With today’s news reports of violence, terror, and refugee crises, it feels more important than ever this holiday seaseon to take a moment as Americans and consider the freedom we have to live good lives. While I’ve written before about my immigration, like my tale of my first American summer camp experience, I haven’t addressed what it was like for my family of refugees to land in America. This is that story.
When my family left Odessa, Ukraine in the late-1970s, we emigrated because of discrimination against and persecution of Jews like us. We were unable to practice our religion, or any religion, in the Soviet Union. Part of what drove us to America was freedom of religion. Also, in general, my parents wanted a chance at a better life.
We arrived in the United States with family already here, including my mother’s brother (my uncle) and my mother’s parents (my grandparents), so we weren’t entirely alone. Family helped where it could, and, when we were in greater need, Jewish Family & Children’s Services stepped in to help, like by sending me to Camp Tawonga. This was the experience of many Russian Jews who were refugees in America: private service agencies helped a lot, much more so than the government. It was very rare to find any of us reliant on governmental help.
My parents found success here in America. In Russia, my father was an engineer who designed toys, while my mother taught Russian language and literature and worked as a librarian. Here in the U.S., my father retrained as an electrical engineer and worked for a hardware manufacturing company, and my mother became an accountant working in personnel for Seagrams. They both felt lucky that, in this country, being a refugee wasn’t a barrier to success. They had opportunity. In fact, in my community, it seemed like the success rate was really high; our parents, and then me and my peers, had an intense drive to succeed in our new country.
As a child, I watched my parents work hard to establish our new lives here just as I worked hard to figure out how to fit into this new culture and place. It felt like drinking from a fire hose every day! Even though my family wasn’t particularly disadvantaged in Russia, we had still come from a poor country. In America, we were surrounded by excess in a way that we couldn’t have dreamed. So many things were mind-boggling, like the abundance of food at the supermarkets, and all of the things for sale all over the place. We had so many struggles to fit into the culture at all, to learn the ways of America, plus a language barrier. Without mastery of the English language, especially, we were truly handicapped at first.
Here, for a long time, I was afraid to raise my hand in class because I was afraid of how my words would come out. But I soon realized that the U.S. had true diversity. It felt like nobody was born here and that there were immigrants from everywhere, especially in the Jewish community, where it feels like we were all only one or two generations away from somebody’s parents or grandparents being fresh off of the boat. In Odessa, people rarely moved from place to place, but here, people are more mobile, even among cultures. We had a saying in Russia that you were born speaking Russian and you died speaking Russian, but here, it felt like you could be born in one culture and become another. It was okay to be different in the U.S., but not in Odessa, where conformity was the norm. It took a while for me to realize that the reason they call the U.S. a “melting pot” is that you can be anyone here, that it doesn’t matter if you are born into money or not, or if your parents do or do not have connections. In Russia, you had to have your parents’ connections to succeed at all. Here, networking helps with business success, but it’s rarely, if at all, family-driven.
And of course, part of the reason we came – freedom to practice our Jewish religion – became part of our lives and joy. This is where I want to end my story, because, on today’s news, the perception is that religion is polarizing and devastating nations. That this is untrue in the United States is is one of the things for which I am most thankful. My family did not have religious freedom at all in the Soviet Union. As polarizing as religion can seem here at times, let us never lose sight that we have the freedom to practice our faith, whatever it is, as well as the opportunity to create new, successful lives. There is no doubt that my family’s lives are far better than they would have been had we stayed in the Ukraine. This holiday season and always, I am grateful that my family had that opportunity.
Postscript: There are important distinctions between my family’s experience as refugees and that of today’s Syrians. My family experienced no violence or anything close to what Syrians are experiencing in their Civil War. The experience of today’s Syrians is a lot more like Jews’ experience in World War II. It is a humanitarian crisis. That was not my experience. I don’t write this piece in an attempt to speak for all refugees, or even to enter a political dialogue, as sensitive as I am to the plight of refugees. I write this piece to put a human face on one story, one experience – my own – in a time when we are considering what it means to be a refugee in America.
* In memory of my father, Roman Makagon, who passed away on August 23, 2015 *