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01/18/2019 01:51:23 PM


Yana Kane-Esrig

This November, my parents, Ada and Gene Kane, and I celebrated the 40th anniversary of our emigration from the Soviet Union. This is a significant moment for me, a time to contemplate this event, all that led up to it and all that followed.

I know how hard it was for my family to break through all the barriers that stood between us and the moment on a gray November day in 1978, when I watched the gap grow wider and wider between the frozen earth and the wheels of the airplane that was taking off, carrying us away from our previous life into a new, unknown one. We took an enormous risk by revealing our desire to emigrate. We were fortunate that we got the permission to leave the country and did not become the persecuted refusniks. But doing so meant that we were leaving behind much that we loved. Because the Soviet Union was a closed society, we did not expect to be able to see again the friends and relatives who stayed. We did not even know for sure that my grandparents would get permission to emigrate and would be reunited with us.

Today, I read about the migrants fleeing their homelands, and my heart goes out to them. How much harder must it be to leave when you have to walk hundreds of miles through hardship and danger; carrying your children, assisting your elders along the way, or leaving them behind. How much more desperate the circumstances must be to set families in motion on such a trek.

After getting out of the Soviet Union, we landed in Vienna, Austria. We had no money because we had not been allowed to take with us either cash or valuables. We were not familiar with the day to day life in a Western society. We had no clue how to go through the process of applying for asylum. Our only documents were our exit visas. We were stateless refugees.

Fortunately, we were not left to flounder. We were immediately taken under the wing of a benevolent and competent organization. We were met by representatives of HIAS. I feel a deep and abiding gratitude to them, and to everyone who contributed to the creation and support of this organization. The representatives of HIAS guided us through the process of applying for the entrance to the Unites States. They took care of us in terms of finances and logistics while we were waiting for our applications to be reviewed. They also gave us the great gift of treating us respectfully, of talking to us as human beings. This was in contrast with all the customary humiliations of life in the Soviet Union, where there was a popular saying: “Without a little piece of paper (some official document certifying your right to exist, granting you access to some basic necessity) you are a small insect, with a little piece of paper you are a human being”. (Без бумажки ты - букашка, а с бумажкой - человек).

It took me many years to dismantle the barrier of feeling deep inside that I am “a small insect without a little piece of paper”, that I need something external (a constantly growing list of accomplishments, for example) to certify my admission into the category of human beings. I still sometimes fall into that sensation of being a “small insect without a paper”. But HIAS was the first organization that I had encountered that did not see me this way. It mattered greatly to me then, and it matters to me still.

Later, HIAS shepherded all four of my grandparents through the same process, and delivered them to us in New York City, safe and sound. How can I possibly thank enough the people who did that?

In addition to my profound gratitude for its role in the fate of my own family, I am thankful to HIAS for extending the same wing of protection and assistance towards other refugees who are coming to the United States today, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. I am grateful that it is still asserting through action that a human being is never a “small insect”.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780