A new American dream
Bethel University sophomore receives U.S. citizenship after escaping persecution in Belarus as a young girl.
By Emma Harville
Six-year-old Alesia Khomchyk blinks, trying to understand the words she is hearing as family members around her wipe tears from their faces. Everyone keeps talking about the U.S., but what is it? She was sure Maple Grove, Minnesota was not too far from her house in Minsk, Belarus. Was it twenty minutes away? Thirty minutes? All she really knew was that she wasn’t coming back.
What she now knows as American freedom was foreign to Khomchyk in Belarus. Police tore down Christian churches, forcing Belarusian churchgoers to meet in each other’s homes for services. Pastors paid large fines and were sometimes even sent to jail for spreading the Gospel. Khomchyk’s father was kicked out of college for becoming a Christian and her mother was never allowed to attend. The water would routinely be turned off, which would result in subsequent trips to the store for running water.
As a girl, Khomchyk never dreamed of one day becoming a firefighter or an astronaut like her American classmates had. The conditions of Belarus and lack of mobility left little room for daydreaming about the future.
“Over there, you can’t really grow. If you’re born into a poor family, then you can’t become a CEO or become a doctor; you’re just going to be a farmer or something,” she said.
Still, Khomchyk says she felt protected from what her parents had gone through. She spent carefree summers at her grandma’s rural home in Ukraine, playing with her cousins in the sand dunes. She remembers being surprised with a bunch of bananas for her sixth birthday, a luxury item in Belarus which she was overjoyed to receive.
Khomchyk and her family had a vegetable garden, grew their own potatoes and raised livestock on their farm, rarely eating the pre-packaged food prevalent in America. Trips to the grocery kiosk were usually reserved for special occasions.
Khomchyk and her cousin Anna Liashko grew up together in Minsk and flew 10 hours to Minnesota on the same plane.
“I remember flying in, we were very, very nervous about the new culture, even though we were just kids,” Liashko said. “You don’t know anybody or the language.”
Khomchyk didn’t even realize she was in the air or on a plane flying across the globe. She admired the Minnesota roads and street signs on her way to Edgebrook Elementary School, armed only with the ability to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ and ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ Kids in her class made fun of her for not knowing English.
“In kindergarten, I don’t think I had a friend,” Khomchyk said. “I didn’t understand anybody and nobody understood me.”
Khomchyk enrolled in an ESL program and was fluent in English by the third grade. Now a sophomore at Bethel University, it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that she began the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. While she came to Minnesota as a refugee under permanent residency and had all of the rights of a citizen, she couldn’t vote or serve on a jury. The price tag on an application totaled about $900, so she pushed it off.
“They basically ask you everything from your name, your birthday, to ‘Are you in a terrorist group?’ kind of thing. It’s all the questions,” she said.
Khomchyk dutifully began studying basic American history facts in nervous preparation for the civics exam, but it wasn’t until a year after sending in her application that she was called in for an interview. A few months later, she had her citizenship ceremony at the Minneapolis Courthouse April 10, 2019 alongside about 40 others.
While Khomchyk was excited for her ceremony, she had already long considered herself American and viewed the citizenship process as more of a logistical step to make it official.
“I went there alone… I feel like I’ve been an American for so long, like it hasn’t really hit me. [My family] supported me from afar,” she said. “I think the hardest part was finding parking in Minneapolis.”
Alina Yermakovich, a junior communication arts/literature education major at Bethel, also grew up in Minsk and is currently in the process of becoming an American citizen. She had her interview a few weeks ago and is scheduled to have her naturalization ceremony June 5.
Yermakovich began preparing for the civics test a week before her interview by listening to a CD rattle off questions and answers during her 40-minute commute to Bethel everyday and getting quizzed by her dad. She was allowed 10 questions and needed to have six correct in order to pass the test.
“I was really scared she was going to ask me who’s the Speaker of the House and I was going to forget it’s Nancy Pelosi or something, but she just asked me, ‘Who’s the president of the United States?’ ‘Who lived here before the Europeans settled here?’” Yermakovich said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, why did I even study?’”
The writing test consisted of writing ‘Columbus Day is in October’ with her finger on an iPad, and the reading test asked her to read a similar sentence aloud. Both Yermakovich and Khomchyk were surprised with how straightforward the test was.
Yermakovich is eagerly awaiting June 5 so that she can study abroad on England Term with a U.S. passport.
“I think it will be a big deal. I’ve already even planned what my Instagram caption is going to be,” Yermakovich said. “I’m so excited.”
Now 20 years old, Khomchyk is currently majoring in biology in hopes of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, something she knows she would never have dreamed of doing had she stayed in Belarus.
“I can’t even imagine not being here. But I feel like if I did still live there, I’d be less happy. Russian culture is more strict,” Khomchyk said. “Career-wise, I don’t think I’d be a doctor. I know that I’m beyond blessed and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to live here.”
(Additional reporting by Jhenna Becker and Chloe Peter.)