ISSN 2330-717X

Chava Boroda’s ‘Refusenik’ Story – OpEd

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Chava Boroda’s family was among thousands of people from the USSR, whose story of moving to the United States as political refugees is truly inspiring. Chava’s family was among those “Refuseniks” who demonstrated how much a strong power of will can outweigh one of strictest and most uncompromising regimes in the world. 

The world has slowly forgotten the emotionally moving and powerful stories of “Refuseniks.” In the 1970-80s, a large number of brave people rallied next to the foreign embassies located in the capital of Soviet Union with a request to receive a permission to immigrate. The vast majority of those citizens soon received refusal or denial from the Brezhnev Government, hence receiving a status of “Refusenik” – taken from the Russian word meaning refusal.

Chava came from a highly educated family with longstanding ties to educational and scientific institutions. Her grandmother spoke Yiddish and worked at the Yiddish school in the town of Birobidzhan, located in the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Russia. Birobidzhan still remains a unique place, which has state run schools that teach Yiddish. 

Her parents were hardworking people with their souls filled with optimism about the future and passion for their upcoming journeys. Upon migrating from the USSR to the United States, the family left many peculiar memories behind: memories of struggling and striving to making their lives joyful and also enlightening for other people. Chava remembers how her father tried to set up a theater room in their own home to encourage Jewish families to practice art, music and nourish creativity at a time freedom of speech and expression had been severely restricted by the Soviet regime. 

Despite the fact that USSR generated big debates among the Western scholars, Russian dissidents and even the general public, attention to the idea and story of “Refuseniks” significantly declined as the Soviet Union ceased to exist. However, personal stories such as that of Chava is an imperative reminder to us, illustrating how the power of determination in the face of a formidable system of governance can help us overcome even the biggest challenges. In particular, the younger generation of Jews and non-Jews should be taught about the legacy that “Refuseniks” have left for the freedom-fighters worldwide and the inspiration and courage they represent.  

The complication of the process of immigration and hardships emerged when they approached the embassy in Kiev to get exit permission. Chava was only 5 years old, but her family had always taught her to never forget the feeling that appears when one sees the chaos and apprehension embattling other people when they cannot be where they want to be.

That day, Chava’s family was among those people frantically waiting to see if they would receive the permit; however, the line leading to the embassy got closed right in front of them. Her family spent nine long years waiting for an exit visa. Nine years meant the little Chava was exposed to the scourge of anti-Semitism that had impinged on many aspects of life of the Jewish people. At school, pupils often teased her and called her “zhidovka,” an insulting word used to refer to the Jews.

A large number of Refuseniks faced terrifying government oppression, such as being expelled from universities, physically assaulted and jailed on false charges. The vast majority of them lost their jobs and had to even forcibly relocate to labor camps. 

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

Most importantly, being a “Refusenik” has shaped Chava’s personality with a firm conviction that discrimination knows no race, religion or language. She came to realize that those who have experienced adversities because of their cultural identity have a greater mission to accomplish, which is standing up for the others who have faced inequalities and discrimination.

While the “Refuseniks” can be referred to as “Jewish renaissance flourishing like mushrooms in Soviet darkness,” their legacy deserves more attention and investigation, including inclusion into the educational curriculum in countries it is relevant and of importance. 

*Lasha Shakulashvili is a Tbilisi-based PhD student focusing on Jewish/Yiddish legacy of the South Caucasus region. Lasha has worked with the United Nations. He has written blogs about religious and ethnic communities of the region for the award-winning regional media platform Chai Khana. Lasha’s blog on Georgia’s German heritage has been cited by the Berlin-based Caucasus Watch. 

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