By Jessica Levtsenyuk
I remember being 8 years old and visiting my paternal grandparents at their Sacramento, California, home, with the walls covered with symbols of their Christian faith and their Bibles well kept. If the decor wasn’t a dead giveaway that religion was important, the light in my grandmother’s eyes when she thanked God for everything she had did the trick.
My young self didn’t understand the intensity of their faith at the time, but to them it was a symbol of freedom, love and home.
In 1989 my grandparents left their home in Radyvyliv, Ukraine, on a religious persecution visa. They were born into the Soviet Union so their religious practice remained a secret among the other Christians in the city.
During a secret church gathering at my grandparent’s home in Ukraine, the Soviet militia came to see what was happening. One of the church elders grabbed an officer’s coat to stop him from getting inside. The officer turned around only to see my grandfather standing nearby.
Taken into custody that night, my grandfather was on the verge of being sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting an officer and holding an illegal church service.
“My dad would get all these letters from the (government) saying he needed to come in for interviews and interrogations,” my father said.
But because he had seven children and was the sole provider for the family, he was only sentenced to three years on parole.
Once parole ended, his search for a better life continued. When the chance for him and his family to leave arose through the religious persecution visa, they called Sacramento their new home.
Separating the family
My father was in the Soviet army when his family moved to the United States, so he had to stay behind. At 20, he returned to Latvia, where he was a citizen, and found the once beautiful city of Valka had been drastically changed.
“When I came home, the government buildings were barricaded, other buildings were ruined and the parks were filled with carnations,” he said.
The carnations represented the lives of anti-Soviet Union protesters who were lost before Latvia gained freedom in 1990.
Since the country was freed from the Soviet Union, my father was able to follow his family to California. He was thrilled for the journey, until he reached New York City, where he was exposed to protesters.
“People were throwing bottles at us, yelling things and telling us to get out of the country,” my father said. “My first thought was, ‘Why would people want to come to a place like this?’”
He wasn’t sure why people were protesting the arriving immigrants, but it made him feel small.
Moving to America was a difficult adjustment, but it became easier when my father and his family learned the language, got jobs and built relationships with people in the community.
“There were a lot of kind people who helped us communicate when we weren’t sure what to say,” my father said.
Before my father moved to the United States, he attended a friend’s wedding in Ukraine, where he met, and not long after, fell in love with my mother.
The Other Side
My mother’s home in Ordzhonikidze, Ukraine, was still under the Soviet Union, but the less strict laws allowed her to travel to the United States under a visa. She arrived six months after my father, got married and gained citizenship.
My mother’s family immigrated to the United States once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Neither of my parents have been back to their home country since moving to America, so I asked them what they miss most.
“I miss the simplicity,” my mother said. “When all you have in your kitchen is a pot of soup and you’re satisfied.”
The hustle and bustle of American life was something neither had ever experienced.
“It’s hard to describe what I miss,” my father said, “You don’t always miss something because it’s better; you miss it because it’s yours.”