By Jason Harward, Medill, Immigrant Connect
The salon was sometimes busy, but business is slower than usual on this weekday afternoon near the end of summer. When it was busy, I remember hating the wait. Unlike my doctor or dentist appointments, I can’t locate a Sports Illustrated in the magazine pile. There are only gossip magazines.
It’s my turn, and Evalon calls me over. I always look forward to seeing her for the candy and the head massage she gives when she washes my hair. She’s a bright and bubbly middle-aged woman whom I’ve known since before I can remember. She rents a chair in a salon walking distance from my house in Los Angeles and cuts the hair of every male in my extended family.
I stare at myself in the mirror, head bent slightly forward as the back of my head is being trimmed. Under the mirror is an assortment of hair dyes, each with its own picture of the same model showing off increasingly ridiculous hair colors.
Snip, snip, snip.
I half-jokingly ask if I might look good with streaks of neon green in my hair.
“No, no, no, you have very nice hair. Don’t ruin it, it’s not too common in America,” she says in her thick Slavic accent, still recognizable after almost three decades in the United States.
She reminds me that most people who want to get their hair colored want to be my color, not the other way around. She makes a show of pulling her hair up and tells me she’s never had it colored. It’s more of a dirty blonde, and she tells me it’ll happen to me, too.
Snip, snip, snip.
“Your hair reminds me of where I’m from,” she continues. “Everyone’s blonde.”
I’m 13 years old and have just returned from summer camp. My usual blonde hair entered into the bleach-blonde category after eight weeks in the sun. The intense color reminds her of the norm back home in what’s today known as Ukraine.
In 1987, when she came to the United States as a refugee, it was still part of the Soviet Union.
My mother’s side of the family is originally from the area of Belarus and Russia, but they made the trip to the United States in the early-20th century before the Soviet Union came into existence. One reason my family left behind their Slavic roots was to escape a bleak future in the mainly agrarian economy and give the next generation greater opportunities. Evalon tells me this was the reason she left the Soviet Union and moved to Los Angeles with her husband and their two children.
That’s not where our histories end in their similarity. Although the passing of time can change so much about the human experience, the things that connect my story to Evalon’s are universal. The migrations themselves were incredibly different––they took place eight decades apart, one was by boat and one was by airplane. But, they were connected by the longstanding reputation of America as the land of opportunity as well as the more sinister anti-semitism faced by people of the Jewish faith for as long as the religion has existed.
For my ancestors in Belarus, anti-semitism and persecution of the Jews took the form of the pogroms. These were random, government-sanctioned destructions of towns with mainly Jewish populations. On top of the awful, senseless destruction of property, they also gave neighboring towns fearing for their own safety a reason to be violently unwelcoming to Jews fleeing the pogroms.
For Evalon, anti-semitism was another major reason she had always wanted to leave the Soviet Union. Judaism, along with other faiths, was institutionally outlawed by the authoritarian party. Simply practicing Shabbat was enough to never be seen or heard from again.
Although she had experienced anti-semitism for her entire life, she was only allowed to leave the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1986. That year, a Jewish organization helped her apply for refugee status in the United States, where her husband’s brother lived. After six months in Vienna and another six months in Italy, Evalon and her husband came to the United States and received their green card. Five years later, she became a citizen, which she says was the moment she knew she’d done the right thing for her children.
My grandfather often tells me how much he owes his parents for the risk they took leaving Belarus to make a new life in America. His father––my great-grandfather––had been a farmer, a profession that would not carry over to New York. Upon arrival, he switched careers and began working as a barber, just like Evalon.
For my grandfather, anything he can do to help her business is a way to pay his own blessings forward and help another immigrant family succeed in America.