I am writing this story on behalf of Dr. Inna Gelfand MD, who immigrated to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (and eventually New York City, NY) from Petrozavodsk, Russia in October of 1992.
I was born in Petrozavodsk, Russia on March 7, 1969. My parents, sister, and I all lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in one of the many Khrushchev-era apartment buildings of the city. But, by the time we left, my sister had already moved out. I was a medical student at the University of Petrozavodsk from 1986 till when we left in 1992. This was one of the best times in my life. I made a lot friends and I was able to learn a lot from my professors, who I really liked. The most important thing they taught me was that medicine is not an occupation; it’s a lifestyle. They taught me how to care and respect others better than any people I ever knew. This was considered to be one of the best medical schools in the country, and I really liked it because it happened to be in my hometown. I helped my sister a lot with her children, and I helped care for my elderly grandmother. As nice as those things were, the overwhelming facts was that I did not have any opportunity in that country with regards to my future. Even though I graduated with some of the highest marks in the class, I couldn’t find a job. After the USSR collapsed the violence from anti-Semitic gangs leap completely out of control. The constant instability did not help either. It was absolutely terrifying not knowing what would happen tomorrow and I never want to feel that way again. As difficult as staying would have been, leaving was no piece of cake either. We were leaving behind my sister, and we did not know when she would be following. I had to leave behind all my friends and many relatives. Luckily for me, I did not own any material items that had any value. The only things that could come close would be my grandparent’s graves.
On October 24th 1992, my parents, grandmother, and I took a train from Petrozavodsk to Moscow. Many of my friends came by the train station to say bye to us and wish us luck. The next day we arrived in Moscow, and spent the night at my Aunt Rachel’s apartment. We spent the next day, the 26th packing up some more things and preparing for the trip. On the 27th, the day we were scheduled to leave, we drove to Sheremetyevo airport. My aunt Rachel, her husband Arkady, and three of my cousins came with us to help us unload our luggage and say goodbye. Immediately after parking in the unloading area in front of the area, we were approached by a few cops. Anticipating that sort of thing to happen, that day my cousin Leo had borrowed his boss’s business card. In the most intimidating tone I have ever heard him use he said” If you have any questions, you can call me my job at the number on the card.” They backed off instantly. After getting all of our stuff out of the car we had rented for the trip, and saying goodbye to everyone, we entered the airport. I will never forget the things that went on in that airport. I saw refugees from Moldova there who had been living in the airport for weeks before the flight. I was shocked and horrified then, and am even more so now. They described leaving in the middle of the night, stories of people being murdered while waiting for busses to take them to Moscow, about the Transnistrian War, and other really, really awful things.
After a while, the airport personnel led us to customs. There they checked all our bags, as they had very specific standards with regard to their size. After that, they checked them in, here they also took away all our rubles, but of course didn’t bother to exchange them into dollars. They also abused those Moldovans terribly. When they were measuring the bags, one officer would stretch out the bag on one side, while the other measured, and obviously the bags ended up being oversized by a centimeter or two. The customs officers then demanded a $2000 “oversized baggage fee”. As they obviously didn’t have the money, they simply left the bag and walked out of the customs gate basically without anything.
After we had passed customs, we were told to wait for our plane, problem was, the plane ended up being 24 hours delayed. However, they refused to let us into a proper gate with chairs. Instead we ended up having to wait in the hallway. I still have the scene in front of my eyes. There were 800-900 people in that hallway, sitting, or lying on the floor, we had no food provided whatsoever as we were not allowed to bring any with us and they didn’t provide us with any. We had no water provided either, so we were reduced to drinking water from the bathroom sinks. There were people there of all ages, from newborns up to the elderly. The children were screaming very loudly so it was next to impossible to sleep. But we were lucky as well. There was a small café in that hallway that had closed down for the night just after we arrived there. So the four of us quickly got a table before most people found the café and we spent the night sitting in chairs and not lying on the floor like most people. On the morning of the 28th, when the café opened, my parents and I left our chairs, however we left my grandmother behind because we knew it would be too difficult for her to sit on the floor. Fortunately, nobody disturbed her. That evening the plane finally arrived. I do not remember much about the plane ride itself, but I do recall that we were treated well and that the stewardesses fed us quite a lot. I also remember that one elderly woman got sick and had to be taken off the plane when we landed in Frankfurt for refueling.
When we landed at JFK on the 29th, we had white cards stapled into our passports and were greeted by my uncle and his family. As we had missed our flight to Harrisburg, where we were assigned to go, we were told to go with my uncle and return the next day. After our one day reunion with our relatives already in New York, we came to Harrisburg the next day, where we were met by the Jewish Family Service. They informed us that as we were 48 hours late, they hadn’t been expecting us, and as a result did not have an apartment ready for us to stay in. Instead they arranged accommodations for us in a Motel 8 for the night. The next day they took us to a grocery store to buy some needed supplies and later they took us to our new apartment, at 2746 Green Street.
I owe quite a lot to the Jewish Family Service. In addition to providing us with an apartment, they also put in basic furnishings paid the rent for the next four months as well. They also found me a position as a volunteer in the local hospital where I had my first exposure to the American health care system when I was allowed to go on rounds with the doctors and nurses. I also remember one specific episode when the woman in charge of the JFS in Harrisburg, Eva, came to ask us what we needed materially. She was used to people having lists some five pages long and came prepared. And when she asked me the question, as I was the only one in the family who knew any English, I replied that all we needed to know was where to buy and iron. She was stunned. “Why do you need iron?” she asked. I told her that during the process of constant packing and unpacking, all our clothes had become wrinkled, and we were not used to this. She burst out laughing, and within a few days, we received our iron.
After the four months had passed, they called us in for their final consultation with us. Their advice for us was very simple and direct. They said that in order for me to pursue a career as a doctor and get an education, we would have to go to New York. Also, they made a rare decision by allowing us to take some of the things they had provided us with to New York. Soon, we had rented a U-Haul van and had some of our relatives from New York come to Harrisburg and help us with the move. Our plan was to live at my uncle Zyam’s apartment while he stayed with his daughter, my cousin Vera. I can still see everything we owned in the world on the pavement in front of my uncle’s building. Just then, the landlord arrived and told us he had an apartment available on the fourth floor. We ended up moving in there. However, within a year we rented out a separate apartment for my grandmother and got a new apartment for ourselves.
Immigration was not an easy experience, but I have no doubt that my life is better than it would have been had I not done it.