The Stories of Immigrants Project began as a way for employees at World Education Services (WES) to become more involved with the company’s mission and learn more about the immigrants and refugees who we work to support every day. Over the course of a year, the project blossomed into something more meaningful than we could have ever imagined, touching the lives of hundreds who participated.
Below, read excerpts from our wonderful interview with Alissa. Or, you can watch the video now!
WES: Tell us a little bit of your life before moving here. How did you decide to move to the United States?
Alissa: I’ve been living here on and off since I’ve been 10 years old. My mom was the first one to come here for university. And then my little brother joined a year later. And then I joined a couple of years after that.
My family has been coming to U.S. since I was a baby. My uncle was the first one to come to U.S. on the international student exchange program. He was the first one in my family who ever lived outside of what was then Soviet Union and got to experience living in the West. [Then,] my father had a very coveted job working for a company that did business with international companies. So, he got to experience traveling outside of Soviet Union.
These two combined experiences propelled the family’s decision to eventually move outside of the Soviet Union, and what was then becoming the Russian Federation.
[In the] early ’90s, it was a very dangerous time in Russia. It was worse than the Soviet Union. There was no access to any basic care. My dad was telling me stories of how him and my mom would keep me alive and had to stand in lines for baby soap for hours. And when I was growing up, I remember my grandmother making my clothes and us making chocolates and sweets at home because you couldn’t buy them.
WES: How is your life in the United States? Did you face any challenges? If so, how did you overcome them?
Alissa: My first memory of U.S. is Las Vegas. That was the first city that I came into. It was just an overabundance of everything. We came in the middle of December: lights, food, and it was also warm. Las Vegas is this magical city with hotels that look like castles. It felt like fairyland.
I also very clearly remember not knowing the language and trying to make friends by saying hello to them in Russian. And them replying to me with the two words that I knew in English—“yes” and “no”.
I would run back into the house and say to my mother that, “I just made a friend by interacting with them. […] We didn’t understand each other.”
But the fact that somebody was there, and I could even interpret, as a child, that they were saying hello to me. This was just imprinted on me as a first memory coming here.
My name has also caused me a lot of issues. My name was spelled differently on my Social Security [card] from my green card. I couldn’t get a state ID for the longest time, so it prevented me from getting my driver’s license and to travel. It took me a while to find the time and also to figure out everything that I needed to do and to commit to the process.
WES: Can you share any examples that highlight your experience of living in the United States?
Alissa: After living in Russia and having had the experience of living on both continents, I still felt like U.S. was a more opportune place. I felt like people were very friendly and very welcoming. So, I always had that image of the environment being safe and friendly. And I still feel like that today.
I experience it everyday living in Queens, which is very, very diverse. With my neighbors and the people that I interact with, I love knowing and learning about their backgrounds and where they come from. It always amazes me how they end up in New York, but also how much they love being here because of the diversity.
It’s been more than 10 years that I’ve been living in New York, I still feel like the city has been changing so much that it doesn’t feel like a permanent place, it feels like I’m constantly discovering it.
WES: What do you want to say to other immigrants who are considering this journey? Do you have any advice for them?
Alissa: In hindsight, I wish I had somebody who told me, “You don’t have to go with the people that look like or had [a similar experience to you].” There are all the things that you need to consider when making the decisions that are not impacted by your experience. These are just things that they need to think about to live in your life.
On the one hand, it’s great that you can rely on the community that you’re close to and where you come from, but at the same time I would encourage [newcomers] to venture out and try to find your own way, find your own doctors and tax accountants. It took me much longer to realize that I need to start trusting my instincts for what makes me feel comfortable, who do I believe and trust, and be more critical of who do I work with, rather than solely relying on my contacts.
But I would tell immigrants not to stress out. You will get to know the people. The place will teach you very quickly about things that you need to know to navigate the city. There are a lot of great resources here; it’s just a matter of figuring out who to trust and who can help you navigate those resources.
Also, your first experience doesn’t define how you live your life here. You have to be confident in the path you want to pursue and not to have that first experience be your lasting impression. You have all the tools and there are a lot of great communities that will help you out, but you also have to believe in yourself and your own decisions about your life.
Are you currently planning your own immigration journey?