I am a former political refugee from Hungary. When I look back on my life and see how far I've come, my heart is filled with contentment.
I was born in a small communist country behind the Iron Curtain, where my family experienced great hardship. There were times when we did not know whether or not we would have enough food for the next day. At night, our two-room apartment looked like a shelter, because mattresses covered the floors for our family of seven to be able to sleep. We listened to Radio Free Europe very cautiously, because we knew that some of our neighbors might report us to the Interior Department. When my stepfather refused to accept work promoting communist ideology, we all suffered for it. Not only did we stare poverty in the face, but our personal freedoms were regularly infringed upon: being stopped, searched and questioned became a daily occurrence for my parents. With no real hope that our lives would turn out for the better, my mother and stepfather decided to leave Hungary. This was no small feat. In those days, the government rarely allowed an entire family to go abroad for fear they would never return.
Miraculously, all of us were allowed to go on a three-day holiday to Austria. We did not dare tell any relatives about our trip, because we were concerned that the authorities would retaliate if they found out that our family members knew of our plans and did not report us. Not wanting to arouse any suspicion, we each left our homeland with one suitcase. Crossing the tightly-guarded border was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. We completed our scheduled tour of Vienna and then defected. It was a time of great uncertainty, not knowing anything about our future.
We applied for refugee status through an agency, and I was able to use my basic English skills as an informal interpreter for my family at the U.S. embassy, where we had our interview. For several months we waited in a refugee camp. Eventually, we made it to the United States as political refugees. For me, as a teenager, the idea of crossing the borders of European countries and going to the "New World" was a great adventure.
Starting life over in a new place, though, is never easy. My family faced challenges, such as learning a foreign language, finding jobs, experiencing culture shock, and adjusting to our new environment. I grew up during this time. As the only English speaker in my family, I took on tremendous responsibilities as a teenager. I interpreted for my family members at job interviews, at government offices, and in schools. Almost immediately after arriving in the United States, I started working and held a job, sometimes two, all through high school and college. Along the way, I gained awareness of the cultural differences and acclimated to this new world.
After earning my diploma from the College of William and Mary, I worked as a language instructor for many years, first in the private sector and now at the Foreign Service Institute School of Language Studies. Looking back, I am extremely grateful to be living in the United States, where I enjoy true democracy and freedoms that before I could only dream about.
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.