Monday, March 05, 2007

Refugee, part 4: the arrival

One day we got a call from HIAS that our papers are ready and that we would be flying to the US a few days later. There was considerable panic on the subject of grandpa and his ability to fly, especially about what would happen if he got so sick that the plane had to land somewhere halfway to the US. We contacted various relatives, friends and acquaintences in Switzerland, Germany, France, UK and Canada, and decided just to hope that this does no happen over Ireland, Iceland or Greenland. We also talked about it to his doctors, who promised to do their best and referred us to Jesus again.

The HIAS people picked us up in the middle of the night and drove us to the airport, together with 20 or 30 more refugees, where they left us to a guy from the IOM (International Organization for Migration). The guy made us sign a paper saying that we will pay IOM back for the tickets someday, and gave us some IOM tags, probably so that we wouldn't get lost.

Our sponsors in Boston were a couple of relatives. They picked us up at the airport and took us to the apartment that they had rented for us. They had also bought us some furniture and a lot of food, and somebody brought an old TV. The place was full of people: various relatives and friends of my parents. Party!

In the morning one of the relatives took us to the social security office where we applied for the social security numbers, to the bank where we opened accounts, and to the JFCC, which was working together with HIAS snd was supposed to pay us the charity money and provide some services. The JFCC woman told us that the money will be provided for 4 months, after which we can apply for the state money if we are still not self-supporting. The state money would be less, and would last for 18 months, after which we damn better be self-supporting. The grandparents would of course get SSI (supplemental security income) permanently. She gave us booklets about living in Boston, told us to apply for Medicaid (health insurance) and food stamps, and to get senior IDs for the grandparents so that they can use public transportation at senior prices. She told my parents where the free English classes were, and that the grandparents should apply for the housing for the elderly, and also asked if she can give our phone number to volunteers.

(The idea that we would be getting some free money from somewhere for a while was kind of hard for me to get my mind around. Social security was pretty much nonexistent in Russia, although there were some free services (like health care and education) that were generally just about worth the price, especially the health care. If one became unemployed, one had better have savings or generous relatives or friends.)

The relative took us to all the aforementioned places. Everyone was fairly nice. The Medicaid guy reassured us that even though the Medicaid cards arrive in some distant future, we are covered by Medicaid already. At the elderly housing place the relative looked through the list of addresses and recommended where to apply.

So it went. During the daytime my parents went to English classes and looked for jobs, and I spent my days listening to grandparents' complaints or sulking in the pool that was in the backyard of the building. I wanted to practice English by watching the TV, but this was quite difficult because the grandparents always came to complain and tended to be louder than the TV, but the pool pretty much served the same purpose because it was full of rather talkative local population.I spent all my time there away from heat and grandparents.

One night fairly soon after our arrival grandpa got very sick again. I called an ambulance, and they came. At some point they found a grid painted on his back with iodine, which some older Russians believe helps against cough or something.

"What is this?" - they asked. And while I was struggling to figure out how to explain the concept of traditional folk medicine in English, they started guessing: "A grid for radiation therapy?"
"No," - I said, - "it's..."
"Ritual paint?"
"Yes!" - I was glad they helped me out with this.

They took him to a hospital, which took very good care of him on taxpayers' money without ever referring to Jesus or any other supernatural forces. The hospital was very impressive and even had Russian interpreters like all the other big hospitals in the area. The kinds of hospitals where ambulances can bring people usually do. The specialized hospitals where people come in on their own usually ask you to bring your own interpreter if you need one.

Some kind of medical checkup was required for all the refugees. Nothing special.

The JFCC volunteers rock. They are just regular people who ask JFCC for phone numbers of refugee families and come to hang out with them. They give one the insight into the local culture that the integrated immigrants cannot, simply because the integrated immigrants have seen so many new immigrants that they are accustommed to somehow avoiding discussion of the kinds of cultural differences that are not immediately practically useful. One of the volunteers still hangs out with my family occasionally.

We don't deal with immigration authorities, because we already have gotten refugee visas before arrival into the country, and we are supposed to exchange it for a green card one year later.

My parents passed the driving tests and bought an old car. I went to high school.

Some day about three months after we arrived to the US my father got a job as an electrical engineer, which was and still is his normal profession. The going rate for an electrical engineer with 16 years of experience and very bad English was pretty much like what they pay to newly graduated American engineers, but they raised his salary to the normal levels as soon as they figured that he really knew how to do the stuff. His English still scares small children and elderly English teachers.

Right after that I got a normal teenage after-school job, and a couple of months later my mother got a job as a software engineer, which is also her normal profession. 9 months after our arrival they bought their own place in a suburb (banks there gave 100% mortgages), and about the same time the grandparents got their elderly apartment (in the sense of an apartment in a building for the elderly) and were glad to finally get rid of us. A year after arrival we exchanged our refugee visas for green cards. And then it gets really boring and not really a refugee story anymore.

We've dealt with the refugee bureacracy several times after that when we sponsored new refugees, and it did not change much since our times - OTOH we haven't done it now since 1993 or so, because pretty much all the relatives are out of Russia already.

One more thing I would like to point out: this was not a story of some particularly spectacular refugee success. That was pretty much what happened to all the educated Soviet Jewish refugees that came to the US at that time, and in fact to many people of various backgrounds and education levels. On average working-age people got jobs - usually so-called "real jobs" - about six months after arrival. Doctors took a bit longer because of all the tests. Blue-collar people also got jobs fairly fast. There were some people who chose to try to live on welfare, but that was not very common and even they usually had some under-the-table jobs.

Most of our relatives and friends were engineers, like my parents. Then our friend Marina came, and she was a researcher of German language and literature. She was met by a choir of old immigrants singing "you'll never get a job with this profession, go to some programming classes fast". She laughed, called us all nerds, and got a job within a week after arrival. It was just a job teaching German, but nowadays she is a full professor and gets to research literature to her heart's content, at least to the extent that professors usually do.

I write about the Soviet Jewish refugees because that is what I have first-hand experience with but as far as I know other refugees tended to find jobs easily, too, and this includes people from Africa and Middle East. The US has had various problems (crime, terrorism, etc.) with immigrants from third world countries - but widespread refugee unemployment is certainly not one of them.

The reasons for this are fairly complicated (and I am not claiming to understand them all), and deserve a post of their own.

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