Elena Travels to America and Learns to Speak Again

Outside B&B Pharmacy in Jackson Heights, NY. Photo taken by Michael Mora.

Of all the hardships Elena Bover endured in coming to America from Ukraine, language was among the most difficult.

“I would come home to cry — that’s how hard it was,” said Ms. Bover as she describes her transition from Ukraine in 1989. Ms. Bover had difficulties finding work and completing basic errands due to her language deficiencies. There was no simple fix; to learn the English language required years of study and practical experience.

“Even if we say something wrong or don’t pronounce it right, I would see people have this little smirk and try to correct,” she recalled.

Upon arriving in the U.S., she promptly enrolled at Queens College, in order to study general classes, including English.

She later transferred to St. John’s University to pursue a concentration in Pharmacy.

Following graduation, Ms. Bover soon started her own small business, B&B Pharmacy, which is located at 8009 37th Ave. Jackson Heights, NY 11372. Ms. Bover runs the pharmacy to this day. “I like everything that has to do with people. I am a people person,” she said.

While she still speaks with a Ukrainian accent, Ms. Bover has overcome her main communication impediments and speaks easily with doctors and patients for a majority of her long workday that can last up to 12-hours. Ms. Bover also has a staff that is multilingual to better converse with their customers to solve their needs.

Most of the customers at B&B Pharmacy are originally from foreign countries. She can relate to the struggles that these new immigrants have with English. To make things easier for them, she has employees who speak Spanish, Russian and Polish, for instance.

Aware of her customers love of foods from their ethnic cultures, B&B Pharmacy carries a variety of popular ethnic foods, along with foods specifically for her customers’ religious holidays, such as the approaching High Holy Days for those of Jewish faith.

Over-the-counter medication as shown inside B&B Pharmacy. Photo taken by B&B Pharmacy.

Fleeing the USSR in Search of Freedom

Being Jewish, Ms. Bover encountered difficulties in pursuing an education in Ukraine and doubted her prospects of landing a well-paying job.

A 1990 New York Times article, Soviet Jewish Emigres Tell of Fearful Flight, sheds light on the challenging climate that Soviet Jews faced. Then Pres. Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a policy of glasnost that lead to increased anti-Semitic expression, leading to a large number of Soviet Jews fleeing the country.

The points show the countries where Ms. Bover stayed during her journey to New York, USA. Via Google Maps.

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, is a refugee organization that subsidized Ms. Bover’s trip and provided instrumental assistance in resettlement. The journey to America with Ms. Bover’s mother and grandmother began in Russia and took the refugees to Vienna, where they had to stay for three months. It was an emotionally draining process for everyone.

The German language caused her grandmother to suffer bad flashbacks, dating back to WWII, when she lived in a bleak basement, hiding from the Nazis in occupied territory. The next stop was a short stay in Italy, where the three refugees soon boarded a flight on Pan Am, the now defunct airline, to the United States. They moved to the heavily populated, Russian-Jewish community in Forest Hills, NY.

Pan Am plane from 1989. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Elena’s American Dream

Flash forward to the present day and Ms. Bover is happily married to her husband of 27 years. They live in Long Island, NY, with their son. The commute from her home to B&B Pharmacy’s located in Jackson Heights is usually around 20 minutes.

Ms. Bover smiles with pride as she tells me that her daughter recently earned her undergraduate degree and is currently enrolled in law school. Ms. Bover had similar ambitions but cited language as her main impediment to realizing those dreams. Her daughter’s academic success, which has been achieved partly by her ease of the English language having grownup in America, is a defining moment of her life.

“That’s the biggest accomplishment because you see your success in your kids,” said Ms. Bover. “And when your kids succeed, that is the most memorable thing.”