Refugees: When the doors flew open

My friend Olga arrived here as a Soviet Jewish refugee in 1979; I’ve written about her. She got out just before the door slammed shut. The USSR was one big prison, especially for Jews, victims of severe discrimination.

My humanist group recently viewed a wonderful film about them, Stateless, mostly interview footage with refugees now in America, relating their stories. Seeing it was an emotional experience.

The plight of Soviet Jews became a big issue in the ’80s. When Gorbachev met with Reagan in Washington, large demonstrations demanded that Soviet Jews be let go. Reagan pressed Gorbachev on the issue (this was back when U.S. presidents still stood for what was right).

And the doors flew open.

But the Soviets made the exit a humiliating ordeal. Emigrants were milked for bribes at every step. Luggage was a particular problem; basically they were allowed to take only what they could carry, and getting the heavy bags from checkpoint to checkpoint was tough. At Sheremetyevo Airport, customs officers would roughly rifle through the suitcases, refusing to permit certain items, again extracting bribes.*

Meantime, the local police would know who was scheduled to leave; they’d break into apartments to steal the packed bags.

One woman said that when she’d handed over the final bribe, with almost her last rouble, she actually felt elated: a price worth paying to escape that prison.

The refugees traveled to Vienna, then to Italy, to await final transit to either Israel or America. Actually having a choice was an intoxicating novelty. That was one shock upon reaching the West. One guy spoke of his amazement to find, in airport bathrooms, free toilet paper! Wouldn’t people steal it? In fact some arrivees, still having that Soviet mentality, did just that. And then the abundance in stores was mind blowing. Some thought at first these must be Potemkin displays, plastic simulacra, not real goods.

People from government and aid agencies met them to help. But they viewed these offers with suspicion; the idea of such assistance seemed alien and implausible. Especially with no bribes even demanded! But on the streets, smiling cheerful people were another surprise. How unlike Moscow. So this was what freedom looked like.

Those opting for America needed refugee visas from consular officials who interviewed them to document their histories of persecution. This was hard; what they’d endured had been so internalized, so integral to seemingly normal life, they didn’t realize there was anything to report. While some, on the other hand, flagrantly embellished. (Lying was also the Soviet normal.)

With the sudden flood of visa applications, a large proportion were denied. This put the migrants in a terrible fix. They didn’t understand the system, had no idea what to do.

The issue came to the attention of Congress (this was back when it could still actually legislate to solve a problem). Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill relieving Soviet Jewish refugees from having to individually prove persecution. The bill swiftly passed.

And the doors flew open.

Hearing these people’s stories made me love it that they’re now my fellow Americans. Anyone with the grit to go through what they did to get here, I want here. This is what America means. This is what made it great.

* I remembered my own Sheremetyevo experience. “Numismatic tours” of Russia in 1993 and 1995, led by Erastus Corning Jr., were a fantastic buying opportunity — on the second trip I bought 92 pounds of coins. Erastus hired a local guy, Misha, to help us at customs. The customs officer was grim faced; examining my stash, he kept repeating, “it’s impossible.” Lengthy discussions in Russian ensued with Misha. Finally Misha left, and then the customs guy waved me through.

I met up with the others. Erastus said, “Give Misha $100.” I instantly understood, and handed over the money, saying “Wasn’t Misha taking a big risk?”

“Misha knows what he’s doing,” Erastus replied. “He was with the KGB.”

5 Responses to “Refugees: When the doors flew open”

  1. DG Says:

    * I wonder if you picked up any of my cousin’s coins on your tour as his is a coin artist, Alex Shagin.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    I know about Alex Shagin, a medallist (not coins), but he works in the U.S., I don’t think I saw any of his in Russia!

  3. Olga Z. Porterfield Says:

    Frank, thank you tons. Here is a reply that someone posted to your column in my refugee group Speaking of numismatic tour, when I left in 91, I had a small coin collection. They confiscated my two of my Soviet coins from 1924. Fortunately, they didn’t open another case, where I had even older coins. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t allow me to take my best coins abroad, and we sold those to a foreign student. And my silver ruble and 50 kopeek from 1924 and 1921 they melted into some stupid chain that I sold later for…six dollars.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks! Who was your coin collecting friend?? The 1924 “worker’s paradise” Rouble is actually a common coin; in Russia I bought MANY, the price was always $5 each!! Of course I rejected those not in lovely condition. Such coins now bring at least $50

  5. thelevinelowdown Says:

    Thank you very much for this interesting article. I am very passionate about refugees and have just written an article on my blog about why I think we need to be doing more to protect refugees. If you have time, it would be great if you could read my post as I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it! Thanks 🙂

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