The exodus of Russians to the United States started in the 1880’s. During this exodus the majority of the people who moved to the United States were mostly Jewish. Those Jews who lived in Germany and Russia were degraded in status. In Russia, they were treated as the “other” and were in many cases stripped of their basic rights. They left Russia as settlers and not as sojourners. Settlers are those who cannot return to their home country again or do not wish to return and sojourners are those who leave their countries with an intention to return home. Zhanna Pernik was born on September 15, 1958 in Ukraine, Soviet Union. Zhanna is a Jewish settler who moved to the United States because of the humiliation she faced in Ukraine ever since she was a child. Even though Zhanna was not a part of the Russian migration in the 1880’s, she did have family that moved to the United States before her in the early 1990’s. While she was in Ukraine she lost her brother so her widowed sister-in-law moved to the U.S. with her kids. Her sister-in-law had to go through a lot of difficulties, especially because she was a widow staying in a European country. She had to go through Austria and Italy before she was allowed to enter the United States. Zhanna believes that her sister-in law’s immigration was very painful compared to hers since she at least had her family that backed her up throughout the process of immigration. Had it not been for them she would also have had difficulty.
By the beginning of World War I, almost one-third of the Jews in Russia had migrated to other countries but most of them migrated to the United States. Zhanna however, migrated to the United States as a refugee in 1996 from Ukraine in search of a better life and self-respect. In Ukraine however, because of the anti-Semitic actions, they felt insecure. The anti-Semitism was so bad that she had to take her dog around wherever she went for safety. To enjoy safer and peaceful life she decided to move to the United States. This was one of the options available to them. The other option available was to migrate to Israel since her husband’s parents immigrated to Israel for a safer life and it was common for Jews from Russia to go to Israel. Migration to Israel was easy since they had an open boundary policy for Jewish refugees. In the United States, refugees are those people who come to the U.S. because they are afraid of being persecuted in their home country. However, Zhanna decided not to move to Israel because she considered the United States to be her ultimate destination. Secondly, her husband was half Jewish so he would encounter problems in migrating to Israel. So she decided to migrate to the US as she believed that in the US a person’s religion or skin color does not cause them as much difficulty.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Consequently, fifteen states emerged as independent countries. In the face of changed conditions, the United States eased its policy of admitting refuges from these fifteen countries. The new policy may have helped Zhanna migrate to the United States even though it took her about five years to enter the country. It appears that the Immigration Act of 1965 opened the doors for her to migrate to the United States as well. This act abolished the quota system while it kept immigration to a manageable level. Under the act, family reunification became the foundation of the policies of U.S immigration. The composition of refugees from Russia admitted to the United States changed post 1990. Sixteen percent of those that came from former Soviet Union or Russia went to New York, and thirteen percent went to Sacramento as their first destination. Zhanna did not follow this flow of Russians entering the United States. Instead, she first landed in San Francisco. She ended up living in San Francisco for ten years. Zhanna was a vice-principal at a local Jewish school in Russia and she wanted to work with kids even after she moved to the United States. Even after buying a home in Concord, California, Zhanna did not lose the connection she had with the city of San Francisco. She got a job offer as an elementary teacher in San Francisco and she now works in the city. She came from a middle-class family in Ukraine but she says that she could not have become a teacher in the US if it were not for the Jewish Family and Children Services, Jewish Community Centre, Hebrew Free Loan. These organizations offered classes on how to apply for jobs, write a resume and even help people get their education. She first started working in Marine Day School, which is a preschool located in San Francisco then she got a job in Montessori Elementary School located in Pacifica. After the school went out of business Zhanna moved to Montessori Elementary School in Walnut Creek. Then later in 2009, Zhanna received a job in a public school in San Francisco as a Russian teacher. Zhanna refers to the place where she teaches as “the heart of Russian district.” She says that the area has a lot of Russian families and she enjoys teaching Russian to the kids at the elementary school. She teaches not only different generations of Russian immigrant children but also children from other ethnic backgrounds.
When Zhanna moved to the United States she faced a lot of difficulties. She says that for the first ten years after moving from Ukraine she repented about having left everything behind for a better and safer life. She says that this repentance appeared in her dreams again and again since she had to leave things that were dear to her behind. This mental stress affected her even after she left Ukraine. She did face a lot of barriers in the first couple of years after moving to U.S.A. People perceived her as a docile and an unconfident person because of her Russian accent. But, people were not aware that Jewish immigrants were those immigrants who moved between 1908 and 1912 and had literacy of 80 percent amongst men and 63 percent amongst women. The literacy rates among those who moved from the former Soviet Union between 1990-2000 were 69.7 percent, which proves that Russians may have different levels of literacy. Immigrants are often questioned about who they are and why they are here. The most common types of accounting methods that immigrants use to describe themselves are humorous method of accounting, educational method of accounting and confrontational method of accounting. Zhanna was also an immigrant that had to constantly account for herself and tell people that it is okay to be around her. She used humorous method of accounting to get her message through to people. She said, “I am green, just from the boat, but not from the boat Red October.” This statement was a reference to a movie where Russians were seen as villains. She made this joke in order to let people know that she is aware of these stereotypes people had in mind and so they should be at ease and not be afraid of her.
Maintaining her traditional living in the United States and assimilating into the American culture is one thing Zhanna keeps in mind. Extended family is a big part of Russian culture. When she was in Russia, Zhanna lived in a joint family. Zhanna’s mother could have received permission to enter the United States before Zhanna, her husband, and her son did but her mother wanted to move with everyone. So, Zhanna’s mother waited until everyone applied together and they ended up moving to the United States. In the United States, Zhanna lives with her family but she misses her extended family that still lives in other parts of the United States and Israel. The anti-Semitism in Russia really affected Zhanna’s family because she could no more live with all of her family but she does try to talk to all of her family members and meet them whenever she can so she can keep her tradition and her connections. The Internet is such a big part of today’s world that it is a good source to stay connected with families and friends overseas or in different parts of the same country. Zhanna uses a Russian social networking site in order to talk to her friends and family that are still in Israel and other parts of the United States. The site helps her stay connected with her people and at the same time make sure that her friends and family are in good health. Immigrants stay connected to their culture by cooking native foods, going to gathering hosted by native people, speaking native languages etc. Zhanna also uses the same kind of ethnic raw materials in order to stay connected to her culture. She speaks Russian at home, cooks Russian food, reads Russian books, and watches Russian movies. She says that the new technologies have allowed her to maintain her culture even though she has such a busy schedule and technology that has made lives easier for not just immigrants but also for others.
Assimilation is a big part of immigrant lives. Immigrants assimilate into the host country’s culture in various ways. Zhanna’s engages in multicultural assimilation because as a teacher she engages in activities with students and families that come from various backgrounds and she learns from them but she maintains her own ethnic identity. Zhanna says that she has assimilated into the American culture. She wears the same clothes as any other American, she has everything that she needs to live her American life and she is content with it. She also has a job that helps her assimilate better into the American culture, and she does not face any difficulties in the U.S.
The first generation of immigrants, usually engage in “transnational” activities. However, those who come to the U.S as refugees or asylees are barred to go back to their home countries as a result of which some groups that came in the 1990’s like Iranians, Iraqis and those coming from former Russia were banned from going back to their home countries if they wanted to live in the U.S permanently. Since Zhanna arrived to the US in 1996 as a refugee she was not allowed to go back to her home country but she never wanted to go back either. She is still in contact with her family members and friends living in different parts of the world. Zhanna is now a citizen of the U.S so she can go back to Russia if she ever wanted to but she believes that the United States has given her everything that she needs so she would never go back to Russia unless it was an absolute emergency. She feels that she has Americanized in many ways including the way she cooks. She tries to add different types of spices to Russian foods since it is available to her. She says that the food she cooks is very much influenced by the abundance of goods that are available in America and she does not have a problem with that. She feels that she is better educated after she came to the United States, her English has improved and that has allowed her to become a better teacher and a better communicator. She says that America has taught her about acceptance and that she loves the country very much.
One message that Zhanna wants to give to people is, “ Being different is okay!” Further, being different is what pushed her away from Russia and pulled her towards America and she is very happy with the decisions she has made. She wishes that no one ever goes through what she has gone through in Ukraine and she hopes the best for everyone. She teaches the kids at the elementary school the same thing. She wants them to grow up and become great human beings and grow up as adults who do not take advantage of others but accept one another and learn about one another. Zhanna is about to lose her job again due to the budget cuts that are going on as a result of the economic recession but she is positive that she will get another job that allows her to teach kids the same great lessons and values. She is positive about her abilities and she knows that her situations will get better.
Notes from the author: I have written this story as part of a project assigned at Mills College in my Sociology class which is Sociology of US Immigration. I come from a SouthEast Asian family and I believe that this project and this class has provided me with the opportunity to find out more about what immigrants go through when they first come to the United States and even after they are here. This was a valuable learning experience for me and I am grateful for it.