Never trust a toddler, and other immigration highlights


Drawing by Yelena Yafe

By Inga

“I will rip up your paperwork, I will destroy all your pencils, and I will not move, anywhere, ever.”

I stomped on the parquet floor and screamed as I threw up my fists. I gave this dramatic performance my all, which, for a shy three-year-old, is quite a lot. But my threats and flailing hands fell on deaf ears and averted eyes. Instead, my grandmother took me into our shared room and distracted me with an old doll while my father continued to meticulously pencil in our refugee papers, using the careful hands of an engineer to avoid even the slightest wrong stroke. My mother was arranging to sell the piano that had stood in our Kharkov apartment. The family became busy scraping up the very last shreds of our lives with guarded emotions and a feigned normalcy. In hushed tones, we whispered, “America.”

The experience of flight felt like a blur of time and space. I sat and cried on my grandmother’s lap. My father pointed out the window and told me stories about clouds and sky. My mother soothed me and tried to brush my hair (as we all know, in times of upheaval, it’s still important to look neat). But I continued my sniffles well into our descent into JFK where my great-uncle and great-aunt waited anxiously with a bouquet of flowers in hand. It was 1991, and they had one room in their two-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst waiting for us to occupy.

We shuffled and mumbled our way through customs, grabbed two mismatched suitcases off the conveyer belt, and watched in awe as large glass doors automatically opened in front of us. A shock of chilly October air, and suddenly there was a warm embrace, teary eyes, a chocolate candy in a gold wrapper, my extended family whisking us into a car, driving us down a dark Belt Parkway, ushering us into a red brick building and deep into an apartment brimming with love.

The mysterious beauty of life is that somehow, despite the past, we start anew. Soon, we moved into our own little apartment. My father delivered American newspapers and would take me along in an old, janky van. Together with my mother we would drive through neighborhoods and explore this new world. We rummaged through donation bins at the JCH (Jewish Community Center) of Bensonhurst, picked up wood furniture off the streets at night, and shared exotic new fruits like kiwis and mangoes.

When I look back at my childhood, I am happy, running through Seth Low Park into my grandmother’s arms after a long hour spent reciting poetry with my Russian tutor.  A few years from now, both my parents will have lived more of their life in America than in their homeland. When I ask my father how he feels about this, he simply says, “I feel myself great.”

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