Refusenik

Chava Boroda now lives in Los Angeles. However, her family was among thousands of people from the USSR, whose story of moving to the United States as political refugees is inspiring. Chava’s family was among those “Refuseniks” who proved to the world how willpower can triumph over even the strictest regime in the world.

The world has slowly forgotten emotional and powerful stories of “Refuseniks”. In the seventies and eighties large numbers of brave people marched next to the foreign embassies located in the Soviet Union with a request to receive a permission to emigrate. Most of these citizens were issued refusal/denial from the Brezhnev Government, hence receiving a status known as “Refusenik” (from the Russian word meaning refusal).

Chava came from a highly educated family with longstanding ties in various areas of education and science. Her grandmother spoke Yiddish and worked at the Yiddish school in the town of Birobidzhan, located in the administrative centre of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Russia. Birobidzhan still remains a unique place, which has state-run schools that teach Yiddish.

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Her parents were hard-working people with their souls filled with optimism for the future and their upcoming journeys. Upon finally emigrating from the USSR to the United States, the family left many unique memories behind. Memories of struggle and striving – for making their lives remarkable and enlightening for other people. Chava remembers how her father tried to set up a theatre in their own home for encouraging Jewish families to practice art, music and other forms of creativity in times when freedom of speech had been severely oppressed by the Soviet regime.

Even though the USSR inspired high volumes of debate among Western scholars, Russian dissidents and even the general public, the attention paid to “Refuseniks” significantly dropped down as the Soviet Union ceased to exist. However, personal stories such as the one of Chava is a reminder to us of how power of will amidst fear of the System can overcome even the most challenging obstacles. Especially the younger generation of Jews and non-Jews should be taught about the Refusenik legacy; about the inspiration and courage that “Refuseniks” showed and leave as legacy for fighters against oppression worldwide.

The process of emigration and Refusenik hardships began when they approached the Embassy in Kiev for exit permission. Chava was only five years old but her family always taught her to never forget that feeling of frustration at being captive – people not getting where they want to be, when they want to be there. That day, Chava’s family was among those people frantically ensuring that they would receive a permit, however the line got closed right in from of them. Her family spent nine long years waiting for an exit visa. Nine years, which resulted in pushing little Chava up against the terrible anti-Semitism that had manifested many angles of Soviet life. At school, pupils often teased her and called her “zhidovka”, which was used as an insulting word for Jews.

A very large number of Refuseniks faced terrible government oppression, such as being expelled from universities, physically insulted and jailed on fabricated charges; most of them lost their jobs and had to even forcibly relocate to labour camps.

Upon arrival in the United States, Chava met people from various religious and ethnic communities, who had also made their ways to the country through emigration. She learned that freedom is of utmost importance for every human being regardless of their heritage. While remaining a devout Jewish woman, she has formed friendships and cooperation with non-Jews.

Most importantly, being a “Refusenik” has shaped Chava’s personality with a firm belief that discrimination has no race, religion or language. And those who have experienced hardships for their cultural identity have a greater mission to accomplish, which means standing up for others.

While the “Refuseniks” can be referred to as a “Jewish renaissance flourishing like mushrooms in Soviet darkness” – their legacy deserves more attention and inclusion in educational syllabi, both in the West and in Russia.

Chava Boroda fled from the USSR with her family when she was 14 years old and settled down in Los Angeles, USA. She graduated from the Yeshiva University High School in Los Angeles. After graduation from high school, Chava enrolled in Santa Monica College and later transferred to UCLA to study social work. Today she works with various Jewish and non-Jewish communities on raising awareness about antisemitism, tolerance, and the importance of inter-faith/inter-ethnic dialogue.

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