Hundreds of millions of people immigrate to the United States with the dream of one thing: religious freedom. Religious freedom is one of the foundations of the American Constitution and is an attractive policy for many oppressed groups of people around the world. One of those people was Julia, a Ukrainian immigrant who hoped to escape the discrimination and inequality Jewish people faced in the former Soviet Union by moving to the Big Apple.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the hostility and discrimination towards Jews greatly increased. Even though the discrimination was not directed directly by the government, there were still many “secret” or hidden restrictions placed on Jews, especially on education. Millions of Jews left the former Soviet Union after its collapse, most of them seeking refuge in Israel and others moving to other European countries, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
“We decided to come here for a better future” explained Julia. Julia moved to the States at the age of thirty-six with her mother, father, and twelve-year-old son in 1994. She wished to further her career by attaining higher education but that was very difficult for Jews in the former Soviet Union. Also, by leaving the country, she hoped to protect her son from the mandatory military draft when he turned eighteen.
In Ukraine, Julia dreamed of becoming a doctor, but that dream was considered preposterous because Jews were essentially not allowed to attend medical school and it was made impossible for them to gain admission. She couldn’t even enroll in a university as a biology major. She recounts the horrific day when she went to apply to college after high school “[The college admission officer] When she saw my name, she threw my papers in my face. Can you imagine?” she exclaimed. Reluctantly, she enrolled in technical school and pursued economics. “Even in this school, there were only three or four Jewish people in the whole college.” But even after obtaining a college diploma, life was hard in Ukraine for Julia and she wanted better for her family. “In Ukraine, you work and work for nothing. Here, if you work, you can have most.”
Fortunately, Julia was able to move to the United States with the help of relatives that lived in New York. Her relatives sponsored her family for a visa and Julia was able to come to the United States within a year. Most other refugees had to wait many months and years just to be granted permission to leave the Soviet Union.
Within a few days of arriving in New York, Julia’s relatives helped her find her own apartment in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Although she was not ecstatic about the condition of the apartment, it was the best she could do with no job. She complained of the rude neighbors and lack of familiarity. There were very few Ukrainian people in that area and it never felt like home for Julia.
Fortunately, soon after moving into her first apartment, she was able to move to the Brighton Beach neighborhood. Living in this neighborhood provided a sense of nostalgia for Julia. Everywhere you looked and everywhere you turned, you were surrounded by Russian – Jewish people, stores, and community centers. Everything was very accessible and that proved to be a big help to Julia when she first moved here and was still settling down in the United States. This was home for Julia. “Even if you didn’t know language, it was easy to go to the store. Even the bank was Russian” she remembered.
Brighton Beach is home to the largest Russian speaking – Jewish population in the world. Some reports have claimed that it is home to as many as 800,000 Russian – Jews (or former Soviet Union-Jews). During the second wave of Jewish immigration to the United States, hundreds of thousands of refugees settled down in major metropolitan areas, such as Southern Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
Along with her relatives, Julia also received great help and support from a Jewish organization in New York called NYANA. NYANA, also known as the New York Association for New Americans assisted Jewish refugees and even some non – Jewish refugees with resettlement all across the nation. It was founded in 1949 as an effort to help displaced Holocaust survivors and is thought to have helped at least 500,000 refugees until its closing in 2009. It provided housing, health, mental health and other family services to newly arrived immigrants. They even had an intensive English school where they provided free English lessons, skills development and job training, something that Julia took great advantage of. Sometimes, they even provided direct financial aid to struggling immigrants and also helped them obtain government aid, such as food stamps.
However, not everything came that easily for Julia. Determined to pursue her dream of furthering her education, she enrolled in college to get an American bachelor’s degree in economics. But she also had other responsibilities and had to support her son and parents. So, while going to school, she also took up three other jobs. Every morning, she would wake up at five to work in a Russian bakery, a job she was able to get through NYANA. Then she would make her way to the city to her job as a secretary for a physician. After the exhausting work day, she attended classes and then volunteered in the finance department, in the hopes that maybe they would offer her a job, which never happened. “I remember time when I leave home 6 in the morning and come home after 11 at night. I don’t know how I made it” she laughed.
Her favorite place in New York is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One of the first thing she experienced when she got off the plane was the sight of Manhattan. She loved to get a glimpse at how the upper class lived and see the big, beautiful buildings on the Upper East Side. Most of all, she was shocked at how clean everything was in such a busy, commercial area. To her, Central Park was paradise. But not everything seemed so perfect to Julia in New York. She describes how disgusted she was at the state of Brooklyn at first. The buildings were worn down, dirty, and the streets were full of garbage. Eventually she got used to the “scent” of Brooklyn and thankfully the conditions have gotten much better since the 1990’s. Julia now considers Brooklyn her home sweet home.
However, the thing that most disappointed her was the New York subway system, something she used almost every day. “We actually have subway in Ukraine. It’s like art. It’s so beautiful. It’s so rich. Unbelievable. And when first time I saw the subway here, I was so disappointed. Actually, I didn’t expect to see this in America” she complained.
Compared to the Ukraine, Julia was unbelievably happy in the United States and in New York. It took her almost seven years to settle down financially and obtain a stable job because it was difficult to find a good job at first due to her heavy accent, but it was nothing compared to the discrimination she would have faced in Ukraine. Even then, New York felt like home from the very beginning. She easily and eagerly assimilated into the culture and credited the support from her relatives, NYANA, and the government as the forces behind her success. “Even though I worked very hard here – I am happy. I just regret why I didn’t do this sooner” she said.
(At the request of Julia, I have kept her last name anonymous and did not provide a portrait of her.)
Berke, Ned. “NYC Has Largest Russian-Jewish Population In The World, But How Many Are There?” BKLYNER, 28 Nov. 2011, bklyner.com/nyc-has-largest-russian-jewish-population-in-the-world-but-how-many-are-there-sheepshead-bay/.
Howe, Marvine. “JEWISH GROUP HELPS EMIGRES START NEW LIVES.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Oct. 1984, www.nytimes.com/1984/10/14/nyregion/jewish-group-helps-emigres-start-new-lives.html
Kliger, Sam. “Russian-Jewish Immigrants in the U.S: Social Portrait, Challenges, and AJC Involvement.” – AJC – Russian, www.ajcrussian.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=chLMK3PKLsF&b=7718799&ct=11713359.