An immigrant “comes out” as a refugee

Irina Vodonos, her mother and their family dog in May 1994, several months before Vodonos and her father became the first in their family to move to the U.S. The rest of the family followed two years later. (Photo courtesy Irina Vodonos.)
Irina Vodonos, her mother and their family dog in May 1994, several months before Vodonos and her father became the first in their family to move to the U.S. as refugees. The rest of the family followed two years later. (Photo courtesy Irina Vodonos.)

For the past 21 years — through high school, college and now as a professional in Seattle — I’ve shied away from identifying how I immigrated to the United States, as a refugee. However, the recent refugee crisis caused by the war in Syria and the backlash against them has convinced me that it’s so important now for me to claim the “refugee” label openly for the first time in my life.

When I first came to the United States at age 12, I was embarrassed to say I was a “refugee.” I thought refugees were people who were running from an immediate danger to their lives, fleeing war, imprisonment, oppression. Despite my family’s hardships in the Soviet Union and then in Russia, for me, moving to the U.S. felt like an adventure, not a necessity.

Let’s be clear, our family and other Jews undeniably faced persecution by the Soviet government. Jews were subject to admission quotas at the Soviet Union’s best universities and faced barriers to accessing and advancing in many types of careers.

My family was no different. Despite earning excellent grades in school and passing his entrance exams, my father was only allowed to take nighttime courses at the technical university of his choice, and was denied admission to the more prestigious daytime program. Later, he was forced to change jobs after completing his compulsory military service and he endured years of inexplicable delay with his Ph.D. defense.

My father attributed these challenges to the authorities’ anti-Jewish policies. So my family applied for visas to the United States through the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which limited trade with countries that restricted human rights.

The program also allowed people who left those countries to be admitted to the U.S. as refugees. Many of the people who applied for entry this way were from the Soviet Union.

Yet by the time my family got our U.S. visas, the Soviet Union had been dissolved for three years. While many Russian people held (and still hold) lingering biases against Jews, officially the new Russian government was no longer out to get us. The state-imposed college quotas on those of my ethnicity were replaced by pervasive corruption and cronyism.

Moreover, the country’s emigration laws had been relaxed since just before the end of the Soviet era, which eliminated barriers to leave.

So, by the mid-1990s, there was no longer any official reason for the U.S. government to let my family in as refugees. Yet that’s how we came: my father and me in 1994, followed by my mother, my sister, my grandparents and my dog two years later.

Despite Russia’s economic and social problems, as a 12-year-old kid, I felt that I had left behind a pretty good life, which included attending Hebrew school. I missed my friends, and alternated between feeling excited about discovering American culture and longing for my lost connection to familiar streets, words, and faces. While there were plentiful opportunities to be gained by moving, I certainly did not feel like a refugee who needed to escape my homeland.

I was able to drop the “refugee” label when I got my green card a year after first arriving in the U.S. However, my conflicted feelings soon resurfaced.

In college, I was awarded a summer internship in Siberia’s Lake Baikal region. I was not yet eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, and the only passport in my possession was my Russian one. I could use it to enter Russia, but to return to the U.S. I would need a so-called “refugee travel document.”

Receiving this piece of documentation was not guaranteed. I had to explain why I was choosing to travel back to a country where I had supposedly faced persecution. I wrote an earnest statement about how I hoped to use this internship to benefit the country where I was born, which was struggling with environmental degradation. I got the travel document and went on my trip.

The stamp in Irina Vodonos' Soviet passport indicating she was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee. (Photo by Irina Vodonos.)
The stamp in Irina Vodonos’ Soviet passport indicating she was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee. (Photo by Irina Vodonos.)

Less than six months later, I was a naturalized U.S. citizen and traveling to Russia again with my bona fide U.S. passport in hand. That’s it, the refugee story is over, I thought. No need to explain anything to anyone anymore. I am just a dual citizen, like so many others, born and raised in Russia, now living in the U.S. My story was my parents had brought me here as a child, and this answer would suffice in most cases.

But with the recent backlash against Syrian refugees, that’s changed. I’m saddened by the fierce opposition by so many Americans to letting even a small percentage of these individuals and families resettle in the U.S. What bothers me even more is that so few fellow Russian immigrants are seeing the parallels between their situation and that of the latest wave of refugees.

Alexei Tsvetkov, a Soviet-born poet and essayist who moved to the U.S. in 1975, is a notable exception. He recently wrote on his Facebook page, “The threat to me in the country of my birth was real but negligible compared to that which most current applicants for asylum face. I feel a moral obligation to extend the same welcome to others as was once extended to me.”

I can’t say it better than that. As a refugee, I stand with Tsvetkov and others in demanding that the U.S. open the door to fellow refugees who are fleeing much more dire circumstances than those that made my family leave our homeland more than 20 years ago.

For refugees like me to feel otherwise, or even to remain silent on the subject, would be nothing short of hypocrisy.

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