalf of Igor Gershman, who immigrated from Kharkov, Ukraine to New York City, New York in November of 1996.

            I was born and grew up in the city of Kharkov in eastern Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. Kharkov had a large Jewish community with a long and illustrious history stretching back centuries. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism was a fact of life, particularly throughout Ukraine and Belarus, where most Soviet Jews lived, and it reared its ugly head occasionally. I did very well in school, where I was one of five gold medalists in our graduating class of one hundred and twenty people. As a result, I was somewhat privileged in terms of applying for higher education and only had to take one verbal exam, as opposed to the four which those without a gold medal were required to take. I applied to the Kharkov Institute of Radio Electronics and was accepted, despite being discriminated against because of my “nationality” throughout the application process. This was in large part due to the fact that the field I selected to work in primarily involved dealing with military technology, and the Soviet government was not keen on allowing Jews near such positions. As a direct result, I was the only Jew out of one thousand students majoring in that field. Every year at the Institute, a committee of faculty members and administrators was formed to find positions for members of the graduating class in every field. While the committee had an extraordinary number of connections and placed almost my entire class, I was not among the cases they chose to concentrate on, even though I was among the best qualified students with the best grades. Thus, it was up to me to personally to find myself a job, which I eventually did at a small factory in Kharkov after graduating in 1984. I worked there until Perestroika began under Gorbachev, during which the factory was shut down. After that, I found myself a job in a limited private enterprise, which began arising in the Soviet Union after Gorbachev began liberalizing the free market to some degree.

            This period also saw tremendous changes in my personal life, as I met my wife, Lena, in 1989, and we were married half a year later in January of 1990. After our marriage, I moved out of my parent’s apartment and moved in with my wife and her parents. We would live together in this apartment until our immigration six years later. My daughter Irina was born in April of 1991. During this time, conditions throughout the Soviet Union continued to deteriorate, especially in the early years following its collapse. Shortages became even more commonplace then before, jobs were scarce regardless of education, and inflation was horrendously high. Food and products for babies and small children were particularly difficult to obtain, despite the fact that Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and Kharkov in particular was a center of manufacturing and industry. Some relief came in the form of things sent to us from the United States from my family which had already settled there. To supplement our income, Lena and I began to sell things at the marketplace, something neither of us ever imagined we would have to do with our levels of education, as she was a doctor and I a well-qualified engineer. Among the relatively few positive changes which took place against the backdrop of instability and decline was the newly eased immigration process to the West, and the United States in particular. During Soviet times, the only way to immigrate was to obtain an Israeli exit visa, which involved enormous risks, particularly if one’s application was rejected. However, if one’s application was approved, then that individual would have to surrender their passport and if they wished to immigrate to the United States, would have to spend a significant amount of time being processed in Austria and Italy. It was via this path that my mother’s cousin Fira immigrated to the United States in 1979.

            Immigration hadn’t particularly occurred to me or my immediate family as a viable option until a large number of people began emigrating. Even then, I was still apprehensive and unsure of the idea, in large part because I had little confidence in my language abilities. After Fira, nobody from my close family immigrated for over a decade, until 1992 when my father’s younger sister and her family departed for the United States. After that, it became rather clear that virtually the entire family would be relocating to the States in the coming years, especially after my uncle went to visit his family in the United States in 1991, and reported back that there was a lot of opportunity, especially for people my age, and that the standard of living was in fact innumerably higher. Very shortly after arriving, my aunt filed paperwork which began the immigration process for my parents, brother, and my father’s older sister and her husband, who lived in Moscow. My parents arrived in the United States along with my brother, nephew, and sister in law in November of 1995, and filed the necessary paperwork on behalf of myself, Lena, and Irina. After they left, I had no close family members remaining in the former Soviet Union, and I desperately wanted to join them and start a new life.

            The immigration process took us exactly a year. During this time Lena and I had to travel to the US Embassy in Moscow to sit for an interview, which we found to be a more pleasant experience than we anticipated, and to a certain degree made us feel more comfortable with immigration. Meanwhile, we both took courses in the English language to prepare ourselves for life in the United States. Finally, on November 13th, 1996, the long anticipated day arrived when the three of us left Kharkov and departed for Moscow on a train. My brother-in-law came along to bid us farewell, along with two of my wife’s friends. We arrived at the Kursk Railway Station in Moscow, and were met by the husband of Lena’s cousin. Unfortunately, the experience there was not all that pleasant. Bandits managed to get a hold of our luggage and hold it hostage, demanding that we pay $1000 to get it back, trying to intimidate and threaten us for several minutes. Finally, as we were not bringing anything particularly valuable with us, and knowing full well I had no intentions of paying up such a sum, I bluffed and left the baggage, saying we don’t need it anyway. The criminals panicked, at which point the husband of Lena’s cousin offered them $200 for the return of the luggage, which they took, thus ending the incident. In many ways we were lucky, because violence was not uncommon during the final stages of immigration, and the levels of insecurity and criminal activity throughout the FSU during that time in particular were extremely high. We spent that night at the home of Lena’s cousin, and the next day headed to Sheremetyevo Airport for our flight to New York. We flew out on Delta Airlines, along with several other immigrants. We did not have a particularly large amount of luggage, as we had been told that most things could be bought at a cheaper price and with a better quality in the United States; thus, our baggage was limited to two large checked bags and one carry-on. It was an emotionally tense moment, especially for Lena and I as our situations were polar opposites. I was jubilant at the thought of reuniting with my family and getting away from all the troubles in Ukraine, while my wife was melancholy as she was faced with leaving her parents and brother behind. Irina handled everything very well throughout.

            After flying into John F. Kennedy International Airport, we were processed for about an hour and a half at the immigration checkpoint, where we were given landing cards and series of other documents. After that, we headed to the arrivals area where we were greeted by my father, uncle, and brother. It was a joyous reunion after a year apart from them, and we then proceeded to my parent’s apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. At first, we lived with my parents for several months before moving out to a one-bedroom apartment. Eventually, however, we would rent a three-bedroom apartment across the street from my parent’s apartment. As I expected to some degree, the language barrier was definitely a big obstacle to overcome; although I know some English, it soon became apparent from my first experience watching American television that my level of understanding was well-below what was necessary for a successful, assimilated life in the United States.

            In an experience that somewhat illustrates this, I remember taking a walk to 86th Street a day or two after I arrived in New York to do some shopping, and being absolutely stunned at the abundance of signs which said “Nails”, as I understood the word only to mean a small, metal spike, rather than a fingernail or toenail. For the entire day I was tormented by what in the world these Americans could be building that they needed so many nails, until I was enlightened by my family later that evening. During those early days and weeks, we received assistance from charities aiding new immigrants such as HIAS and NYANA. We took six weeks of English classes at the latter, and the former paid for our airfare to the United States.

            Within four to six weeks, we knew that we had to send Irina to kindergarten at the local elementary school, PS 200, from which she eventually graduated. In those days it was one of the best in Brooklyn, and had many students with a Russian-speaking background. In one of the brighter moments during our first few months in the States, a family member who worked as a taxi-driver took us on an excursion to Manhattan during Christmastime, which all three of us thoroughly enjoyed, not least because we finally had a glimpse at the grandeur of America that so many around the world dream about.

            The financial situation during those days was not easy. Lena and I had to take a number of low-paying jobs to make ends meet; I worked as a parking valet at a restaurant, and Lena got a job cleaning homes. Both Lena and I knew that the only way to solidly establish ourselves in the United States and build a long-term future was by obtaining the necessary qualifications and educations to establish careers for ourselves. Both of us wanted to continue working in our previous fields, but made the determination that pursuing our exact former occupations was not a viable or effective option. Thus, I opted to train in computer programming, and Lena decided to take courses in physical therapy. The course took me about seven and a half months to complete, after which I went to look for a job, which I found in August of 1998, working as a programmer with IBM in Newark, New Jersey. I did not stay there for long and soon moved on to a position with Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield. Lena, meanwhile, studied at the College of Staten Island, and earned her Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy there in 2002. She now works at Maimonides Medical Center in Boro Park.

            Today, I have in many ways achieved the American Dream. Lena and I own our own home in Staten Island, and Irina just graduated from Baruch College earlier this year, and plans on going on to Medical School. I now work as a programmer at a large bank, and feel very much at home in the United States; my entire family lives here, most in the New York area, and within a relatively short distance from me. I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunities this country has given me, and I know that all my loved ones have a long, bright, and prosperous future ahead here.