I was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, to a Jewish family living in what was the equivalent of Soviet 'projects' known as "Khrushchyovkas." When I was about nine years old, the government announced that Jews were free to leave the Soviet Union. My family and everyone else in our closed little universe said, "Check, please!"
We departed Kyiv on May 1, 1988. It was a strange day to start a long trip to a new life; being a major Soviet holiday, there was only one other family on the train. After a layover in Czechoslovakia, we were en route to Vienna, the first stop on the Soviet Jews' "above ground" railroad. We stepped off the train in Vienna and were greeted by a representative from the Israeli Embassy. "Would you like to go to Israel?" he asked very politely. I don't recall what my folks said, but years later my dad would tell me, "It's too hot in Israel."
In Vienna, a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped my family find a place to stay while they arranged transport to Italy -- the place where we'd be interviewed and someone would decide whether we met the U.S. government's criteria to be refugees. My parents say they were mortified when I started rifling through the file cabinet of the INS officer interviewing us. Can you imagine me doing that in a Soviet government official's office at the time? So as my mom and dad mentally prepared for the gulag that they were sure awaited them, the INS official, after spotting my mischievous behavior, turned to my parents and said, “He'll do well in America.”
We touched down at JFK Airport on a PanAm flight on June 30. My parents worked incredibly hard after we got to America. While my mom took advantage of all the benefits that came with being a refugee (job-training and English classes), my dad, a proud man, spurned most assistance, refused food stamps, and worked 80-hour weeks doing manual labor. He helped our family accomplish the American dream. My mom and dad now live in a house, dad drives an SUV, and they just bought a small "dacha" in Pennsylvania.
And me? Well, I earner my bachelor's degree at Northwestern University, double majoring in Religion and in Asian Civilizations and Languages; I certainly had a hard time explaining that to my blue-collar emigre parents. I worked for a few years doing various jobs before deciding to go back to school. I earned an MPA (Master of Public Administration) from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, meeting the woman I'd marry along the way. We joined the Foreign Service together and after an amazing two-year tour in Nepal, we are in, you guessed it: Ukraine. My parents are still scratching their heads over that one.
Editor's Note: This blog is one of a series of individual stories by former refugees who are now working for the State Department. The series is part of the State Department's ongoing effort to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and in honor of World Refugee Day on June 20. Each story reflects an individual's experience and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.Become a fan of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration on Facebook.