Saturday, April 7, 2012

Asylum Seeker

            You must remember that during the last two decades of the prior century, Union Square was between jobs.  It had finished its long stint as a mustering grounds for labor protests, and it had not yet begun its new life as a perennial Green Market for the One-Per centers and a watering hole for their attenuated fashion models. 
            Those flower beds that are blooming today  —see over there, for instance, where the Japanese tourists are taking pictures –so vibrant with renewal, broadcasting their glowing yellow and purple buds;  they were just dark swards with straggly weeds, littered with crushed beer cans and mysterious devices related to the after-dark activities of the park-dwellers. 
In those days, the park had plenty of benches but nowhere to sit.  This was because one couldn’t very well sit with a wino or a drug addict.  But even if there was nobody on the bench, you still didn’t want to sit with whatever it was that they left behind.   And it’s easy to recall the residents, rousing themselves from their beds behind a bush or tree to tail an unsuspecting visitor as she meandered thoughtlessly along the paths.  The stalker would just wait until their mark sat down on a bench and opened a book.  He would then approach and strike up a conversation such as:
  “Hey, what’cha readin’?  Sorry to disturb ya, but I jus’ came into the city from New Jersey this mornin’, and I was gettin’ my coffee at one of these carts, ya know, when some bastard grabbed my wallet and ran!  Ya know what I mean, I got exactly twenty cents in my pocket now, I can’t even get back on the subway, man.  You look like a nice girl.   I need the 80 cents, ya know, a measly 80 cents, can ya help me out,  please?  I really don’t feel too good, I left my medicine at home,  I feel really bad –don’t I look bad? –think I gotta go to the hospital soon…  my wife, she’s pregnant,  she’s sick too…my little babies at home are waitin’ for me, I really need to get there, ya know?...  Hey! Wait! where ya goin’?  I haven’t eaten in three days !.. 75 cents! …. 60 cents !  aw come on, can’t ya help a guy out?...    Jesus Christ,  what a bitch …”
            Pretty soon the park would morph from providing this sort of experience,  vaguely threatening and guilt-producing,  to another kind --  to provoking basic wonderment about all the good things that life has to offer : flowers, a café, clean seats, and a dog run.  We’re just not sure where the original residents went.
Just so, there was a sea-change in the life of my good friend Faith Elfenbein, who happened to work on the square and ate all her lunches in the park, carefully avoiding the less palatable corners.  On the North side of Union Square stands an impressive 15-story beaux-arts building which during this time held the offices of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS for short.  They are a Jewish organization funded by other Jewish organizations, with a venerable history of helping resettle survivors who were liberated to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe after the end of WWII.   By the Fall of 1988, my friend Faith had been working there for a couple of years, but now she was itching to leave.
            Faith was part of a group of eight recent college graduates who were hired to process refugee documents during the dawning period of Glasnost.   These innocents, not one over 25 years old, were holding B.A.s from good private colleges, where they majored in languages or history.  None of them spoke Russian;  but their boss, ten years older and a Yale graduate, spoke it excellently.   They were each given a windowed private office around the perimeter of the floor.  They were not trained to be social-workers, but their clients would often start crying in their offices.
            In the center of the office was a warren of desks for the female clerks, former citizens of the USSR.  They would sashay through the office in a miasma of fragrance, sparks seeming to fly from the effects of their tight, sequined clothing under the fluorescent lights.   Faith and her cohort depended on their services, because they interpreted and delivered fresh wire reports from the transit offices, handed cases to them, and took on the occasional emergency translation.         
            The Russian refugees were held in INS limbo at transit points in Vienna and Ladispoli, which is outside of Rome, while HIAS and the Joint Distribution Committee worked with them on their applications to the State Department.  In these documents claiming religious persecution, they were asked to detail the anti-Semitism they experienced;  they usually described how they were not admitted to University or refused a position in their field, or told painful stories about wide-ranging discrimination and being refused medical care.
[I should mention, there were Iranian refugees as well as Russian.   The Iranian Jews had harrowing stories about escaping through Pakistan, and Faith appreciated her role in their resettlement.  They also showed up in her office and complained that their carpets were seized by Customs.  The relatives often thought they needed to bribe her.  Most of Faith’s job was with the Russian cases, so let’s just ignore the Iranians for now.]

            The HIAS administrators at the transit locations were supposed to encourage immigration to Israel, but it seemed to Faith as if most of them were choosing to come here, instead.   There were government subsidies in both places.   Here, however, none of the subsidy was available if a first degree relative was a US citizen,  in which case, the entire application was thrown out.   Faith’s job was to break the unwelcome news to the relative (usually a son or daughter) that they would have to attest to providing financial support themselves, else their relative would be sent to Israel. 
            These situations were rare.  Most of the time Faith’s job, for which she earned less than 20,000 a year, meant she had to interview the local relatives in order to learn whether they could provide housing and food, while the culture-shocked immigrants took English classes and looked for work.  The first step was to meet them in person. 
            One Wednesday morning, a thirty-five year old man named Boris Levin came to see her.   His bulky long-shoreman physique took up most of the space in her office; she offered him the armchair facing her, and he settled most of himself into it.  He then leaned to his right, supporting his chin in his open hand;  his wet, redly drooping eyes, shadowy beard, uneven haircut and mismatched shirt and vest gave him a sensitive, rumpled look.  He might not have slept last night.  Faith steeled herself for the ordeal : by means of poky, intrusive and occasionally embarrassing questions, she must gauge his ability to house the refugees. 
            “Mr. Levin, I see you arrived in 1985, so how have you been doing?”
            He fell back in his chair, and folded his hands in his lap.  “Miss Elfenbein.  You must know from that folder in front of you, we had a terrible time getting the exit visas.  And then, we spent four months in Ladispoli.   It is not to be believed what we went through with the government, how hard it was, you see I am only half Jewish—but my wife, she is totally Jewish.  They really gave us a hard time.”  He looked accusingly at Faith, as if she had personally wrought the bureaucratic delay that kept them back in Italy.  He picked up some paperclips that were lying on the desk and started rubbing them together between his thumb and pointer finger.
            Faith moved on to the next question.  She inquired, “Are you working?”  Boris looked down at the paperclips in his hands, and his breathing became more labored.  Finally he looked up at her again.
            “I had some construction job for a few months, but it wasn’t steady.  The boss, he takes so much time to fight the tickets downtown, the violations you know, that we don’t get to work on the site very much.”  He started chaining the clips together.
            “What will happen when your sister Faina and her husband Arkadiy arrive in New York, with their children Tanya and Leonid?  Can they stay with you until they find an apartment?”  She tried to sit up straighter. “How big is the apartment you share with your wife on….”  she looked down at the case and leafed quickly through a few pages:  “.. West 7th Street, Brooklyn?”
            “Oh, our apartment is very small,” said Boris lugubriously, looking around her office as if he might find a floor plan on the walls somewhere that he could use to demonstrate this fact.
            “Yes, but how many bedrooms?”
            “We have two bedrooms.  I live with my wife and her mother.  It is very crowded.   We have asked for Section 8 housing for my mother-in-law, and I am hoping we get this before Faina and Arkadiy come.  My wife’s mother, she is really very sick.”  He let out a long sigh then, and the cigarette stench of his breath filled the little office.   “We are hoping HIAS will help them. “  The Russian pronunciation used four syllables instead of two, so the name came out as “he-aah-se”. 
            Boris wanted to help his sister.  But not everyone was as welcoming.  After all, in most cases it wasn’t the same thing as taking in a Holocaust survivor in 1945.  Imagine yourself in their shoes, if you were called out of the blue to put up a crowd of refugees in your home for an uncertain period of time.  If you hadn’t seen the poor schmos in ten years, but you were raised together in the communal apartment, one kitchen for five families, learned math in the same classroom, ate kasha varniskas together, married sisters – then it was a walk in the park (just not Union Square, of course).   You’d swear anything to get them into the country.   But if the applicants who named you were distant cousins who cheated you out of your birthright back in Vladivostok, or they were the sons of your Father and one of his other three wives who you never liked, well then, fugeddaboudit.
            For Boris, Faith could ask for a grant—it was to her discretion, and there was no technical background check into assets.  She made a civilized inquiry and trusted the response.  Since most of the relatives were recent immigrants themselves, they had no money and were still struggling with English.  Also, without the retaking of difficult qualifying exams, doctors and engineers could not resume their professions.  One woman, Galina, helped Faith understand the problem, when the interview began as usual with the question of employment.
            “I was a doctor in Kiev!” Galina leaned forward, gripping the edge of Faith’s desk and widening her eyes in fury.  “And now, look at me! I have to beg to be a laboratory technician.  I’m forty years old, it is much too late for me to do a residency and qualify here to be a doctor.  The test is impossible.”
            “Oh, how terrible,”  Faith vaguely commiserated, “Perhaps if you could train to be a nurse?”   This suggestion was received with the scorn it deserved, from someone who was on track to be a doctor from the age of twelve.
            “I am Phd in microbiology, you know what that is ?”
            Faith regarded her blankly.  Galina was certainly unlucky, but perhaps inclined to look on the dark side.
            “Are you preparing for the exam? “  Faith innocently inquired of someone else, an engineer.
             The man looked at her pityingly.  “You cannot imagine this kind of exam, what it is, the questions are harder than they are for Americans.  They are purposely making the test harder for us.”  Faith was sympathetic.  It seemed possible that a test for foreigners would be made so that only the most brilliant would pass and be entitled to pick up their lives where they left off, like a kind of ‘no-compete’ clause attached to their entry visas.
            There were some terrible, fatal delays, sometimes due to simple bureaucratic lethargy, the papers not being pushed fast enough.  Faith received wires about people becoming gravely ill, reports about the deaths of people in their 70’s or 80’s who, after waiting 20 years for exit visas, were now unable to go any further than Europe.
            In the beginning, as a trickle of families seeped out of the USSR, this long-awaited release of refuseniks was universally  greeted with cheers.  Many of them were academics and famous activists, and Faith relished reviewing their case files which often held copies of articles and pleas for their liberty from famous people.  But by 1988 the sheer volume of asylum applications had so encumbered the agency that you could say it changed the tenor of refugee status. 
            What might have been heard in the beginning as a touchingly sensitive piece of klezmer (by Sakharov and Sharansky) enjoining the West to recognize their right to worship god and Torah as generations before them had practiced their religion, now sounded more like a cacophony of Slavic pop songs, each vying for Nationalistic attention and Section 8 housing.
            As Boris pointed out, occasionally a case was held up when the petitioner could not provide enough supporting documents – birth certificates, USSR ID cards that stated “Jewish”--  to the Joint Distribution Committee.   When this happened, the relatives felt free to tell her, “Miss Elfenbein, you are a Nazi!”   The Georgians cajoled, the Ukrainians disputed, the Latvians complained, and the White Russians asserted that they were in fact, one-eighth Jewish.  “If it’s good enough to keep us out of the University, it should be good enough for you!” 
            The floodgates had opened, and a deluge washed over New York City, running downstream to Brighton Beach. 
            Faith got to know some of the lawyers at HIAS.  One of these, Jane, was often going to court to plead a complicated immigration case.  One day Faith went to ask her a question about citizenship, and found her packing her briefcase.
            “Who are you defending today?” Faith asked, expecting to hear a matter concerning an indigent, famous Russian applicant.
            “A Cambodian who came here illegally.  The Khmer Rouge killed his family.  I think we’ll get him refugee status.”
            Faith didn’t know much about Cambodians, but she understood that the NGO had a minority of non-Jewish cases that it was required to take, because it received federal funds.  “How many Cambodians does HIAS take on in a year?”
            “We had five this year”  Jane replied.   This was compared to thousands of Russian cases.
            “Can you explain to me what the preference is for Russians ?” Faith asked.  “Most of the people I see here are not especially religious, they just chose to come here rather than Israel because they want to make a buck and they still want to belong to a ‘Super Power’. “
            “It’s the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, it’s a type of trading sanction.”   Jane looked around her desk, moved a few piles of paper around, and handed Faith a journal with the heading, “UNHCR Report”.    She said, “This explains about the Cambodians.  See you later!” and hurried out the door.
            Faith took it back to her desk and read it from cover to cover.  It was published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  The cover story was about the genocide in Cambodia -- %21 of the population was killed between 1975 and 1979 --  and 100,000 people were still being held in camps in Thailand.
            Faith began to see the whole refugee-visa operation as a political maneuver by the United States.  The religious-persecution refugees she was processing were economic migrants.  Not all, but most.  They wanted to play the game of Capitalism for the high stakes;  they knew it would be harder to become rich in Israel, and it was certainly more dangerous to live there.  She fully believed that they deserved the freedom to emigrate—they even might deserve to come to the US—but she couldn’t see how her work could qualify as a humanitarian mission.
            Her father, an engineer, showed her some Assembler code which he used to program hardware.  She could follow the explanation;  she understood how the registers worked,  how a byte contained bits.  Based on this, he urged her to learn a computer language.  So she enrolled for Cobol classes at night at the City College that was up the street from HIAS.  She had to matriculate as if she were studying for another bachelor’s degree, even though she already had one from Barnard.
            She met Denise Gonzales in one of these classes.   Denise was already a programmer at a Brokerage firm.  She said she was taking the class because she already knew the subject.  This was a new concept for Faith, who thought education was for expanding her mind and not for confirming things she already knew.
            Denise showed Faith her left hand, on which sparkled the biggest diamond ring Faith had ever seen.  Denise had a new boyfriend, a broker, but there was some problem with his ex.
            “What do you know about Small Claims court?” she asked Faith.  “His fiancée is suing me for this ring,” Denise seemed a little defiant.  Faith had no experience in legal matters.  This engagement ring must have been returned-- surely it wasn't stolen ?  She was too shy to ask about it.  
               Then Denise revealed a core issue troubling her. “He’s Jewish.  do you think he’ll marry me? “   Faith hesitated to give an opinion.  She regarded Denise as incredibly lucky to be six inches taller than herself, to have long legs, an ivory complexion, a fine straight nose, and large violet eyes behind big-framed glasses.  Faith was exhilarated to meet such a beauty—but how much luck should one person have?  How fair was that in the overall scheme of things?   It disheartened her to think that yet another Jewish man would not be available to her.  “Sometimes they do” was the best she could offer, although this boyfriend’s history was a negative indicator.
            Denise gave Faith the key to her economic future.  “I was a secretary at Merrill Lynch,”  she told Faith.  “They gave me a test and that’s how I became a programmer.  See if you can get one at a bank, I know they have programs in other places.  I’m making twenty-six thousand, and they’re paying for my bachelor’s degree.”  In gratitude, Faith showed Denise how to make a flowchart to solve logical problems.  She then spent a few days at the library researching banks in New York, got the addresses for technical recruiters, and sent out thirty letters inquiring about whether a novice such as herself could be accepted into their technology training program.  One of them sent her an invitation to take the exam.
            One month later, there she was, cooling her heels in the HR waiting room on the fourteenth floor of the American Trust Bank.  Faith had been finger-printed and urine-tested, she had been photographed and presented with a badge.  It wasn’t such a bad picture, either, since her hair wasn’t flying off at odd angles and her nose didn’t look too bulbous.   She couldn’t have been happier.
            She was sitting leafing through the  Annual Report and admiring its production values, when her new boss walked in.  “Are you Faith, our new Programmer-Librarian?” asked the diminutive, curvy blonde with a wide, sunny smile.  “I’m Diane, the project leader for BAI.  Are they all done with you here ?”
            “Yes, they’ve finished” said Faith, pulling out her badge to show she had received the official passport.  She was measuring Diane and thought she might be just a tad less than five feet tall without her heels.
            “Shall we go?  Can I carry something? ” asked Diane.  Faith was briefly juggling her accessories – a bulky attaché case in her left hand, and a plastic bag full of her sneakers in the other.  Her stepmother had recommended the attaché as part of her Dress for Success regimen, but the case would have been empty without the Annual Report she had just shoved into it.
            “No, I can manage.” she told Diane, and followed her out of HR.  Stomping along behind Diane’s practiced, dainty walk, Faith reflected that her own shiny synthetic suit from Macy’s couldn’t compete with the tailoring in front of her, a suit which must have come from Brooks Brothers.
            They whisked their cards through the turnstiles and boarded an elevator headed for the fourteenth floor.   She studied her face reflected in the elevator doors, and exulted over her arrival in Corporate America.   After her exhausted, striving campaign to get this job, she had high expectations.  It must first of all compensate her for having exchanged a life of and meaningful, socially productive activity for the soulless business world.