today marks the 30th anniversary of my family’s refugee migration from russia to the united states, the precise date that we arrived. i don’t talk about it much, but i think it’s important to now.
30 years ago, with the support of HIAS–the refugee agency that worked to get soviet jews out and resettled in the u.s., and does so for refugees from a variety of backgrounds–my family was allowed to leave russia. after years of legwork and waiting, we were relieved of our soviet passports, sent to austria for processing, then on to italy, where we would apply for asylum.
despite the extreme hardship and fear, the level of dignity that we were afforded is not to be taken for granted:
– parents were not separated from children
– we had access to organizations that were fighting for us & our rights
– while things like shelter, food and medical care were only partly funded by refugee organizations, we had reasonable access to these basic human necessities
– above all else, we had autonomy.
my family was approved by the u.s. pretty quickly (in under 3 months), but many others waited longer and were denied with no explanation. though it was the u.s. government (after decades of pressure from HIAS) that had pleaded with russia to let jews out, as the flow of jewish refugees from russia increased america’s gates inexplicably shut to them. a 1989 piece of legislation which sought to end the ad hoc approach to refugee admissions resettlement forced those gates open, granting refugee status to those who had been approved for u.s. entry but denied refugee designation.
my ability to call myself an american is a product of the persistence of people who fought for those like me and my family, in a political climate that was not sufficiently offended or threatened by our presence in the u.s. to fight to keep us out. people weren’t always nice to us, but at least we felt like our presence here had the stamp of approval of the u.s. government.
i am in awe of the bravery of today’s refugees and asylum seekers. i’m heartbroken by the atrocities they endure that are a perversion of our commitment to those threatened populations. in my case, people being activists and staying politically engaged made a life-changing difference; i hope this will be the case for those seeking safety now, too.