This week we’ve been looking at the challenges refugees face during these uncertain economic times.
The recession has made it unusually tough for new arrivals here in the Northwest to find work. Without that first job, refugees have a hard time beginning their new lives.
In our final installment of our series “Starting Over,” reporter Sadie Babits has this profile of a woman from the former Soviet Union who escaped religious persecution and found success in Portland, Oregon.
Victoria Libov sits at her computer checking her e-mail. She gets flooded with e-mails everyday.
|Starting Over: Refugees In A Down Economy|
It’s to be expected in her role as Employment Manager at IRCO - the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization in Portland. One e-mail lights up her face. It’s from her youngest daughter who’s studying abroad in London.
Victoria Libov: “She’s wandering through London right now. She’s there and part of me is there with her.”
Photographs of Libov’s daughters sit on a shelf in her office.
Victoria Libov: “This is Irene and this is Yulia.”
She is close to her daughters and radiates with pride for them. Yulia recently graduated from Harvard Business School. Her youngest daughter Irene is studying at Georgetown University.
Victoria Libov: “We never had those opportunities when we were young. So in a way we are reliving the life that we would never ever dream to have through them.”
Eighteen years ago, Libov and her husband were living in the former Soviet Union. They had a nice apartment in Ukraine. Libov taught Russian language and literature. Her husband Joseph was a successful electrical engineer. But the Libov’s were the subject of ongoing religious persecution.
Victoria Libov: “My family and I are we are Jewish so there was at that time there was Operation Exodus and Jews were leaving.”
Operation Exodus was one program to help Jews flee religious persecution – a problem in Ukraine and Russia for hundreds of years. As the Soviet Union began to fall, Jews found themselves facing widespread anti-Semitism and discrimination. It affected Victoria Libov everywhere she went. She was even denied entrance to a masters program she says simply because of her faith. She says it was clear for years that the family needed to leave the USSR.
Victoria Libov: “There was a famous Jewish writer who was killed during Stalin’s times and in one of his books he wrote that God made a mistake settling Jews in Russia. What my husband and I say is we’ve corrected that mistake.”
That “correction” started with a couple in Salem, Oregon who agreed to sponsor the Libov’s through “Jewish Family and Child Service” to come as refugees to Portland. So in 1991 the family escaped the Soviet Union right before it collapsed. Libov remembers arriving in Portland with her family with $750 and a few suitcases. Three weeks later she had her first American job.
Victoria Libov: “ I was hired at the Jewish child care. The community here was really wonderful and helpful.”
Her husband, though, had a much harder time finding a job. Once a successful electrical engineer, he ended up an electrician.
Victoria Libov: “ I think my husband made a big sacrifice… never got back to what he loved to do.”
That sacrifice has been worth it she explains because their daughters have been able to realize their dreams - something that never would have happened in the former Soviet Union.
Victoria Libov: “And everything that we have… the girls success. The jobs. The house. Other things, friends that aren’t material. It all started from 750 dollars and suitcases and we just Victoria Libov carries that same can-do attitude with her today, hoping her own story will inspire the refugees she meets in Portland. She’s worked at IRCO for 17 years, helping refugees find jobs.
Job opportunities for refugees she says are the worst they’ve ever been. Her index of the economy is her monthly binder of job prospects. One from three years ago is bursting with job orders. The latest....
Victoria Libov: “Well this is what we have now. And some of them are from December."
Sadie Babits: "Not very much."
Victoria Libov: "Yeah.”
Still Libov holds out hope. She says the majority of refugees she meets are incredibly self-reliant.
Victoria Libov: “ They’re survivors. If you’re able to manage what you managed back there, wherever you were .. in a camp, in your house, with suffering seeing your family destroyed. If you managed to live through this and come here … you’ll make it here. It’s in your hands.”
Working with refugees everyday reminds Libov of how her own life – eighteen years ago - got started in America. It’s a country she still believes is a land of opportunity, even in a slumping economy.