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My arrival to the USA

Lara Gelya

I LANDED IN NEW YORK CITY, at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, on the morning of March 15, 1990. A representative of HIAS met me and some other Soviet refugees who were on my flight. He gave me a ticket for the flight to Buffalo, New York, and showed me where to wait for the flight. A Jewish organization in Buffalo had agreed to be my sponsor. By that time, my cousin Rimma, with her husband Yury and little daughter Elina, were already in Buffalo. They had arrived a few months before me.


On the flight to Buffalo, I was chatting (mostly with gestures) with a young Black woman sitting next to me. She was with a little baby girl. As I understood, they were refugees from Africa. The baby was crying all the time, and I was trying to hold the baby and comfort her.

No one met me upon my arrival in Buffalo. It was evening, and I did not know what to do, where to go, or where I was going to spend my first night in America. Seeing my confusion, the Black, African woman from the flight kindly invited me to spend a night with them. Since I had no other options, I accepted. We arrived at an old two-floor house with many Black families inside. Each family had a room, and they shared the kitchen and the bathroom of the house. A lot of small kids were running around. They were all refugees from some African country. The house, inside and outside, was in pretty run-down condition. It surprised me, as it was not at all what I expected to see in the United States. But I was thankful that they gave me a corner where I could put my head down after a very long and thrilling first day in America. In the morning, using the phone in the house, I called my cousin Rimma, and they picked me up.


On that same day, I met with the representative of the Buffalo Jewish organization. Her name was Larissa. She took me to the apartment they had already rented for me. It was a one-bedroom on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, with the living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom on the second floor. The apartment was furnished with everything that one might need: dishes, utensils, pots and pans, towels, linens, etc. Soon two men brought and unpacked furniture: a bedroom set, table, loveseat, and even a little TV. The furniture was brand new, delivered right from the store. I was absolutely shocked and amazed at the same time. Again, tears were rolling down my face, but this time they were happy tears. I could not understand why so much care was taken for me without asking for anything in return. In the Soviet Union, people waited for years to get their own apartment, yet in the United States, I had just arrived and everything was ready for me, all prepared with such thoughtfulness. I was overwhelmed by everything that was happening around me and by my feelings. I needed time to sort things out. Later in the evening, I turned on my little brand-new TV and I was horrified: I heard the sound but could not tell one word from another. I was sitting on my new bed in my own apartment and thinking, “What did I do? How am I going to survive here?!” My first night in my apartment was sleepless. The unknown new life frightened me, and I knew that I would have to overcome all of the challenges, no matter how difficult they would be.

Lara Gelya was born in Ukraine and went to school there. For the next 20 years she lived in the Kyzylkum Desert of the Republic of Uzbekistan, working at geological sites and expeditions of the Mining Industry. At that time Ukraine and Uzbekistan were parts of one country—the Soviet Union. In 1989 Lara left the Soviet Union, lived in Austria and Italy before she, at last, found her way to the United States in 1990.

This story is a sample of Lara's memoir: Camel from Kyzylkum: A Memoir of My Life Journey. It is now available on, Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and many other book outlets. Follow the author:

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