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Coming To America: Ukrainian Mother Finds A New Beginning

Ukrainian immigrant Yelena Goltsman (right) with her partner Barbara in New York.
Ukrainian immigrant Yelena Goltsman (right) with her partner Barbara in New York.
The time seems ripe for immigration reform in the United States, with debate centering on how to deal with the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Reform has become a priority following the November presidential election, in part because both the Democratic and Republican parties see the potential for future votes. The majority of illegals living in the U.S. are Latin Americans, a voting bloc that has the potential to swing elections. But there are smaller groupings of undocumented immigrants as well, including some 50,000 from the former Soviet Union.

"Earned citizenship," border protection, and finding ways to attract low-skilled workers to take the legal route to immigration are among the details being ironed out -- and decision-time is nearing. April is seen as a key month for the reforms, with different legislation proposals in the works, and there is optimism that a deal could be agreed to by summer.

As the issue heats up, RFE/RL spoke with three immigrants about their experiences in "Coming To America."

Read Part 1: A Bosnian Story

Read Part 2: Illegal In The Big Apple

NEW YORK -- Just before the fall of the Soviet Union, Yelena Goltsman made the decision to uproot her family from their beloved Ukraine and emigrate to the United States. Life in her native Kyiv was all the young mother knew, but there were simply too many reasons not to stay.

"It's not an easy thing to do, to just get up and leave, but the reasons for us [were] many,” she said. “One of them is that, as Jews, we always felt that we are not the same. Officially [the] government said that you're equal, but in fact we knew that it was not so. So it was definitely – economically -- it was difficult for us. But more importantly, you knew that you didn't have prospects. You knew that you were second-class citizens forever and your children were second-class citizens forever. There's nothing you could do."

The family of five's immigration route wound through Austria and Italy en route to America. In Italy, they shared a two-room apartment with another family of six. Yelena worked at a car wash for $20 a day, and her husband worked in a kitchen. "We had jobs. We were very happy. At least we had food. But it was a constant struggle to feed our children," Yelena says.

Finally, in February of 1990, they arrived in America, where they first slept on the floor of a friend's two-room apartment. Yelena, who identifies herself as Russian as well as Ukrainian, reached out to groups helping Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union settle in New York.

"When we left the Soviet Union they allowed us to take $90 per person with us,” Yelena says. “So we had $450 and we thought, 'We're very rich people.' But when you turn around and need an apartment in New York you understand that it's nothing. You can't really rent an apartment for this kind of money."

‘Humiliating’ Experience

Yelena found a job at a laundromat, where she was paid $3.50 an hour. Although the family was living hand-to-mouth, she was grateful to be working. But her inability to speak English fluently made life difficult.

"I really wanted to practice my limited English,” she says. “I knew a couple of words, enough to say a few things. But the owner of the laundromat was not letting me speak to customers. He was embarrassed, and he was afraid that he was going to lose customers because of my English. It was very humiliating for me to live through that."

Yelena knew she had to make a change, for the sake of her children's future. She had a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Ukraine, but says it was useless in the United States. So Yelena enrolled part-time in college to learn computer programming, working extra hours at the laundromat to pay for her education. Along the way, she learned English. She graduated close to the top of her class, and was hired for a programming job only 14 months after immigrating.

According to Goltsman, the learning curve at her new job was steep -- but learning how to interact with other Americans was an even bigger challenge.

"When I finally got a job I was invited to lunch,” she says. “I was terrified. I was terrified. I was completely terrified. I didn't know what I was going to do, how I was going to order it, what it meant. It's a simple task, but if you're completely new, you have no view on it."


After years of struggling to set her family on the right path, Yelena realized that she was neglecting an important part of her own journey -- accepting her own sexual orientation.

"Obviously in the Soviet Union there was no expression of it, it was not possible,” she says. “But when I started living here and seeing other people expressing themselves openly, I said to myself, 'Well I'm a brave enough woman. What is up with me?' But it is very scary, especially when you have a husband who loves you, who didn't do anything wrong, just happened to marry a lesbian woman without his knowledge -- without my knowledge as a matter of fact, at the time."

Yelena eventually found the strength to come out to her family. Years later, she met her partner. They married on August 14, 2011 less than two months after the state of New York legalized gay marriage.

Yelena says that even after more than two decades in the U.S., her experience as an American is still evolving.

"An immigrant is no longer Russian, but never fully American,” she says. “So you feel yourself on this continuum -- and different people feel at different ends on the continuum. I feel much more American now than probably Russian, but still never will be 100 percent American."

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