This Is What It's Like to Come to the United States as a Refugee

One story of coming to America from the Soviet Union

Protesters gather with a sign that reads "Syrian refugees: NYC says welcome" outside Terminal 4 at JFK International Airport in New York City. (Joe Penney / Reuters )

This is what it’s like to be a refugee.

Thousands of miles away, people haggle over policy details, about whether you are a risk and a burden, or an asset full of potential, a victim, or a potential tool of foreign policy, but really they are talking about you, and the days of your life and how you will live them.

They don’t know you. They don’t know the days of your life that you have already lived, and the stuff of your mind and the strength in your hands. To them, you are an abstraction, colored by their fear and their hate, or by their heartrending idealism.

They do not see your parents, waiting in line for hours at the American embassy in Moscow, stamping their feet in the cold, holding their documents, practicing for their interview. They do not know that your mother never wanted to leave this city, because she was born here and bore children here, and has friends and family here, and has removed the tonsils of hundreds of children. She has performed delicate surgeries that have made the deaf hear again, and she knows she could have restored Beethoven’s hearing in half an hour, a thought that brings her the kind of satisfaction that can only come to someone who knows what symphonies and concertos her children heard when they swam in her belly as she sat swimming in the sound spilling from the walls of the grand old hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

They don’t know that she was happy here, even though she had never wanted to be a doctor. Even though her red diploma, the mark of a perfectionist student, even her flawless French couldn’t get her into the university that trained translators, because her papers and her face said she was Jewish, even though her grandparents had Russified their Jewish last name, and her parents gave her the name of an old Russian princess who was the first Russian saint. These people knew that Jews were being persecuted in the Soviet Union, kept out of schools and jobs for a religion most of them had abandoned generations ago but that had become a blood type that resigned you to second-class status.

But they didn’t know that my mother didn’t want to leave because this was still her home and her country, that the thing that changed her mind was so ludicrous as to be completely possible, that it was because of the rumors of Soviet police giving out names and addresses of Jews to people who wanted to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the Christianization of Russia by having a pogrom.

These rumors found her in the summer of 1988, alone in the Russian countryside with a 6-year-old and an infant, remembering her grandmother, a pediatrician, who had survived a pogrom herself, but not before she had been forced to watch the Cossacks tie her parents to a wagon and drag them to death, which made her youngest sister go raving mad till the end of her days.

They didn’t know that it was then that she realized her husband, who had gone to the one school that took Jews, where on his first day of class, a student looked around at all the Jewish faces in the auditorium, and joked, “Now they’re going to turn on the gas,” had been right.  Her husband, who had been cleared to go on a business trip to a Warsaw Pact country but was told at the last minute he couldn’t go because his boss would have to explain to his own boss why, out of 500 employees, the only person he could find to go on the trip was someone with a Jewish last name. That summer was when she realized it. That no matter how much they assimilated, no matter how many family members fought and died for the country, it would never be enough; that this was no kind of place to raise their daughters, one of whom wasn’t allowed to eat with the rest of her first-grade class because her teacher didn’t like Jews.

The officials at the embassy saw their paperwork and their affidavits and their fingerprints. They saw their faces and heard their answers to their questions and they scrutinized their lives, because they were still the citizens of America’s number one enemy, which had the ability to turn all 50 states into as many mushroom clouds, which spied on them assiduously, and fought them in bloody proxy wars in Vietnam and Angola and Central America.

They had to be careful and they were, and my parents had to wait and they did, for two years, trying to learn some English in the meantime and teach their first-grader a bit too, though the words she learned were “elephant” and “apple.” Those words wouldn’t be much help when she ended up in summer camp surrounded by chirping American children whom she didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand her but only made fun of her crude, Soviet-made glasses.

The people who processed their applications, the people who protested and called their congressmen on their behalf in Washington, those people couldn’t see the visits from friends, cognac bottle in tow, who started to come by their apartment every night just to sit in their small kitchen strung with cloth diapers, just to get as much of my parents before they disappeared into America forever. Those people in America couldn’t have known what that morning at the Moscow airport was like, the grown men sobbing like children, my toddler sister saddled with a heavy backpack because every piece of luggage counted, zigzagging to passport control and my grandfather calling out “be happy!” and choking on his tears because he would never see his seed again.

They couldn’t have seen it and I didn’t see much of it either, because I was floating somewhere above it all, not fully understanding what was going on except that I probably wouldn’t see my best friend, my grandmother Emma, again, and I was clutching the mineral collection she gave me in a blue cardboard box. They didn’t know that the collection had once belonged to my grandfather, a chemist but more importantly to his bosses, he was a Jew who had to be pushed out of his lab, his research stolen, but who came back to the lab at night and broke every piece of glass in it with his hands.

We were probably an abstraction to the flight attendants on the plane, another set of droplets in the torrent escaping the Soviet Union, another family huddling under blankets under the April snow on the tarmac at a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, another rambunctious toddler running up and down the aisles of the plane, trying vainly to recruit the people trying to sleep around her into a game of catch with a little red rubber ball.

And to most people watching the refugee crisis unfold, the refugees detained and turned back at airports across the country are likely abstractions, too. They do not see what brought them there or the bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine they had to navigate to be deemed safe and responsible refugees.

I look at them and I see us, sitting in that strangely lit room with the Immigration and Naturalization Service officers who processed us and to whom, I’m sure, we were an abstraction, and who didn’t tell us that the way we transliterated our last name was stupid and that people would forever after think it began with lowercase L and not an uppercase I. But I think about that room and the refugee cards they filled out, cards we still have to this day, and what would have happened if we too had been turned back.

Where would we have gone? We were people without a home, without a country. We had been stripped of our Soviet citizenship, we had sold everything to pay the four steep fines for having four citizenships stripped from us, and we certainly didn’t have enough money left over for four plane tickets back, back to a country we no longer belonged to and wouldn’t have us. After all that paperwork and waiting, where would we go?

And I think now of all the things that are not abstractions, of all the real things that grew out of that moment when the INS agents waved us through instead of turning us around, when we got into the car of family friends waiting for us, and drove into the bright, tropical greenery of suburban Washington on that hot April day.

There are  people who think we should’ve been vetted better and harder, who tell me on social media that my family should never have been allowed in, who want to keep out those who are just like us, even if they have different names and faces and ethnicities and stories.

These people do not see that, if maybe I am a worthless journalist, my father’s work building databases for the Social Security Administration makes sure they get their very non-abstract checks on time, that he has made going to disability court easier and smoother, that he has helped the U.S. government find deadbeat dads and make them provide for their kids, and that, for him, paying his taxes is a moment of civic pride. They do not see my mother, who spent eight years retraining as a physician in the United States, years for which she is grateful because how could she have known how much more advanced medicine was here? They do not see that her work is not an abstraction, that here, she has done crucial research on diagnosing breast and ovarian and cervical cancer, that the hundreds of medical students she has taught and the dozens of young doctors she has mentored are real, physical things that resonate in the world, that her youngest daughter is weeks away from becoming a doctor herself, a doctor who wants to do the unglamorous, soul-crushing work of healing the sickest patients in a hospital because their blood has curdled with cancer. They do not see that even having to write this is a heartbreaking exercise.

These people were born here to people who were born here, and they tell themselves that they are different, and that their ancestors’ path to this country was different and better than ours. They are not wrong. For the most part, their path was easier. For the most part, their path consisted of getting on a ship and surviving the journey—from England, from Germany, from Ireland, from Italy, from Poland. And if they got here, for the most part, they could stay.

They did not go to embassies, they did not get visas, for those did not exist. They did not spend years being shaken like a dusty rug by bureaucrats worried that you might be a papist Irish spy. They scraped together some money, got on ships, and abandoned whatever chaotic and hungry and poor reality they came from. Most were not vetted, not extremely, not at all. But they do not see it, because their family lore is an abstraction too, and these ancestors, who were once tangible humans, have become their own abstractions of patriotism that makes everyone different an abstraction, because abstractions are not human, and cannot suffer. But abstractions have a way of coalescing into symbols, into piles of shoes and toddlers dead on the beach, symbols that will haunt your good name, no matter how much you rant in self-righteous justification. They will hang over you, for everyone to see, finally.