Pursuing Better Opportunities in America

by Mikayla Kim, Staff Writer

Some people come from places of oppression. Some people seek a better life. Some people yearn for the supposedly endless opportunities that the United States seems to offer. Although these immigrants are leaving their home countries and sometimes leaving their families behind, their new lives in America prove to be full of opportunities that were not available in their home country. However, the transition from a foreign country to the United States is not always as glorious as it appears to be. 

Mark Lipsits and Karlene Messuti both left their home countries of the Soviet Union and Brazil respectively, following their families for new opportunities in the United States. 

Mark Lipsits lived in the Soviet Union before coming to the United States at the age of 15. His hometown in the now disbanded Soviet Union is in present-day Azerbaijan, which is south of Russia. 

In Soviet Union society, identification to a certain nationality proved to be vital, so living in the Soviet Union as a person of Jewish descent proved to be a struggle for Mark and his family. 

“So, the interesting thing about the Soviet Union in places like universities, and jobs, and other places there, there are certain quotas for certain people of certain nationalities. It was much more difficult if you weren’t either a Russian or if you didn’t represent the republic where you were,” Mark said. 

It was easier for people of a certain nationality to get a job or enroll in a university if they were of the nationality where they currently resided. So, the competition for a job or a spot in a university was tougher for a person of Jewish descent. In turn, Mark’s family had to work a lot harder than the average person in the Soviet Union to get to where they were. Moreover, in general, Jewish people faced particular discriminatory policies produced by the state and prejudice from other members of society. 

Mark and his family first applied for refugee visas and were prepared to leave the Soviet Union when he was seven. However, the permission for them to leave got revoked and they had to live out of suitcases in a practically empty apartment for eight years, until they were allowed to finally leave the Soviet Union. For those eight years, Mark and his family were labeled as otkazniks, a term associated with people like them, who got their permission taken away to leave the Soviet Union. From this, Mark’s parents lost their jobs and Mark and his brother transferred schools, but they were still allowed to attend school.

“My father was at that time a Ph.D. in geological sciences, and he couldn’t work in his field anymore. So, he went out and became a photographer. My mom, who taught chemistry, couldn’t teach chemistry. So, she had to go back and find some random job as an elevator inspector,” Mark said. 

In that period of time, Mark started learning a little bit of rudimentary English but his English was very basic and he was not fully able to maintain a conversation with someone fluent in English. However, when he arrived in America, it was summertime, so Mark took ESL classes and watched many sitcoms to make him more comfortable with English. Despite this, it took a little longer for him to learn and completely understand the cultural references and traditions of the United States. 

When his family was finally allowed to come to the United States when he was fifteen, he moved to a community in Baltimore, Maryland. In Baltimore, Mark was treated as “different” and in different ways, people indirectly treated Mark as inferior due to his status as an immigrant. Even without knowing who he is or what his background was, his fellow classmates projected their derogatory opinion of Mark, projecting that he was feeble-minded and unintelligent because he could not speak English perfectly. 

However, with the pretty open Jewish community in Baltimore, Mark felt more comfortable embracing his Jewish heritage. For him, taking off of work for specific Jewish holidays was not normal in the Soviet Union, so it came as a surprise to him when it was the norm for Jewish people in Baltimore to take off work for Jewish holidays like Passover or Yom Kippur. Moreover, there were a few Jewish families that moved to Baltimore from the Soviet Union at the same time Mark and his family immigrated, so it made him more comfortable in his new environment in a completely different country.  

“And so there were a few kids in high school that were in, sort of similar situation to mine. So we were like a group of kids that kind of supported each other,” Mark said. 

The Soviet Union was a toxic and oppressive place for Mark, as it was a particularly anti-Semitic environment. So, Mark’s number one goal when moving out of the Soviet Union and to America, for better or for worse, was to lose his accent, learn English well, and try to blend in with the non-immigrant Americans as well as possible. 

Even now, Mark struggles to stay connected to the Soviet Union and maintain his old Azerbaijani identity. This is because he did face anti-Semitism when living in the Soviet Union and tried very hard to blend in when first immigrating to America. Nonetheless, he still celebrates an important holiday in the Soviet Union, which is the end of the Great Patriotic War, better known as World War II. This holiday is a big occasion in the Soviet Union and specifically Mark because three of his grandparents fought in this war. In addition, Mark still reads Russian books and keeps up with the news regarding countries in the old Soviet Union 

Karlene Messuti is a Brazilian native that grew up in a small town called Mojuba in northern Brazil. She later moved from the small town of Mojuba to the big city of Sao Paulo in the southeastern region of Brazil. Eventually from there, at the age of 32, she took a leap of faith: she followed her husband’s new job opportunity with a cell phone company named Nokia and moved to America. 

Along with her husband and her 2-month-old daughter, Karlene came to the United States through her husband’s work visa. Moving to the United States proved to be a beneficial sacrifice. She left her friends and entire family back home in Sao Paulo and had to manage taking care of a 2-month-old daughter without any extra support.

Although the only real reason behind her immigration was supporting her husband’s job, she later realized the numerous opportunities the United States offered to her family that she would not be able to receive if she lived back in Brazil. 

One of the main benefits of living in the United States was the level of security that the United States provided. Unlike Brazil, Karlene and her family could live without fear of being attacked or robbed. Back in Brazil, people fear getting robbed or being held at gunpoint for their valuables.”You can’t leave your door open in Brazil because people come inside, but it depends where you live. It didn’t happen to me but it happened to a friend. People went inside the house and took money and waved guns at their heads,” Karlene said. 

Moreover, many more educational opportunities were available for her daughter in America. As her daughter would grow up, she would be exposed to the English language at an earlier age. Her daughter would learn English as her first language, unlike Karlene, who knew only a little bit of English when coming to America. 

Karlene felt pretty comfortable in her new community in Miami, Florida, as a result of the high percentage of Latinos there, and she was able to communicate with some of the people in her community by speaking her native language, Portuguese. This helped Karlene adjust to her life in America while not feeling like an outsider, and helped her feel more at home. 

However, with only a limited knowledge of English from a private tutor back in Brazil provided by her husband’s company, Karlene avoided interacting with people in America. This was because she felt that people would judge her limited knowledge of English.

“There are people that look at you and say, ‘what is this lady talking about?’ because they don’t understand you or they don’t make an effort to understand you,” Karlene said. 

The language barrier proved to be a larger challenge after she moved to California after four years in Miami. California consisted of many people that did not speak her native language and mostly English.

In addition to learning English to communicate with people, Karlene also had to assimilate with and get used to American customs and culture. For instance, Karlene remembers the difference between going to the doctor’s office in Brazil and going to the doctor’s office in the United States. In Brazil, when Karlene went to the doctor’s office for her daughter, Karlene and the doctor had an in-depth conversation about the current medical condition of her daughter and what was wrong with her if there was anything. The doctor would answer all of her questions and then move on to inspect her daughter. On the other hand, when Karlene was at a doctor’s appointment for her daughter in the United States, the nurses did most of the job that the doctors in Brazil did, and the doctor only came in to check the papers and what the nurses wrote down. For Karlene, small things like this were strange for her and took some time to get used to. 

Nonetheless, Karlene still keeps her Brazilian heritage close to her, as she eats a lot of Brazilian food with her family and both of her children speak both Portuguese and English. 

Both Karlene and Mark faced challenges when they first came to the United States as immigrants. However, as time passed, they built new lives for themselves with the numerous opportunities the United States offered that their home countries did not.