Seeking Refuge: From Immigrant To Immigration Advocate
My mom and I pressed our faces against the large store window as we hid from the freezing cold in Moscow, while my dad stood in line behind the fence that shielded the U.S. Embassy. After hours of waiting, I saw him running down the street waving a piece of paper in the air, as if he had won the lottery. The winning lottery ticket granted us refugee status and permission to leave the USSR. It was my mother's biggest dream to leave for the U.S. as the Soviet Union was falling apart. Her desire grew even more when civil war broke out in Transnistria, a region fighting to gain its independence from Moldova, our home country.
April 15, 2016
My mom and I pressed our faces against the large store window as we hid from the freezing cold in Moscow, while my dad stood in line behind the fence that shielded the U.S. Embassy. After hours of waiting, I saw him running down the street waving a piece of paper in the air, as if he had won the lottery. The winning lottery ticket granted us refugee status and permission to leave the USSR. It was my mother’s biggest dream to leave for the U.S. as the Soviet Union was falling apart. Her desire grew even more when civil war broke out in Transnistria, a region fighting to gain its independence from Moldova, our home country.
This was a time of long lines, instability, and economic unrest, all set to a backdrop of anti-Semitism. At a young age I was instructed to avoid questions of where my last name was from, and what ethnicity I was, but hiding it was nearly impossible; after all, it said ‘Jew’ in our passports. This is what motivated my parents to take the courageous act of leaving everything behind in search of refuge in the U.S.
From May to December 1990, our small one-bedroom apartment turned into a yard sale. Little by little, books, pots and pans, furniture and even jewelry disappeared. We left Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, on a train to Moscow and were accompanied by my older sister’s boyfriend, my dad’s best friend, and his wife. As we walked away through airport security, we watched their fur hats disappear into the distance, not knowing if we would ever see these dear people again. On December 22, 1990, with $600 for a family of four, we boarded Pan Am Flight 031 to New York.
We arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, in the middle of winter to find empty snow-covered streets and houses decorated with Christmas lights: a true life-size snow globe. Our first trip to Carl’s, a local supermarket, left my mom in tears of disbelief from aisles full of cereal boxes, large pyramids of oranges and apples, and shelves bursting with bread.
I began the third grade in January 1991 knowing only how to count to 12 and say ‘I love you’ in English. Children were extremely cruel, and not speaking their language left me silent. But what shocked me most were other Russian-speaking children who refused to help. They seemed to have forgotten what it was like to not understand, or perhaps they were too ashamed or traumatized to admit that they too, spoke Russian.
My dad, a textile engineer, began his career in the U.S. at a bed factory. For nearly a year, I didn’t see him during the day, as he worked the night shift. On weekends, when we spent time together, I always noticed the dirt under his nails. His elegant hands turned into the hands of a factory worker. My mom, also an engineer, took a job sewing wheelchair covers. She walked 40 minutes to work every day and often fell asleep at her desk, only to wake from the burning sensation of her fingers being caught in the sewing machine. Wendy’s was my sister’s first job in America, where she managed the salad bar and secretly tasted all of the new foods she had never seen before: baby corn, raw mushrooms, and pineapples. Eventually, my parents, as many immigrants do, reinvented themselves. My father became an incredible florist and my mom a master tailor.
Throughout high school, I tutored ESL classes and welcomed new immigrant students to our school. My goal was to become an immigration attorney. To learn more about other immigrants in the U.S., I studied Spanish and focused on Latin America in college. I worked at an immigration law firm in Ohio and with unaccompanied Hispanic minors at a detention center in Chicago. I studied abroad in Chile and did my Fulbright research on female migration issues in Latin America. In 2002, I interned for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., and that same summer received a scholarship for new immigrants from HIAS. HIAS has always been an important name in our household, representing the agencies that assisted us in the journey to America.
Eight years ago, I returned to DC to work as a government consultant with projects on the Southwest border and in Mexico.
In Washington, I also found a vibrant Jewish community that led me back to some of the organizations that helped my family come to the U.S. Through HIAS, I prepared Hispanic immigrants for their citizenship tests, and at CASA, I helped migrant workers build their first resumes. I also discovered JDC and Entwine, and I recently co-chaired a trip to China for Russian-speaking Jews, supported by Genesis Philanthropy Group, where we learned about Jewish refugees saved during the Holocaust.
At the refugee museum in Shanghai, I found a quote from Fred Antman. ‘My father had little money,’ the quote read. ‘He asked his friend for a loan to help him buy two sewing machines and a coal-heating iron for pressing. He visited the managing director of Shanghai’s largest department store […] and offered his services to their numerous customers.’ Antman was a tailor saved in the Holocaust by the courageous efforts of agencies like JDC and HIAS. My mother, too, become a tailor in the U.S., offering her services to some of the biggest names in the retail industry, like Nordstrom and Banana Republic. A million miles away, I found that we went through experiences similar to the Jewish refugees of Shanghai.
Had I not been a refugee, I can’t imagine what my life would be like today. My personal immigration journey defines who I am, including my true passion: to accompany other immigrants on their journey no matter where they might be from. Thanks to agencies like JDC and HIAS, my family and I came to the U.S. to pursue dreams we didn’t even know we had. As a refugee from the USSR, I am beyond proud of our story and eternally grateful for all of the opportunities that were granted to us in the United States.
To learn more about JDC Entwine, JDC’s young adult engagement platform.
Lana Alman is originally from Tiraspol, Moldova. She immigrated with her family to the US in 1990 and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her BA from Miami University in International Studies and Spanish and her MA in Latin American Studies from Vanderbilt University. Lana has dedicated her academic and professional careers to immigration affairs. Today, Lana works at a government consulting firm where she focuses on projects related to Latin America and immigration. Lana lives between worlds where Spanish, Russian, and English are spoken, all of which define her identity.