Life in a Suitcase: Yakov
“Life in a Suitcase” is a new series focused on sharing the stories of immigrant students, staff and faculty members at Brandeis, with the author’s hope that it will encourage people to adopt a different perspective on a controversial issue.
In 1991, Yakov moved to the United States from present-day Russia in search of a more rewarding life and a safe and better place for his wife and two children, then five and 10 years old. In an interview with the Justice, he said his departure had been prompted by the devastating events and unfair policies that dominated Eastern Europe before, during and after the Cold War. Throughout that period, Russia was part of the USSR and faced extreme political tension and discontent, leading to its 1991 collapse. In the midst of this strained social and political era, Yakov worked as a construction worker to help provide for his family. He faced significant religious persecution as a Jewish man in a predominantly Orthodox Christian society, an issue that pushed him to consider moving to the United States.
Yakov’s life in Eastern Europe took a turn for the worse in 1986, he said, because of the nuclear reactor disaster at Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant near Ukraine. Many died when the reactor’s cooling system and emergency safety systems failed, leading to its explosion. The Soviet government tried to deny that the explosion had occurred, endangering the lives of people living in surrounding locations. Yakov blames the Soviet government for their lack of immediate action, noting that their attempts at concealing what had happened is the reason why records on what happened at the site (including how many people truly died) are inconsistent and mostly inaccurate. Yakov also mentioned that the government’s failure (or refusal, he said) to respond worsened the situation because by the time they began the cleanup process, the grand majority of the material had already percolated into the soil, entered the water systems and been transferred by wind to other areas. As a result, crops and forests were contaminated, animals were born with severe deformities and many people that didn’t die within the first few days from poisoning developed life-threatening diseases later on.
Because of Yakov’s proximity to the disaster, he experienced the devastating consequences that followed. Many of his friends and acquaintances developed cancer and other serious conditions later in life as a result of prolonged exposure to radioactive material. Crop contamination, furthermore, severely affected Yakov. Eastern Europe had a long history of food insufficiency and famine, with the Chernobyl incident further intensifying these problems. Even after the immediately affected crops were discarded, traces of radioactive substances remained in the soil, hindering the production of food for years.
Trying to escape the political tension and division, the ongoing religious persecution and discrimination and the health issues that now threatened his family, Yakov and his wife decided to immigrate to the United States. He knew only very basic English, and started out working as part of the janitorial staff in a hospital. In 1992, he started working as a member of the Brandeis Facilities Services and later gained a position within the Brandeis Facilities workers’ union. Yakov continues to work in several buildings here at Brandeis, making sure that dorm halls and bathrooms are clean, and that all students feel comfortable in their living spaces.
While Yakov struggled at first, especially given the language barrier, he adjusted to his new lifestyle and to American culture. He was shocked, initially, by the amount of religious, political and personal freedom he encountered upon arrival, especially after his experiences with religious persecution in his home country. His oldest son is a member of the Brandeis class of 2003, according to Yakov, and currently has a successful career. Now, decades later, Yakov continues to thrive here in the United States, and offers the following advice to new immigrants: “Be honest, don’t engage in illegal processes and respect the country.”
— Author’s Note: I first met Yakov on international student move-in day. I was leaving my dorm building, still overwhelmed by the many contradictory emotions that accompany the moving process, when he introduced himself to my aunt and me. He told us a bit about himself, asked us where we were from, and immediately offered to help with whatever I needed during my stay at the dorms. That short, kind introduction eased my nerves and made me realize that, no matter what, I had a friend on campus. From then on I have seenYakov almost every morning as I am getting ready for class. We began our rapport by exchanging brief remarks as I hurried from the bathroom to my room attempting to make up for the time I wasted hitting the snooze button. He was always there, saying hello to everyone that was awake at that time, making a huge effort to leave our bathrooms clean, and spreading this radiant energy that truly kickstarted my day.
Eventually, we started to have short conversations about the best, natural products to fight the flu, discussed the situations in our home countries and even created our own inside jokes. When I decided to start this series, I immediately thought of him, and asked him if he was willing to share his story in the hopes that it would give everyone a glimpse of the struggles and changes that accompany immigration.
— Editor’s Note: Yakov’s last name and photo were not provided for privacy purposes.