Just after Trump signed the first “Muslim ban,” a document began circulating online. I paused at its title: “Soviet Jewish Refugee Solidarity Sign-on Letter.” I grew up in New York City, where I went to public school; since I was a teenager many of my closest friends have been Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union. For 20 years, I’ve heard stories about selling off libraries accumulated over generations, saying goodbye to friends and relatives for what might well be the final time, spending months or years of purgatory waiting, in Western Europe or Israel, for an American visa, without a passport, without a nationality. I’ve heard about anti-Semitic slogans written on mailboxes or cried out in Soviet streets, or at jobs, or about university places deserved but denied. I struggled to imagine myself in these painful stories, out of my own comfortable, safe childhood on New York City’s Upper West Side, a place where even gentile children learn Jewish prayers by attending countless bar and bat mitzvahs. And yet I’d never quite thought of my Jewish friends from the Soviet Union as refugees. I’d met them after the hardest part was over, when their parents—many of them scientists and intellectuals stripped of their credentials by emigration—had already managed to fight their way back into the professional classes, and after their children, my friends, had already lost their accents. I had always associated the word refugee with people fleeing from bombings, famine, or outright genocide, people from impoverished, war-torn hells like contemporary Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Iraq, people trying to outrun death. But I was wrong, of course.
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