1989: Baku, Azerbaijan. Tanks patrol the neighborhood that young Ilona, 20, resides in as a medical student. The streets that were her home and childhood are now overtaken by guards in military uniforms, enforcing their anti-Azerbaijani regime on the citizens of the area. For Ilona, who was ethnically Russian-Jewish and thus on neither side of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, her identity provided some safety from the reports of ethnic cleansing coming from both sides. But looking back on her family and fiancé, all whom she had to leave behind on her daily trek to medical school, the idea of temporary safety provided little relief. War is war, and no one is truly protected. Every day brings fear in her heart: will this be the day when everything changes?
Ilona takes a deep breath over the phone as I ask the fateful question: why did you decide to come to America? She sighs a bit, thinking how to best encapsulate an experience so jarring. “The country where I was born… it had the war between the two nationalities, Azerbaijani and Armenian. They [the Armenians] made people wear IDs to show that they were not Azerbaijani in that region, and all the Azerbaijani people were kicked out, brutally. But there was some tension between other minorities, too. Basically, the situation was very volatile. They didn’t want the Russians, or the Jews either. For my family, everyone who was Jewish was forced [by circumstance] to immigrate.”
Finding specific details about the particular conflicts that Ilona experienced is difficult, if not to say impossible. The entire country was undergoing internal turmoil from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s. In the west of Azerbaijan, the ethnically Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh was supported by Armenia in their attempts to establish an independent region from Azerbaijan. In the east, Baku had its own problems, with a pogrom (or ethnic cleansing) directed against the ethnically Armenian residents of the city. Trying to understand which incidents, in particular, led to Ilona’s departure is overlooking the general state of violence that was plaguing the country and leaving no one unscathed. The impending dissolution of the Soviet Union and associated economic instability became yet another obstacle in the lives of Azerbaijanis. After decades of Soviet control, they declared independence several months prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and had to deal with the repercussions of re-establishing an independent economy.
As complex as the history may be to parse out, to Ilona, it was all strikingly simple: “There were tanks… It was real, real war. They physically attacked me, I managed to barely escape with my life.” She pauses for a minute as I hold my breath. “I knew it wasn’t safe. I knew I couldn’t stay.”
Luckily for Ilona, she was not alone. Even when things were at their worst, she had a family that she could rely on. “Oh, you want to hear the love story? Well, I met my future husband and we got engaged. We were so young. But we loved each other, still love each other. When I came home and told him [about the attack]… he was so worried. He left as soon as he could. He came first to America because his family was already here. He had to leave me behind until he could get me to come… Everyone needed a direct relative to come to America.”
In a process known as sponsoring, people already residing in the United States can request or “call over” their immediate family members to join them here, helping them to obtain a green card and begin their lives as legal residents. For Ilona, her husband was her only option out of the turbulence that had plagued her home city. She had no other relatives living abroad, and her only other option for migration was Israel. As refugees of Jewish descent, Ilona and countless others were encouraged to go to Israel, which was actively trying to get people with “birthright” claims to make their homes there; Ilona could recall multiple friends and classmates that fled there instead of America. Ilona says she would have done the same, but alas: “I fell in love, so I followed [my husband] to America.”
After the enormous effort that her husband put into getting her here, she was ecstatic to finally reunite with him. She ensures that the effort involved “[getting] all the information and video of how badly things were getting in Baku, information that wasn’t accessible to everyone,” contacting the U.S. Embassy in Washington D.C., and being granted official refuge here, so completing the process meant finally breathing a sigh of relief. She remembers boarding her flight, feeling excited about seeing him after a year and a half of separation and trying not to think about the family members that she was temporarily leaving behind.
Unfortunately, the fantasy quickly subsided when she began to realize just how difficult assimilation would prove to be. “I came here when I was 23 into a completely different world, culture, everything. I had learned English in high school and medical school, so when I came here, I had basic knowledge of the language. But it really wasn’t enough… I was just lonely and missed my family.” Her husband was often stuck taking long night shifts, still working minimum wage to uphold his half of the rent. Although he would take some nights off when Ilona first arrived, the calls of his obligations were inescapable. Whenever he was gone during the first few weeks, she would take walks alone at night, thinking about how quickly her life has changed and how virtually unprepared she was for it all.
Not one to take things lightly, Ilona went directly to the U.S. Embassy less than a month after arriving in America and filed the necessary documents to bring her parents over. “I wanted my family to stay together, so I applied for the rest of my family. I strongly believed in two things: continuing my career and building my family.” After her parents’ arrival in September 1992, Ilona went to school to advance her English and had her own daughter in 1993. At this point, Ilona remembers that her career took a backseat, as she “was raising her for 3-4 years at home [before I] went back to school [at Long Island University] to finish my degree and get a bachelor’s in nursing.”
At this point, Ilona gets a bit wistful, remembering the comfort of having a community upon first arriving. Brighton Beach, long known as a Russian enclave in New York City and the primary destination for immigrants from the Soviet Union, was the first neighborhood that Ilona ever knew. She laughs, saying that “… [that] first day that I came from former Soviet Union, I was surprised that everybody spoke in Russian there. I would keep asking my husband whether this was a ‘real America.’”
This dichotomy between expectations and reality, particularly in regards to what constitutes “real America,” became a huge factor in helping Ilona to feel more accepted. Her community became a second family, giving her the freedom to practice her English and providing a safety net in case language acquisition became too stressful. Leaving her tiny apartment every day, which she and her family shared with her brother-in-law’s family, meant entering into a neighborhood that understood her culture and gave her the resources she needed to be brave. Her first treks to Manhattan, whether they were to the Embassy or to marvel at her favorite department stores, were like entering a completely different side of American culture: “When I was coming to all offices… or when I went on touristy tours of the city, that’s where I saw the real city, the real America, you know?”
Nowadays, Ilona remembers the adjustment as the most difficult aspect of life in America. Coming here as a young adult meant that she had to restart her life and career. However, she never downplays the importance of support in all of the situations that she encountered, both from loved ones and from herself: “You needed to be tough, have strength of character just to get through all of this.” It wasn’t meant to be easy, she explains, but it was meant to be doable.
And looking back, Ilona has no regrets about her decisions: not about marriage, not about immigration, and certainly not about the choices she made for her family along the way. “We didn’t have a way back, and it is what it is. I have to build my family, I wanted a child, and everything else came after that.” As a highly-esteemed nurse at Maimonides Medical Center with a family to call her own, Ilona feels privileged to say that she has gotten the love that she always strived for.
“I don’t want to make it sound easy. When it was very difficult, I would cry and get incredibly homesick. When I stayed alone, I had to remind myself that this was all I had and I have to look forward… but now I’m happy, I’m fully functional, and I have everything that a citizen can have. I have citizenship. I’m proud that, as a refugee, I have everything that I have now. And I don’t know what other options are like… but there’s nothing that I would change about [my life].”
2018: Brooklyn, New York. Ilona wakes up to the smell of eggs drifting in from the kitchen, where her husband of nearly 30 years is preparing breakfast. Her daughter has already left the house for dental school, with a kiss on the cheek for Dad and a promise to FaceTime Mom later. The memories of 1989, of war, of fear and destruction, are far from her mind. Today, she is content with relaxing on her day off, life-threatening worries locked far away in another part of life.
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