“When I came into that empty, stuffy, dirty apartment, I sat on the floor and started crying. I was a lonely scared teenager in a foreign country, and my future seemed uncertain. My family and friends were far away and I didn’t have a phone to call them. Nobody cared about me and I had no one to ask for help. I cried for about an hour; then I stood up and got down to work.”
I came to the United States with my family in the late nineties. Even though we had a legal permission to live in this country, we only planned to stay for one summer. My parents had lived in Russia their entire lives and didn’t want to leave their homeland for good. While my family was preparing to go back to Russia, I fell in love with this country. By the end of that historic summer, at age sixteen, I made the first adult decision of my life: I chose to stay here on my own. Unknown to me at the time, my decision to stay eventually changed the future of my entire family.
Did we come here legally?
Like many Russian Jews in those difficult times, my parents wanted to have a way out of Russia just in case, as a backup plan should things get worse for the Jews. Even though my family was not ready to immigrate immediately, we were exploring the possibilities. Eventually my family won the Green Card Lottery, for which I’m infinitely grateful to my mom who applied for it. It took us a few attempts, each time involving a difficult and expensive application process, before we won our privilege to become lawful permanent residents of the United States.
Were we safe in Russia?
For Jews, Russia in the nineties was a place filled with uncertainty and fear. Severe economic hardship and lack of direction after the collapse of the Soviet Union led the Russian society into a great social and political turmoil. Anti-semitism was on the rise and we feared pogroms. The danger was so serious that my father made a rope ladder and taught me how to use it to escape out of the window in case we were attacked.
Were we rich in Russia?
My parents didn’t belong to the Communist party elite who remained rich even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so my family shared the fate of many other ordinary Russians who barely had enough food on the table, particularly during the first half of the nineties. My mom left her thirty-year job at a state science research lab which was going bankrupt, and since then she had a hard time finding stable work. My grandmother and I sold some family valuables at the flea market to make end meet.
In the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was almost no food in the stores. Americans may have a hard time visualizing it, but this was our reality: we would come to the store and see nearly empty shelves. There were times when my family had no food to put on the table other than potatoes and bread. Thanks to the American humanitarian aid, we occasionally received some chicken and SPAM canned meat which was distributed through schools to children like me. Friends who know about my currently high dietary standards may be surprised to learn that over twenty years ago SPAM was my favorite meal, a rare treasure to be eaten only on special occasions.
Fresh produce like tomatoes or bananas was also a rarity those times. The only fresh vegetables we had were the ones we grew ourselves, in a kitchen garden next to our small country house. If you think it was a place where we spent pleasant vacations, I’ll disappoint you. That run-down country house didn’t have running water and sewage; the toilet was in an outhouse. In order to get to that “vacation” destination we had to endure a two-hour ride on a crowded, stuffy commuter train (it was so crowded that we usually stood the entire way), then about an hour by bus, and then some time on foot. After a brief rest upon arrival, we would be digging and weeding in our kitchen garden, under the burning sun, while being fiercely attacked by mosquitoes. After these summers in our country house, I’ve developed a deep-seated aversion to gardening which lasts until this day. However, back then I had no choice: the kitchen garden was our only source of fresh vegetables.
After witnessing the early nineties in Russia, I’ve developed another aversion which is much stronger and more serious than my dislike for gardening: a deep hate for socialism. I cannot stand those Americans who say they are socialists. It’s easy to like socialism remotely while living in a rich country with overabundance of goods (brought about by capitalism), but once you’ve lived through extreme poverty, lack of adequate food, and social and political turmoil similar to what Russians experienced in the nineties, you will know where real socialism leads to.
A new country, a new life and new challenges
That August in the late nineties, my parents went back to Russia and I stayed here, a sixteen-year-old teenager. I was fresh out of high school (I graduated younger than my classmates), so I enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College. I was the youngest one there and even the Dean couldn’t believe my age. I chose Bunker Hill because it was the cheapest college around, and my tuition was covered with need-based financial aid for which I was eligible as a legal permanent resident of the United States.
My parents rented a small cheap apartment for me. When I came into that empty, stuffy, dirty apartment, I sat on the floor and started crying. I was a lonely scared teenager in a foreign country, and my future seemed uncertain. My family and friends were far away and I didn’t have a phone to call them. Nobody cared about me and I had no one to ask for help. I cried for about an hour; then I stood up and got down to work. For three days I was scrubbing and cleaning my apartment and roaming the streets in search for furniture left behind by students who moved out. I found some decent chairs, a table, a mattress, a floor lamp, a bed frame, and a bookcase. I carried all this heavy furniture into my apartment. I was exhausted but happy that I had at least something to sit and sleep on and that it didn’t cost me any money.
The minimum wage?!
Aside from help with paying the rent, I received no support from my parents or from anyone else. I desperately needed money, so I got a cashier job at a Russian grocery store in Brookline. They paid me below any imaginable minimum wage; they also paid in cash which I later learned was illegal of them to do. But I was happy that I had a job which paid me at least something. I felt fulfilled, proud, and grown up. It ended badly, however: the indecent store owners claimed that some money was missing from the records; I was an easy and vulnerable target to blame so they kicked me out without my last week’s pay. I was robbed of my hard-earned money and there was no one to comfort me. Soon after, the store went bankrupt and closed; I felt somewhat vindicated.
I applied for jobs at a few neighborhood coffee shops but was rejected; the formal explanation was that I was underage but the true reason I suspected was my poor English, so I picked up a few house cleaning gigs. I was treated and paid quite poorly, yet I didn’t complain because I knew that I was not entitled to anything and that if I wanted to get a better job I had to prove my worth. After my English improved I landed a better-paid job at the Bunker Hill bookstore and then another job as an Admissions counselor.
When I came here, I had a pretty good grasp of written English and grammar, which allowed me to pass the TOEFL college-entrance exam and skip the ESL prerequisites in college. A fellow American (!) student even hired me once to tutor him in English writing and spelling. However, my speaking and understanding skills were almost nonexistent. More than a few times, I encountered a hostile attitude when I could not understand what was being said to me. I once cried for two hours after someone made cruel fun of my English. Was it insensitive? Yes, but I didn’t expect any special accommodations for my poor English because I knew that as a newcomer I was solely responsible for learning the language of my new host country and that I had no right to demand that people understand my situation and treat me in some special way.
We didn’t immigrate as Jewish refugees so we were not eligible for any government assistance. On the contrary, before receiving our immigration papers we were required to provide proof of income to convince the US authorities that we would not be a burden on American taxpayers. We weren’t given a break due to our poor financial situation, and neither did we expect one.
Aside from the college financial aid for which I was legally eligible as an American resident, during my entire life as an immigrant I never used a penny of the taxpayer’s money. The idea of asking or, worse, demanding any tax-funded or even charity-funded immigrant assistance never crossed my mind. I taught myself to take full responsibility for my life and for my decisions and to never ask for anything without giving something in return.
That first year in America, spent almost entirely on my own, built my character and laid a foundation for my self-reliance and independence. I’m very thankful to this country for its legal immigration policies that gave me a chance to come here and to change my life for the better. Eventually things settled down and my family followed me here, one by one, and stayed for good. I learned English, graduated from Bunker Hill and later from Simmons College, and got a well-paid job right after graduation. Now I’m paying this country back by being a productive entrepreneur, by creating value, by participating in social and political activities such as voting, and by raising children who one day will hopefully become responsible, productive, and self-reliant Americans too.
Why am I telling my story?
I don’t like it when people demand that a privilege which should be earned become their “right” which must be granted to them unconditionally. It offends me when people claim entitlement to the taxpayers’ money. It hurts my feelings when I see that our society treats teenagers and, worse, young adults as dependent children, thereby encouraging them to remain spoiled, sheltered, irresponsible, and reliant on parental support without any vision of what to do with their lives. I speak up for justice because it’s unfair when other people in similar situations are not held to the same standard as me and many other responsible teenagers and hard-working immigrants who were expected to take responsibility and assume self-reliance. It’s even worse that the American public generally supports such unjustified demands for “rights” and claims for entitlement. This is why I’m telling my story to you, my reader, so you know that those are, in fact, double standards. I think we can make the world much better if we raise expectations for everyone. So I want to make a few points:
Teenagers are fully capable adults. At sixteen, I made adult decisions which affected the course of my life. I assumed full responsibility for my choices and was expected to support myself for the most part. That’s not unusual: over a hundred years ago, young people were considered adults at the age of thirteen – fifteen. It hurts my ears when I hear parents making excuses for their entitled and sheltered older children instead of expecting them to grow up and take responsibility. When parents hold their teenage and young adult kids to a higher standard, it makes life easier and better for everyone in the family.
Special accommodations for immigrants should not be subsidized with taxes. Legal immigrants already enjoy most of the benefits that are available to other Americans (such as student financial aid), and there are many charities that help immigrants with money donated voluntarily. But subsidizing any special accommodations for immigrants with the taxpayers’ money is unfair to me, to my family, and to many other families like mine. Not only did we not get any tax-funded support (and neither would we demand it), but we also had to prove our ability to support ourselves. We were quite poor and it was difficult for us, yet the idea of demanding tax-funded accommodations would have never crossed our minds. So why should other immigrants enjoy special treatment on the taxpayer’s dime?
There should be no such thing as minimum wage. There was no minimum wage for me even though my salary was my only source of income. I had no means of supporting myself other than the low pay I earned working at the store and cleaning homes, yet I was happy with whatever income I got because I knew that money must be earned and no one was entitled to it. Minimum wage is an unfair invention which drives prices up for employers and consumers and doesn’t do any good to the workers either, except for giving them a false sense of entitlement and comfort. If you want a higher pay, improve your skills and become more marketable so employers would bid for your expertise, thereby increasing your worth and your wages. The market decides.
No one is entitled to come here by breaking the laws. Immigration is a privilege, not a right, so everyone must respect American laws. Yes, there are many people in the world who are poor and who are discriminated against in their native countries. Yet America cannot possibly accommodate every miserable person who wants to come here illegally, let alone to subsidize them with taxpayers’ money. As Jews, we lived in constant fear and discrimination, and as many other Russian families, we were poor. Yet we applied for legal immigration and waited our turn. Were we lucky to win the Green Card? Absolutely, even though our luck was augmented with lots of patience, lots of time spent waiting and trying to apply several times, and lots of money, barely scrambled together, to cover the expensive application process. Had we not won the Lottery, we would have probably given up on it or tried other legal means of immigration. But the idea of coming here illegally never even crossed our minds. I support legal immigration and legal refugee programs, but poverty and discrimination are not an excuse for coming to this country by breaking the law. It was not for an option for us and neither should it be for anyone else.