Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Refugee, part 1: in the old country

After taking part in so many refugee conversations I decided to write about my time as a refugee. This is mostly aimed at people who want to know the details of how it worked - I think most of the people who know me IRL have heard the story already, in more personal detail.

I think my experience was quite typical of a late-eighties Soviet Jewish refugee. Other groups at other times had different experiences.

First of all: why? Well, Soviet Union was a shithole in many ways, and I don't just mean financially. Discrimination everywhere. You can't do anything Jewish, or at least let anyone know about it. Not that, mind you, I or anyone in my family was acutely upset by not being allowed to build any new synagogues, but when you can't even mention having had a Passover dinner without getting into a bit of trouble, it tends to piss you off. Endless elections with only one candidate on the ballot. No freedom to leave the country. But most of all, right about that time the writings started appearing in the papers - and all the papers are the voice of the government - that everything is Jews' fault. We figured it was time to go.

(Yes, I am aware that there were a lot of people in the world at the time in a more acute need of asylum, such as for example my Cambodian classmate E., whose brother joined Khmer Rouge and sent their parents to a death camp, and who had to run away all by herself to some refugee camp to Thailand before that brother would get around to her. Refugee admission is a complicated political game that depends on many factors, such as the relations between the two countries in question, the money available, the number of refugees needing asylum, the expectation that a particular group of people is or is not likely to cause trouble, and the extent of problems in the country of origin. At that time pretty much all Western countries accepted all Soviet refugees that tried to get there, with the exception of individuals that had something seriously wrong with them. I see it as a lottery that we happened to win, just as I see being born in Russia in the first place as a lottery we happened to lose.)

The dance with the authorities went as follows, at least for Jewish people from the early 70s to the early 90s: you get a formal letter from Israel inviting you to join your family there. Then you go to OVIR (the Soviet visa office) to pick up the forms for the visa application. If you are lucky, they give you the forms. You fill the forms, on which you are claiming that you are going to Israel to reunite with your beloved relative so-and-so, regardless of where you are actually planning to go and whether you've ever heard about so-and-so.

Israel actually provided people with fake invitations on behalf of fake relatives who were, however, real living people. You could even ask them to send an invitation from some particular person, though it did not always work. The real challenge was fitting such new "relatives" into the existing family tree, especially when either yourself or you relatives have already been through the application process before and were supposed to list all the relatives there. You had to be rather creative.

Our family had previously had one such addition, I.S. The relatives who got an invitation from her were my grandma's sister and her family, and they decided to add her to the list of my grandmother's sisters who disappeared in the Holocaust and ended up in Israel (in real life all her 4 siblings who disappeared in the Holocaust ended up in unmarked graves in Poland and Belarus). Now we got an invitation from some N.T., whose name was so unusual that we did not know whether he/she was a man or a woman, and which was the first name and which was the last name. We decided that N was the first name, T was the last name, and that she was a woman and another one of grandma's sisters, and composed some kind of a sob story explaining why the previous relatives (grandma's sister et. al.) did not put her on their previous 15 or so applications.

The application asks for dozens of documents, a whole family tree with all the current places of residence/burial, and the permissions of all the close relatives including ex-spouses. Which in our case, thank god, only means the permission of my father's sister.

After the application is done, they accept it, or they don't. Not accepting the application means that the Americans can't nag them with the statistics of people whose applications have been accepted and denied. I know people whose application was not accepted for 8 years.

One of the things OVIR checks is whether any of the applicants has or used to have a security clearance. Security clearance is the most common official reason for denial. Problem is, most people seem to have it - I knew one person who had a security clearance working in a daycare based on the fact that the parents of most of the children there had a fairly high clearance, and so she was not allowed to leave for 5 years afterwards. Also, relatives' security clearance was a common reason for denial of one's application.

Some companies with clearances tell their employees when they are leaving for how long they should not even apply. The place where my father used to work said 8 years. The 8 years are up.

Our application was accepted, and in due time (about 5 month) we got a positive answer. One factor in it, I think, was that we had a rather nice apartment and some KGB colonel fancied it. He actually came in to check it out. He tried to come in for the second time, but my mom told him to wait till we are gone.

After they give you a positive answer, you have to get dozens of documents again, proving that you left the job, the school, the Party, the Komsomol, the Pioneers, the apartment (they usually still let you live there until you actually leave, but not always), informed the local military authorities that you are not usable anymore, returned all your war medals, if any, etc., etc. Unlike one of my aunts, who got kicked out of her place and spent her last two months in Russia on the couch on our living room, we don't have a lot of problems. The only problem is that grandpa, uhm, has drunk his military medals away at some point, when mom goes to inform the military authorities of the fact they don't want to give her the needed paper. She demands to see their commanding officer, who appears and reasonably says "Well, she can't shit them out for us, now can she? Give the woman that paper!".

In the end all the papers are done. We have to pay 700 rubles (the average monthly salary is about 150) per person: 500 for renouncing the citizenship and 200 for crossing the border, but this is not a problem for anyone because you have to sell all your stuff anyway. We go to OVIR with the papers and the cash, turn in our internal passports and get green pieces of paper with the name, the picture and the date of birth, all in Russian. That's our visas and travel documents.

With these papers we go to Moscow to get the foreign visas and exchange the money. We get the Israeli visa in the Dutch consulate without much bureacracy, there is just a long line of people like us and a woman who stamps every green paper we show her, and then we get an Austrian transit visa in the Austrian consulate the same way. We are allowed to exchange 90 rubles per person at the official rate, which is about $150 per person.

That's all the money one can take out of the country legally, but people arrange illegal exchanges where money does not need to cross the border: some family wants to transfer money to the US, and somebody in the US wants to transfer some money to friends or relatives in Russia, so the family just gives their money to the American person's relatives in Russia, and the American returns them the money when they come to the US. This unofficial exchange rate was about 3.5 rubles to $1 at the time.

Now that the paperwork is done, we buy the tickets to Vienna, say goodbye to relatives and friends, sell the rest of our stuff and buy some better stuff for the road.

Even at that point one is not totally safe. One acquaintance used to be married to the guy with security clearance, and they overlooked it when processing the application but noticed it later and invited her to come to the office to "straighten out the paperwork". She said "sure thing", made an appointment with them for Monday morning, then ran and changed her tickets to Sunday morning and flew away with her two children and one backpack.

About luggage: there are a million different things that you are not allowed to take with you, but I don't care. We have 9 suitcases for the 5 of us, with clothes and shoes and books and kitchen utensils, and hand luggage, and several smoked sausages, and about $150 per person.

Suitcases are supposed to be brought to the airport on Wednesday so that the customs office has several days to check that we are not taking any national treasure away.

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