06.20.2018 Culture, Community, and Business

The Stories that Make US

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There are many reasons we are proud to be certified as a B Corp, not the least of which are the values we share with that community. Among those values are standing up for all members in our society, especially those who are most vulnerable. In today’s political climate, perhaps no group is more deserving of that support than immigrants. Legal. Illegal. First generation, or 10th. We are all immigrants, lest we forget.

One recent initiative the local B Corp community undertook is to gather and tell the stories of immigrants working for local B Corps. The stories of people making lasting, positive change in our communities. The stories of people undertaking harrowing journeys to provide a better life for their families. The stories of people we should be welcoming with open arms. These stories were compiled into a booklet that was distributed at the recent B Corp Leadership Development Conference, with other future plans.

One of those stories is published here, my story. I too am an immigrant, whose family came here seeking asylum 40 years ago. I have nothing to add to the chorus of outcries breaking out across the country, but silence in the face of what is currently unfolding in our southern states is unacceptable. If we all contribute our stories and our compassion, it will make a difference. But words are not enough, action is also required. Consider supporting the organizations listed below who are fighting for those who need most need our support.

Special thanks to Krista Van Veen for conducting my interview and to Mike Mercer for leading this initiative.

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Krista: Tell us about the story of your immigration.

Lev: I was born in Leningrad, what is now St Petersburg, Russia. We were Jewish and in Russia, and being Jewish isn’t about your religion, it’s about your race and your nationality. My parents even had “Jew” stamped in their passport. There was a lot of discrimination—ceilings in terms of how far you could advance in your careers. You couldn’t get into certain schools, and it was very segregated. There was less opportunity. When my parents applied to emigrate, they right away lost their jobs and their apartment. There were some people who never made it out, but had their lives completely destroyed.

I was three and my sister was six or seven when we left. We went to Italy for three months. An agency there put us up in conditions that were nearly squalid. Every morning, my dad and a man from another family we’d emigrated with would go to the flea market and lay out their wares on a blanket and sell things like the Matryoska dolls, and that money was used to buy food.

One of the tenants of the founding of the Israeli state was that if you were Jewish, you could go there right away. You couldn’t get into the US unless you had a sponsor. My parents weren’t in agreement—Dad was leaning toward Israel, and Mom wanted the US and she had a cousin there who could sponsor us. So, of course, we went to the US.

Krista: Did you have family in Russia that you left behind?

Lev: My parents didn’t have a lot of family living other than my mom’s brother and her parents. They ended up following us to the US a few years later. My uncle never left. He’s still there.

Krista: What are some of the biggest differences in your family’s life here compared to life in Russia?

Lev: I’ve spent time in Russia as an adult, and while there are significant wealth disparities in the US, they are extreme in Russia. A few examples— My uncle became a member of the nouveau riche community in Russia. He’d make sure that when we visited, we had a luxury car with a driver, armed security…that’s what life was like there. There is no strong legal system there, and so the way that you enforce your agreements is with the possibility of using force or might. At the same time, a lot of my parent’s friends were regular people, middle class professionals. My parents had worked for the telephone company in St. Petersburg before they left. For Russia, it was a middle class living. Compared to the US, it was poverty. As an example, it’s a really big deal to pull a banana out of the fridge and serve it to your guests. It would have been an incredibly expensive luxury.

Once in the US, both of my parents got jobs at the local phone company and they were career employees at one of the Baby Bell phone companies. They made a good, middle-class life for us. We went on vacations—I remember our first big family trip in the US was the cliché epic American road trip. We drove from Minneapolis to DC, up the east coast, into Canada, and then back to Minnesota. During the trip, our car broke down at least four times and it leaked when it rained. But we stopped at roadside attractions like the crooked house that defies gravity. It was definitely done on the cheap, but it was the type of thing they could never dream of doing in Russia. They were understandably really proud of being able to do that.

Krista: Are your parents still in the area where they initially settled when they came to America?

Lev: We moved to Minneapolis because that’s where my mom’s cousin was. And they are still there. I left when I was eighteen and I haven’t really gone back. For me, I don’t really feel like an immigrant so much, but it was harder as a kid. I got dropped off at school not knowing the language. One of my early memories is of holding onto the banister in the stairwell in the school and just screaming and not letting go. When I was really little, I was in a private Jewish school because we got a scholarship to go there through some local nonprofit and that was a pretty safe bubble. But then in third grade, I went into a public school that was in a neighborhood that was very waspy. I was like the only Jewish kid, and certainly the only Russian kid. I had a weird name and I got teased a lot there. I was very much an outsider there.

Krista: As ThinkShout is reaching out to more and more people in the community and talking to more people from diverse backgrounds, do you have any advice on how we can be more open to people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself?

Lev: Even though I’m an immigrant, I’m also a stereotypical white guy who was very privileged growing up. When I walk around the street, I’ve got all the power. And I really didn’t think about that growing up. I didn’t think of myself has having privilege. And even starting the company I went through a lot of really defensive phases in trying to understand what it meant to build an inclusive community here. This isn’t a journey that I’ve been on on my own, but it’s taken experiences to understand what those blind spots and those unconscious biases are. They are there, but you aren’t a bad person because they are there—but you’re not doing the right thing if you don’t open yourself up to them. So that’s my advice. We all need to really open up to other people’s perspectives to really understand what they need to be successful.

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Take action and support these organizations in their efforts to provide fair treatment to immigrants looking for a better life in this country:

Al Otro Lado is a binational organization that works to offer legal services to deportees and migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, including deportee parents whose children remain in the U.S.

CARA—a consortium of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association—provides legal services at family detention centers.

The Florence Project is an Arizona project offering free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children in immigration custody.

ActBlue is taking donations on behalf of several organizations across border states.

RAICES is the largest immigration nonprofit in Texas offering free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children and families. Donate here and sign up as a volunteer here.

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