I was 8 or 9 when my parents began the application process for moving to the United States and thankfully unaware of the difficult road they were embarking on.
Immigration is a tricky word you see. One can immigrate for different reasons such as seeking political and religious asylum, for a new employment opportunity and many others. Most Jews immigrating from the Eastern Block countries were seeking asylum from religious persecution. Your emigration status was directly linked to the assistance you would receive upon your arrival in the states. HIAS was formed especially to aid in the resettlement of Jewry in the United States.
We had family in the United States (my mother’s sister) and applied to emigrate based on a re-unification program. The reunification program meant that the United States would allow you to immigrate to rejoin your loved ones (mother, father, sibling, child). Any social assistance had to be applied for separately. We did apply for social assistance (refugee status), went through an in-person interview at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and were the only family out of hundreds interviewed that day to be denied.
An especially poigniant moment of the interview stands out in my mind; we were in the office of one of the embassy employee undergoing the application interview. The interviewer, a man in his middle to late 40ies or maybe even 50ies, speaking in almost flawless Russian said:
“Mr. Colonel, you want to apply for refugee status and come to the United States asking for aid? You are a Colonel and in America, Colonels have staffs of employees and aides. Do you think it is something you will be able to do, to stand in line with your hand open asking for free flour?”
The employee didn’t have any comprehension that my parents’ number one goal was to bring their children to America, to raise and educate them and enable them to live a normal life with rewards based on their achievements — and that yes, they would do whatever it takes to do that — forget who they are, let go of statuses and possessions. The fact is, that while esteemed and enjoyed a comfortable living, a Colonel in the USSR army didn’t retire with staffs and aides.
By denying my family refugee status, the United States essentially denied ANY and ALL assistance (financial and otherwise). They were permitting us to enter the country with the right to work. The reasons for the denial are unknown but could be any or a combination of the following: my mother’s sister who resides in the suburbs of Philadelphia was enjoying a very comfortable middle class life and my father was in the military and the embassy had a difficult time envisaging his new identity in America. I suppose the government had decided that if we did emigrate, my aunt was going to support us. I should also say that most families denied social assistance did not emigrate to the United States, instead opting to stay back or head to Germany or Israel who had more social aid oriented programs.
The lack of assistance did not weaken my parents’ resolve. We sold, donated and distributed all of our possessions packing up our 8 suite-cases (2 per person) and heading to a new life in America.