Thursday, March 01, 2007

Refugee, part 2: the processing

The plane arrives to Vienna airport, our papers are checked and we are taken to a big room where a young and very cute Austrian soldier with an automatic weapon guards us. He is 18 or 19, and has obviously not been taught what to do when two elderly refugees start fighting for the only chair in the room. He looks around helplessly, then comes at them from behind and steals the chair, after which the fight stops by itself. The boy is clearly officer material.

The Sokhnut (Israeli immigration agency) people come, ask for people who actually want to go to Israel, and take them away to wait for their plane. They also collect from the rest of us the names and addresses of the people in Russia who want Israeli invitations. Some time later the HIAS (refugee organization) people come and take us to the arrivals hall. There we wait while they drive people to the refugee camp a few at a time.

The refugee camp is a camp only in the sense that this is a facility for temporary storage of refugees who are supposed to be resettled to other countries. The people are actually housed in rented apartments and hostels, a small family per room or a larger family in two rooms. People who are all by themselves usually get a small single.

Our place is two rooms in an 3-room apartment in the 6th district, and the instructions are a) to be home with all the papers ready the next morning, when we would be taken to the office for processing, and b) not to go anywhere at all without writing down or remembering the address first. They tell us a cautionary tale about a man who wandered away without writing down his address and without knowing a word of any language besides Russian. He got lost, and at night the police picked him up when they saw him in obvious distress; he could only cry and repeat "HIAS, HIAS" and the police called HIAS in the morning and they came and got him.

We walk in, and three curious heads poke out of the third room. "Hi," - say the heads. Their owners come out and inform us that they are going to Canada and have been waiting for a visa for 8 months and their names are Sara, David and Maria. They also tell us that the stores are closed on Sundays, and offer us some food.

The next day we spend almost the whole day in the HIAS office. The whole thing is run by HIAS and Joint: HIAS takes care of the paperwork and Joint takes care of the living arrangements. Sunday is always the day when at least two planeloads of refugees arrive, so on Monday the whole office space and the square in front of the building are full of people waiting for their turn to be processed. The office has two armored doors and two big Hungarian guys who first let a person between the doors, take a look at the person and only then let them in.

The HIAS/Joint camp was mostly inhabited by Soviet and Iranian Jews and their families at the time, and also had occasional people from different places who did not have a refugee organization of their own. People who have "their own" refugee organizations, such as ethnic Russians, usually get sent there. (All I know about their organization was that it is called Tolstoy Foundation and that at the time it tended to bring them to Providence, RI.)

Iranian Jews arrive during any day of the week, so there is not an awful lot of them in the Monday rush. They tend to be richer than us, and more civilized, and speak better English. Most of the ones in their late thirties and forties have been educated in the US or UK. Almost none of us have ever had any chance to speak with a real live foreigner before, so those of us who speak English talk to them and ask them about the life in Iran. We are kind of surprised to have a lot in common with them, and I am also surprised to hear that Iranians don't crack down on Jewish worship quite as much as Russians, and even allowed Jews to have Jewish schools. One Iranian, a fortyish doctor with a somewhat-British accent, pats my father on the stomach in a friendly way. "A Russian Jew and an Iranian Jew are brothers", - he says. And then he sighs and adds dryly: "And Gorbachev and Khomeini, they are also brothers".

Iranians also tell us how they got out of Iran. There were basically three ways:a) with fake papers to Pakistan by plane, b) across the border to Turkey - very difficult terrain and generally not attempted by anyone who is not native to that area, and c) across the border to Pakistan in a truck - not very difficult but patrolled by the Guards of the Islamic Revolution, who are usually 12-14-year-old boys with automatic weapons. It is kind of strange to listen to completely normal adult people talk about how they got ambushed by a busload of the Guards and killed them all with a well-thrown grenade, and I can see that it is strange and unpleasant for them too. In fact, a year later I met a guy who was an ex-Guard, and he told me that he also had found shooting of fleeing families rather unpleasant, especially since they tended to throw grenades back.

A HIAS guy processes our paperwork. He asks us about our family and friends and people who've been through this place before us, and ones who we think are coming, and about our lies to the Soviet authorities. He then asks us where we want to go, and we answer: Boston.

People here actually get to choose their own country, if the country will have them, and most Western countries accepted Soviet refugees automatically at that time. The guy explains that if we want to go somewhere in Europe it has to be done quickly, because it involves some time window between leaving USSR and arriving to the new place, whereas if we want to go to the US, Canada or Australia, we'll have to wait several months in the camp in order for the paperwork to be processed. The waiting time for the US was about 3 months at the time; for Canada, 10 months.

The vast majority of the people chose the US; empirically, Canada seemed a very distant second and Germany a very distant third. It's hard to say how many people went to Israel because they never went through this system but flew there straight from the airport.

The most common reason people gave for choosing a particular place was that they already had relatives and friends there.

The people who chose the US was given a choice between New York and some big city in Texas (IIRC Houston, but not sure). One could also ask to go to any other place in the US, but for that one had to have a personal sponsor there.

The idea of a personal sponsor (usually a relative) is that Joint and federal government can feed you anywhere in the US, but the various refugee resettlement services are provided only in a couple of places, so people going elsewhere need to have a person who'd take care of them, show them around, etc. A personal sponsor is sort of like a personal unpaid social worker. We had enough family and friends in Boston to sponsor us.

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