When thinking about my first post on this blog, I wanted to write about something that defines me. My grandmother passed away recently and it had me thinking a lot about my family and where I come from. My grandparents raised my father to be be his own person, and he raised me the same. My independence and my need to challenge ideas and norms define me, and I get those, in part, from being a refugee.
My parents grew up in what is now known as Slovakia, and what was then part of the Soviet Union. In a small town (really, a city in their terms, but small town to me), my parents met through friends. My mom played basketball for the city and was able to travel and see other parts of Europe, while my dad yearned for a way to break out of the communist regime and see what else the world had to offer.
In Spring 1986, when the Chernobyl accident happened, my mom got pregnant with me (I know, it's ironic that I’m a nuclear engineer). Discussing the possibilities for a while, my mom and dad decided to leave the country. They packed nothing, didn’t tell anyone, and left in car with money hidden in the tire. They safely crossed the border, using a fake alibi, and eventually settled in a refugee camp in Austria. My dad got a job doing manual labor and I was born soon after.
While slightly different back then, the refugee system was still essentially the same. You worked and you waited your turn. You lived in a house with other families and you didn’t contact your family back home - in fear that they would get questioned and threatened by the authorities.
Speaking of fear, can you imagine escaping a country? Facing the risk of being arrested and not know what will find you on the other side? And while pregnant? Leaving was not an easy decision and took bravery to execute. However, you can’t change your circumstances without risk and the ability to take action.
And the family you left behind, they’re worried and afraid, and I can still sense some resentment in my family for us leaving. My grandparents came to visit us secretly in the refugee camp after I was born. My grandma jokes (jokes now) that my mom was afraid that they would take me away, back to Slovakia.
After two years in Austria, my parents and I finally got our chance to start a new life. We were sent to Boston and the US refugee program set us up with an apartment and a job for my Dad. We started learning English and integrating into society. Once we could live on our own, we moved to Florida to be closer to some distant family, and for the weather.
I started school in Miami and had to be in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program until I caught up to my American classmates. My two younger sisters were born in Miami and my parents then applied for citizenship. After a few years in the US as contributing members of society, we became citizens.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union broke up and Slovakia gained back its independence. It joined the EU and is now a fully integrated member with a stable economy. Things are much better than they used to be and my cousins live good lives, working around Europe.
I probably would have ended up with a great life if we hadn’t left Slovakia, but I don’t think that I would be the same person. My adaptability, curious mind, need for adventure, and sense of entrepreneurship come from my unique upbringing in a different country. I feel the need to do great things because my parents took great risks to make sure that I grew up in a country of opportunities.
While America may not seem like the utopia it used to, it is still the easiest place to start a business, make something of yourself, and be who you want to be. America is a land of immigrants and that’s what makes it so unique and successful. It takes risks from both sides, from the immigrants and from the host country, but the risks are worth it because the nation and people are richer, in culture, life, and wealth, in the end.
I’m living back in Austria now and feel like I’m reliving my parents' escape. People are trying to seek better lives, only to encounter closed doors and racial discrimination. Back then, people didn’t want the communist refugees and my friends still joke that I’m a spy.
I am an entrepreneur, I work for the United Nations, my family is from Slovakia, I’m American, and I am a refugee.
This post is dedicated to my grandma,
"Babička" Mária Kollárová
May she rest in peace.