Becoming a refugee
In 1988 when I was a 10 years old school kid, living in Baku, Azerbaijan, a conflict started between Azerbaijan and the neighboring Armenia, over the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region. The conflict quickly escalated, and a war began. A war that has continued, on and off, for 30 years, culminating in a new war exploding in September of 2020.
My family was Armenian and quickly realized that living in Azerbaijan wasn’t safe for us anymore. At the time, the Iron Curtain was collapsing and USSR was allowing its citizens to emigrate. My father didn’t hesitate, because to him USA was the obvious choice to take his family to start over, so he went to Moscow and applied at the US embassy for political asylum
“America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” — Ronald Reagan
He was accused of being a traitor to USSR by some family friends, and my grandfather assured him that Baku, an international oil rich metropolis, would never allow any violence. In September of 1989 the situation has become so unstable in Baku, that we fled. We settled in a small town in Russia called Taganrog, on the coast of Azov Sea. In November of 1989 we had our interview at the US Embassy. Apparently we were fairly convincing that we’ve lost everything, because US officially granted us ‘refugee’ status. “Under U.S. law, a “refugee” is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.”
On January 13, 1990, pogroms against Armenians in Baku began and lasted for a week. Dozens were killed and majority of Armenian population of Baku was forced out, their belongings ceased. There was no going back.
Unlike many misconceptions, receiving ‘refugee’ status from the US does not magically swing open a proverbial door and let you enter. For the next 2 years our family was vetted. We had a ton of medical tests we had to do (anything from HIV to Tuberculosis), financial disclosures, proof of education and no criminal records. When US citizens rebel against ‘illegal’ immigration, they do so without realizing that the alternative is so much worse, especially for parents. Loss of property, violence, poverty, that’s what the alternative is for many folks. And waiting years to be formally vetted is sometimes not an option. (I am not an advocate for ‘illegal’ immigration, but for immigration reform and a humane immigration policy).
We were a bit lucky, and while our paperwork was being processed, we were living in Taganrog in a house my grandmother rented for us. The status of refugee granted you a sponsor in the United States who would support you in the beginning. We weren’t sure what that support meant, so when it was time to go, my parents packed literally everything we owned at the time. We had 2 pieces of luggage and 1 carry-on per person, with everything from clothes, bedding, pots and pans, dishes, pillows. We also had to get there on our own dime, which we unfortunately lacked. A company catered specifically to refugees, selling tickets at a premium (which we of course didn’t know about), so when we landed in US we were already $5,000 in debt ($1,000 per person, one way, for 5 people).
Our sponsor was the Catholic Charities of Hartford, Connecticut. I remember October 24, 1991 very well. I was 13. We had a long flight on still existing PanAm airline from Moscow to New York. In New York we were met with what I can now guess was a department of state employee, who shuttled us and another refugee family to a different gate to board a tiny plane for the 45 minute flight from JFK to Hartford, CT. I remember my sister and I finding one of those TVs attached to a seat in the airport, that you had to throw quarters in to watch, still playing a cartoon after a passenger left. We were in heaven! As we flew to the county where we knew no one and didn’t speak the language, I can’t imagine what was going through my parents’ minds. They were both in their 30s, and had 3 kids: 13, 9 and 4. I reflect on their bravery day in and day out, their sacrifice to ensure their kids lives would be better.
We were picked up at the airport in Hartford by a representative of Catholic Charities, who took us and another family of 4 to our new home. Our sponsor rented us a 3 bedroom apartment in South End of Hartford. It was furnished with 5 beds, a table and 5 chairs. Some basic dishes, and a box of canned good, and our life in US has began.
What I remember most about those early months in the US is the close-knit community of Baku-Armenians, all refugees, all more or less having suffered the same fate of losing their home, belongings and escaping to a new country. I remember my parents taking any jobs our sponsors found for them, working for minimum wage, sometimes two jobs at a time (my mom cleaned 2 banks). I remember the local Armenian Church being extremely supportive both spiritually (for those that believed) and also with material things, be it clothes, dishes, blankets, small furniture. Our first car, a massive white 1977 Chevy Impala, was donated to my family by one of the regular church goers.
Our first TV was a great, big Zenith in a wooden box, that my father and I found on the street. My dad fixed it, and we watched many episodes of The Simpsons and Star Trek on it, with closed captions on, to practice our English. When the TV eventually kicked the bucket, my mom repurposed the wooden box, by making it into a stand in the hallway, where we put our keys and mail. My first dresser was another street find and it served me well for a few years.
My siblings and I enrolled in schools. There were no school buses or cars to drop us off, walking was out main means of transportation. I spent a few years in ESL (English as Second Language) program, but at our age (13, 9 and 5) English came quickly to us. I didn’t know a concept of bullies back then, but looking back I can’t remember any instance where I was bullied, and with my broken English, hand-me-down clothes there were plenty of reasons to.
It took some time for my parents to pay back the $5,000 loan we were given for our plane tickets. In retrospect, the company was doing predatory lending, because a lot of folks like ourselves had no money, and the only way we would get here was with the “help” of this company.
In 1996, after spending five years as legal residents with a green card, we took the citizenship test, and became US citizens, blue passport and all.
We’ve come a long way from that warm October day, 29 years ago. We all still reside in Connecticut (although I did a long term stint in New York and a few years in Detroit). My parents are still working hard, and not in a hurry to retire. They now have 3 granddaughters to spoil. I continue to thank them for taking that risk, almost 30 years ago, picking up their 3 young kids, and without any money or language, moving us to the US. As cliché as it sounds, the land of opportunities has been just that for our family.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
My family is the embodiment of ‘tired, poor, homeless’ and proof that these are not empty words. It pains me to see the turn we took as a country in 2016 and as a people over the last few years. Immigrants have become some sort of new boogey-man. We’ve inflicted unspeakable damage on kids and families at our South border. We’ve turned our back on refugees from Muslim countries. We’ve demonized people who look and speak different.
I’m hopeful that based on the message and the initial actions taken by the new administration, we are slowly on a course correct, and again will stand as a beacon for those that are yearning to breathe free.