My New Life in a New World

Posted by Dora Chanesman
June 25, 2011
Dora Chanesman in Budapest

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.

Comments

Comments

Anna
|
District Of Columbia, USA
June 26, 2011

Anna in Washington, D.C. writes:

Dear Dora,

Thank you for your posting. I was touched by your courage and your dedication to your family and your new country.

Maureen
|
Massachusetts, USA
June 26, 2011

Maureen in Massachusetts writes:

Dear Dora --

Your story of courage reminds me of another touching story of courage. A math teacher of my son who escaped the "killing fields" in Cambodia and had but one book, a book that must be kept secret-an English book. Reading this book was risking his life and his parents and family did lose their life as most intellectuals paid the price at that time. His bravery to read and study english secretely helped him make the necessary communications to finally arrive in the United States, alone. The theme of his story is that America provided him the opportunity to then go on an educate himself, have a family and be free and now teach others the value of an education.

Jimmy
|
Nigeria
June 27, 2011

Jimmy in Nigeria writes:

In a generous America, u don't have to be rich to achieve your goals. The audacity of hope.

Farid M.
|
North Carolina, USA
June 27, 2011

Farid M. in North Carolina writes:

When I wa reading your story I have become remember my story and my dad story ,My dad Professor Dr Engineer Mohammad Hassan M. he lost his mother and mother at the age of 10 years old .half day he went to school and half day he was working at the taylor shop to make many for life he was very smart at his elementry his middle school and high school the top student at all school ,he come to the united state for higher education in wyoming university and University of south california ,he got his Bs and Master and PHD in civil Engineering and Higher education from the united state of america ,He was Nabigha ,He travel around the world as official governament from Afghanistan to The united state ,Germany ,Japan ,Singapoor, Berout at American university of Berout.When Russian Invited Afghanistan life become hard for our Family my dad brouth us to the united State of America.

Marsha F.
|
Virginia, USA
June 28, 2011

Marsha in Virginia writes:

I would have enjoyed this whether I knew Dora or not, but I have known her for 24 years. I was familiar with her past as a refugee, but still one can forget the details. Through all these years, I have been inspired by Dora's determination and refusal to take "no" for an answer in general. I have met all of her family and appreciated how they became Americans, yet dearly kept their Hungarian culture in practice and conveyed it to their children and grandchildren. They live passionately and with conviction, and Dora touched my family's lives in many ways.

Viktor
|
Hungary
June 28, 2011

Viktor in Hungary writes:

I'm the 5 year younger nephew of Dora, still living in Hungary. I have a very strong memory about these years: I'm standing in the bathroom, and asking: Why don't we have toothpaste? My mom says: Sorry, we forgot to buy. But it's too late to go to the shop now. The next day again: why don't we have toothpaste? - Ahh sorry, we forgot it again...

Back to Dora, she really deserves a good life as she is a good person. She was not just sacrificing herself for her family, but she minded the rest of the bigger family. She wrote regularly to our grandmother, and to her father, and to others. She tried to bring together the rest of the family from that distance! We are still in regular contact, and can hardly wait to meet again.

Szeretünk Dóri! :)

Debra B.
|
Virginia, USA
June 30, 2011

Debra B. in Virginia writes:

As the Division Director of European and African Languages, the Division in which Dora Chanesman works as a Language Training Specialist, I am moved to share that her story reflects the richness of talent, perseverance and heart that characterizes our training staff. Dora, like most of her colleagues, teaches our US Diplomats with a believer's passion knowing that the skills they are developing are those that will one day help them most effectively tell their -- and our -- story. Dora spends her days training teachers and supporting students as they reach together for the same goal. We are fortunate to have her in our Division and proud of the very powerful contribution she makes to our School and the Foreign Service as a whole. -- Debra Blake

Sarah C.
|
Virginia, USA
June 30, 2011

S.C. in Virginia writes:

This story is great...and I'm not just saying that because Dora is my mother. Every time she tells me this story I think 'What if that was me? What would I do?'. She is very stong and encouraging. She did so much for her family its unbelivable! To me she is like a hero, some one you can look up to.

Love you mom!!!

Farid M.
|
North Carolina, USA
July 4, 2011

Farid M. in North Carolina writes:

Yesterday july 3th 2011 I went to my dad grave with friends and family to pray ,I have remember the day all we come together from afghanistan to the united state of America.Today almost 21 years but Professor Dr Engineer Mohammad Hassan M.i is not with us ,I am proud of him he was very acttive high education ,very honest with America with Afghanistan with people and with his family.with his job all his life was with justice honisty and peacefull life.

Farid M.

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