Every year Alla Puchinsky and Margarit Lemkov circle June 28 on their calendars.
On that summer day 27 years ago, Puchinsky and Lemkov took their families to a Moscow airport to flee the former Soviet Union as Jewish refugees. They found each other when they noticed each of their bags — a strict rule of just two per person — were stamped with the same sticker: “Pittsburgh.”
This month, they will meet, as they do every June 28, and look back on almost three decades of close bonds and friendship in their adopted homeland.
“We came to the United States because of antisemitism in the former Soviet Union,” Puchinsky told the Chronicle. “And we never regret that we came here. We bought one-way tickets and … of course, came here to make a future for our kids.”
On June 18, individuals like Puchinsky and Lemkov in Pittsburgh’s refugee community will celebrate World Refugee Day by sharing their stories and experiences. A local virtual event and celebration will be shared online on June 18, with the global celebration taking place on June 20. The day honors the strength, courage and perseverance of the more than 90,000 members of Pittsburgh’s immigrant community, as well as the 70 million displaced people worldwide who were forced to leave their homes in fear of conflict or persecution to start a new life with their families, according to Jewish Family and Community Services.
One story to be featured on the June 18 event is that of Rebecca Sakala, who says World Refugee Day holds special meaning. After fleeing a violent abusive relationship, she was welcomed in Pittsburgh and connected to the support she needed.
“Waking up every day, knowing I got a place to get food, shelter and clothes and be able to provide for my children in a foreign place is more than welcoming, and it makes me feel at home,” Sakala said. “There is light at the end regardless of where you come from.”
In addition to photo and video stories, the June 18 event will also feature recipes from around the world, local immigrant artists and children’s activities to help engage the whole family. Participants will also have opportunities to get involved and take action in supporting their refugee and immigrant neighbors through learning, advocacy and volunteer work.
All are welcome to join the celebration online at isacpittsburgh.org/wrd, testing recipes on the food blog, purchasing from immigrant and refugee artists and craftsmen, and buying takeout food to be delivered from immigrant- and refugee-owned restaurants. Participants are encouraged to share photos and experiences on social media using the hashtag #WRDpgh2021.
Puchinsky said antisemitism was systemic in Belarus, from where she emigrated to the U.S. a generation ago. Her husband graduated from college and wanted to go into the sciences but was not allowed. Her son, who was sometimes beaten for being Jewish, applied for medical school and was the top student his graduating class, but the state would not accept him into the free public program, instead telling Puchinsky to write to her wealthy Jewish relatives to ask for the tuition money.
In Russia, Lemkov’s youngest son was bullied and separated from others for being Jewish when he was 5, and bystanders frequently told their family to “go home to Israel.”
“We always felt it,” said Lemkov, who worked as a teacher in Russia. “They reminded us of our place. We decided to leave because it got dangerous.”
Since arriving in Pittsburgh in ‘94, Lemkov has worked to take care of the elderly and cleaned houses, touting that she is “not afraid of any work.” Puchinsky said the same is true of her.
In the mid-90s, Jewish Family and Community Services taught Lemkov, Puchinsky and others how to use a computer, draft a resume and become white-collar workers.
Lemkov retired in 2018 after working at Mellon Bank, Dish Network and UPMC. Her husband was an engineer in Russia but didn’t know English when they arrived in Pittsburgh. For 20 years, he worked at Community Life, a day-care program with a large population of elderly Russians.
Puchinsky taught Russian at the University of Pittsburgh, then went on to JFCS where she worked as a medical case manager for 22 years. She served those who, several years after her own exodus from Belarus in 1994, are coming to the U.S. from places like Syria, Iraq and the Congo.
“I worked hard for them because I was in their shoes — not knowing anything, being in a new culture,” she said.
Her son was 18 when Puchinsky’s family came to Pittsburgh. He eventually studied at the University of Pittsburgh and then Johns Hopkins, and now he is a doctor in Toronto. Her daughter went to school at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, earned a full scholarship at Winchester Thurston, and then went on George Washington University and Pitt Law. She lives in New York.
Lemkov said there is no comparison between what her family’s life would be in Russia and what it is now. One of her two sons has his bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Duquesne University, and the other served in the U.S. Army for eight years, then went on to get a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Both still live in Pittsburgh.
Lemkov and Puchinsky often tout how much JFCS helped their respective families.
“In the 1930s, JFCS was founded to help Jews fleeing Europe, and helped individuals and families find a safe life here in Pittsburgh,” said Leslie Aizenman, director of JFCS Refugee & Immigrant Services. “When Soviet Jews fled antisemitism and persecution in the ‘70s, the entire Jewish community really got involved and stepped up to meet their needs.
“Over the years, there have been waves of refugees from all over the world and our community continues our commitment to helping and supporting refugees,” she continued. “World Refugee Day is a day for all of us to celebrate and honor the strength, courage, and perseverance of refugees like Alla and Margarit and the over 90,000 members of Pittsburgh’s immigrant community.”
“JFCS, they helped with our first resume and then the [JFCS] Career Development Center helped with finding our first jobs,” Lemkov said. “I will never forget it.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.