Reprinted from HIAS
Irina K. vividly remembers the struggles of her first year in America as a Ukrainian refugee and young mother. Today, nearly 25 years later, these memories continue to drive her work with refugees arriving in the United States from across the globe.
“My experiences as a refugee—learning English, developing survival skills, adapting to a new culture after overcoming culture shock—help me relate to and connect with the people I work with today,” Irina explains.
Born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine during the height of Soviet rule, Irina became a victim of state-sponsored anti-Semitism when she was prohibited from pursuing higher education because she was Jewish. Instead she went to Siberia to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. She returned to Kiev to start her career and family in the early 1980s.
Then, in April 1986, six months after her son’s birth, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in Ukraine turned her world upside down. Eager to flee the oppression and devastation in her homeland, Irina and her family packed everything they owned to head to America.
After four months in transit and living in a refugee camp, 27-year-old Irina, her husband, and their four-year-old son arrived in Baltimore, Maryland. The young family was among the 450,000 Soviet refugees HIAS has helped to resettle in the second half of the last century.
“The first year was the hardest. I was put on a rigorous schedule of practicing English,” Irina recalls.
But after overcoming the language barrier, Irina began to reach for her higher goals. She got a job as a draftsman and started taking college classes. Then she and her husband started a small business, which took off and enabled them to sponsor and bring over their elderly parents.
At the same time, Irina started working part-time assisting people in need. She enjoyed it so much she moved to a full-time position as a service coordinator for refugees and took a second part-time job teaching English as a second language to new immigrants.
Once a beneficiary of HIAS’ help, Irina’s story had come full circle. Today, at JCS Baltimore, Irina is a part of HIAS’ national network of affiliate organizations helping new refugees fleeing persecution and oppression to acculturate to a new life of safety and freedom in the US.
“I work with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom are elderly widows and Holocaust survivors,” Irina explains. “I help facilitate various case management services, including translation, referrals, assessments for personal care, and financial assistance.”
Irina is particularly sympathetic to the issues of women immigrants. “I feel that I have a lot of things in common with the women I work with, such as challenges with housing, health, and employment. Just as I once did, they are looking for organizations where they can take English classes and socialize with others sharing their experiences.”
On a personal note, Irina adds, “My Jewish background helps motivate me and the work I do. I feel fortunate that I’m in the position to help Holocaust survivors and others in need.”