No 1, 28.02.2001
OUT OF THE SOVIET UNION - PART IV
There were about a hundred refugees in Hotel "World." Most of them were from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Poland. The International Rescue Committee paid for their hotel accommodations and meals. The meals were served 3 times a day in the cafeteria. In addition to free room and board, the IRC also paid 25,000 Liras a week to each refugee for day-to-day expenses. This sum of money seemed enormous to me, until I found out that a cone of ice cream in Italy costs between 1 and 3 thousand Liras. Nevertheless, I was glad to have some pocket money. My room in Hotel "World" was much smaller than the one in Hotel "Amman". It had nothing but a bed in it.
It was interesting to observe how refugees from different countries behaved and interacted with each other. The Iranian men were very noisy and boisterous. They constantly argued among themselves or exchanged jokes and then laughed at them very loudly. In contrast, people from Iraq were quiet and well-behaved. The Afghans were the least respected group among the refugees. Most Afghans were young men in their 20’s trying to escape military service in Afghanistan. Other refugees called them "mujahedins," making fun of the fact that despite being passionately patriotic the Afghans didn’t want to help their own country in the time of war. Only one of the Afghans - a good-looking young man who taught everybody how to break-dance - was very popular among other refugees. When the Afghans found out that I escaped from the USSR partly to avoid being sent to Afghanistan, they started treating me like a hero. The Polish refugees kept themselves separate from other residents of the hotel. They were proud to be "Europeans" and felt superior to the other refugees, often behaving arrogantly towards them. I was the only refugee from the USSR.
During the daytime, most residents of the hotel would usually take care of their own private matters, such as shopping, cleaning, studying English, taking sightseeing trips, etc. In the evenings there was nothing else to do but to watch musical programs or sports competitions on Italian TV. Occasionally someone would change the channel to the news. On one such evening I was watching a musical program featuring Michael Jackson, Boy George and Modern Talking when someone unexpectedly changed the channel to the news and I suddenly saw the word "Chernobyl" on the TV screen. There was a map of the Soviet Union with a huge black spot on it indicating the scope of radioactive contamination. The radioactive cloud spread for thousands of miles from its original source and some traces of it even reached Western Europe. In Italy, there were rumors that local vegetables and milk were dangerous for consumption. I was eager to fly to New York as soon as possible. I wanted to be far away from "Sovetskaya zaraza" (Soviet plague).
But what would I do in New York? How would I earn a living? This thought frequently crossed my mind not only in Rome but also in Kazan. Long before my trip to Syria and Jordan, I started paying more attention to studying English, hoping that being fluent in English would later make it easier for me to find a job in the West.
In 1984 I went to the library of Kazan University to borrow some English-language books for translation. Quite by accident I noticed a book in Russian, entitled "Radiodiversanty" (Radio Saboteurs). This was a Soviet propaganda book about Radio Liberty. I borrowed it too. One chapter of the book was devoted to the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Liberty. It mentioned someone named Garip Sultan, the Director of the Tatar-Bashkir Service. I decided to remember his name and maybe to contact him if I ever happen to be in Munich. Later, this decision turned out to be very wise.
After a couple of weeks that I spent in Hotel "World", a representative from the IRC approached me and asked me if I had any relatives or friends in the West. He said that the IRC could help me to contact them. The name of Garip Sultan suddenly came to my mind. I asked the representative if he could help me find Garip Sultan, who works for Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany. A week later I received a call from Mr. Sultan. I explained to him how I found his name and told him about the circumstances of my escape from the USSR. He seemed to be impressed both by the story of my escape and by my native, accent-free Tatar.
A couple of days later I was told that a visitor was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. A visitor? I didn’t expect any visitors and was surprised to hear the news. When I approached the front desk, I saw an elegant-looking man in his late 40’s. He was wearing a white suit and a tie and looked like a typical German.
– Salam, Sabirjan-effendi, - said the stranger in slightly accented Tatar. - My name is Ferit Agi. I am the Deputy Director of the Tatar-Service. Mr. Sultan asked me to meet with you and interview you for our radio.
He spoke Tatar with a Mishar accent. Here in Rome it seemed to be a miracle to meet another Tatar. An astute and sharp-tongued man with a habit of laughing out loudly at his own jokes, Mr. Agi seemed to be a curious hybrid of a Tatar and a Westerner. He took me out to an expensive Italian restaurant and spent a few hours preparing me for the interview. The next day the interview was recorded. After paying me 400 dollars for the interview, he asked me to fill out a job application form.
– It will take a few months for the Radio’s security department to conduct your background investigation. After that, you will probably receive a security clearance and by the time you arrive to New York, you might already have a job. Radio Liberty has an office in New York City. Our American correspondent, Mr. Enver Galim works there.
The next day Mr. Agi returned to Munich.
One day, when I came to the hotel’s cafeteria, I saw that all the seats at the tables were taken. I stood at the entrance to the dining hall, not sure what to do. Suddenly, I saw someone waving to me. One of the Iraqi refugees was inviting me to take an empty seat at his table. That’s how I got acquainted with Ibrahim and his teen-aged son Islam.
– We are from Iraq, but we are not Arabs. We are Babylonians, the most ancient Christian people on the planet, - proudly explained to me Ibrahim. He was in his 40’s, very assertive and opinionated.
His son was very quiet and shy. He kept silent, letting his father speak for both of them. Ibrahim and Islam hated Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein and his regime. The tale of their escape from Iraq was like an adventure story. Exposing their lives to mortal danger, they had crossed the border between Iraq and Turkey by foot and walked tens of miles across the high mountains, barely escaping death from starvation and avalanches. They wouldn’t have survived had they not met the Kurdish rebels who helped them to cross the mountains. When I asked Ibrahim why they decided to escape from Iraq, he said:
– We, Babylonians are a fun-loving people. We like to dance, to sing... But Muslims don’t like dancing and singing. They are very pious and hypocritical. They don’t know how to live happily and they don’t let us, Christians, live the way we want. When we come to America, we will change our Muslim names: my son’s name will be John and my new name I will choose later.
Islam, his father and I spent a lot of time together. We explored the city, took trips to the Vatican, the Coliseum and other places. Rome seemed to me like a city from a fairy tale: clean, beautiful, exotic and modern.
One Polish refugee with whom I became friendly, took me to the American church in Rome. It was an inter-denominational church attended mostly by American expatriates. I didn’t have the slightest interest in religion but was eager to practice my English with native speakers. That’s why I started attending the services on a regular basis and even took Bible classes for a few weeks.
My sojourn in Italy came to an end a month after my arrival to Rome. On one of the hot summer days in June 1986, the same mini-bus that brought me to Hotel "World" took me and a few other refugees to the airport. Before the bus left the compound of the hotel, I looked out of the window and saw the envious looks of the less lucky refugees. Some of them spent more than a year waiting for a visa, only to be told by American officials that their applications were either "still being processed" or simply denied.
The flight to New York lasted 9 hours. At the JFK airport (named after President John F. Kennedy) I was met by a representative of the IRC.
— Welcome to New York! - he said with fake enthusiasm.
He complimented my English and asked if I had relatives in America. When I said no, he was a bit surprised and told me that most refugees usually come to the US to join their relatives or family members.
We took a cab to Manhattan.
– To hotel "Aberdeen!" - he said to the taxi cab driver after helping me bring my little suitcase to the car. After a long flight I was very tired and could hardly keep my eyes open. Nevertheless, I was excited to see the skyline of Manhattan. It was exhilarating to be in New York. My dreams finally came true.