Taking Advantage of the American Opportunity: Stuyvesant’s Immigrant Stories

Escaping Corrupted Culture

Tymur Kholodnyak on Immigrating From Ukraine

Having to walk to the supermarket to grab some eggs or milk can be a chore. But digging through and crawling under a resort fence in order to buy groceries makes a trip to the supermarket feel like a luxury. Granted, the two experiences are not entirely the same, but the different circumstances that surround this everyday norm speak volumes. And, for junior Tymur Kholodnyak, the circumstances of his life in Ukraine that made day-to-day life so difficult were what pushed his family to start a new life in a different country.

Before Kholodnyak immigrated to the United States in 2005, he grew up in the city of Zaporozhye, an off-the-charts polluted industrial powerhouse in Ukraine where plants constantly dumped harmful chemicals into unsanitary areas.

Kholodnyak described Ukraine as having a negative atmosphere, in which corruption, violence, and crime prevailed. “I have a love-hate relationship with my culture,” he said. “I think it is a culture that is propelled by greed and arrogance.” His father for instance, was able to graduate college by bribing his professors with liquor and chocolate, delicacies after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.).

Kholodnyak’s family immigrated to America in order to escape a life of poverty. Prior to immigrating, his father worked at an electrical station, while his mother stayed at home as a housewife. Affording food was a struggle. “Meat was expensive,” Kholodnyak said. “They couldn’t afford to buy enough meat for all of us, so they gave all they had to me.”

The inability to afford meat caused many Ukrainians to resort to growing their own crops in gardens that they would purchase in town, since the soil in Ukraine was fertile and rich in nutrients.

But Kholodnyak’s family did not always live so poorly. In fact, in the early 20th century, the Kholodnyaks were immensely powerful and connected to the government. In 1917, Kholodnyak’s great-great-grandfather, who was a revered doctor, owned one of the largest estates in central Ukraine and served in the czar’s Royal Guard as an officer.

After the Communists established their authority in Ukraine, however, conflicts between his ancestors and the government led to the seizure of their estate and the execution of the patriarchal members of his family.

The conflict began when Kholodnyak’s family sheltered Jews during the Russian pogroms. Harboring Jews at the time was not a crime. However, when one of the harbored Jews betrayed the Kholodnyak family by revealing to the government Kholodnyak’s great-grandfather’s anti-communist opinions, the communists snatched away his family’s wealth, possessions, and estate, and turned his estate into a hospital.

Kholodnyak’s family eventually won the lottery for a greencard. Acquiring a green card is normally a difficult process, because, every year, the United States only offers a certain amount of greencards for certain countries.

Like many immigrants, the Kholodnyaks struggled adjusting to American life. Kholdoynak’s father came to the United States a month or two before his mother did, with only $500. During those months, he slept in a one-bedroom apartment in Borough Park, Brooklyn, with 10 other immigrants, who were also attempting to escape poverty and create a better life. His father trusted no one in that apartment. Refusing to buy anything unless it fit into a backpack, his father feared someone would steal from him at night.

For a while, the Kholodnyak’s financial situation continued to stay in lower class. Since his parents’ bachelor’s degrees weren’t considered valid in the United States, Kholodnyak’s father was forced to work in construction in order to support them. Meanwhile, his mother juggled between receptionist duties, working as a Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) doctor, and doing schoolwork at community college. “My parents couldn’t afford to pay for class pictures in elementary school,” Kholodnyak recalled.

But the Kholodnyak’s intense labor soon paid off. “Every six to 12 months, we would buy a new apartment and move up in the world,” Kholodnyak said. Throughout the years, the Kholodnyaks explored various Brooklyn real estate, as they moved from a studio, to a one-bedroom apartment, to a nicer one-bedroom apartment, to a three-bedroom apartment. Now, his father is able to make a healthy living with his own construction company, while his mother is an actuary for a major actuarial firm.

Prior to the Ukraine War, Kholodnyak visited his birthplace frequently, where some of his extended family still reside. “I remember not being able to tell anyone that I live in the United States, because it would put us at risk,” he said. More specifically, the Kholodnyaks would become a target for theft and bullying, as Ukrainians generally tend to dislike privileged people.

During these visits, Kholodnyak’s American relatives often attempted to bring other relatives into the country, reminding Kholodnyak the importance of leaving no family member behind. “It’s really beautiful what a strong-bonded family would do for each other,” he said. Currently, his grandparents live with him, while his uncle lives with his family in Miami, and his closest aunt decided to move to French Canada with her husband after studying and mastering French in a year.

Thanks to his upbringing and dynamic history, it’s not surprising that Kholodnyak appreciates America differently from most.  “Most Americans don’t understand what it’s like living a life like [that of my ancestors],” he explained. “I see a lot of people who are spoiled and waste the opportunity that they have.”

For Kholodnyak, immigrating to America came with sacrifices, paranoid fears, and little room to make mistakes. But it also came with a clean slate and freedom, a golden opportunity that outweighed all costs. “Being an illegal immigrant in the United States is better than being in Ukraine,” he said.

 

An Unexpected Change of Pace

Carmen Benitez on Immigrating From Australia

“Lest we forget.” This phrase may mean nothing to the average American, but it holds significance for junior Carmen Benitez.

Born in the Philippines, Benitez moved to Australia at the age of four and lived in Sydney. Growing up in Sydney, Benitez attended public schools ranging from a Catholic school to a selective high school similar to Stuyvesant. This was until very recently, when, in 2013, Benitez’s father decided to immigrate to America for the sake of business convenience. Her father had been traveling frequently to New York for his work in real estate.

“My parents were like, ‘Hey, there’s this school called Stuyvesant and you should think about applying because we may move to New York soon,’” Benitez said. She took the late intake SHSAT with two weeks of prepping during the preceding July.

There were low expectations amongst the family. Her dad had promised to not call her until he received confirmation, because he didn’t want Benitez to have false hope every time he called. So when Benitez received a phone call from her father the Saturday morning a week before the first day of school, she was shocked to hear that she had been accepted to Stuyvesant. “I was half asleep,” she said. “I screamed and ran downstairs to my mom. She was on the phone, and I made her hang up and talk to me.”

In short, her Stuyvesant acceptance determined her immigration. “No one had any plans for moving here,’” Benitez said. Her mom had to stay in Australia with her brothers for three more months, because they didn’t have any plans for Benitez’s siblings to live in America.

However, Benitez had visited the Big Apple before. On vacations, Benitez visited the city every year for six years. During this time, she stayed in New Jersey with her uncle and drove in through the city to New York.

“It was July, so all I remembered was that it was so hot. It was like the hottest place I’d ever been,” Benitez recalled her first impression of New York. Coming from someone who spent their life in Australia, this is not an overstatement.

Now with three years of New York living experience under belt, Benitez appreciates the finer distinctions between Sydney and New York, such as public subway transportation. New York’s subway system is much more efficient and accessible than the transportation options in Sydney. “In Sydney, the stops are so far apart that you’d take a stop and then you’d take a car to the next place you want to go,” Benitez said. “My parents had to drive me everywhere, so I couldn’t go anywhere. I can go wherever I want now.”

One of the key characteristics we often look for in someone who has recently immigrated is an accent. Surprisingly, Benitez barely has one and can easily pass as American-born in conversation. She said this is because her parents were taught English with an American accent in the Philippines, so she grew up listening to that accent.

There are, however, some words she pronounces differently. For example, instead of saying “aluminum,” she says “aluminium.” “It’s really weird because even now―I’ve lived here for two and a half years―I still say a word that I never even thought sounded different and someone will just stop me and be like, ‘Oh, that’s right. I just remembered you’re Australian. Your accent sounded weird on that word,’” Benitez said.

Nonetheless, people can often guess that she is from another country. However, they tend to assume that she is Asian or Hispanic. She doesn’t mind these assumptions, because she is Filipino, and perceives guesses of her ethnicity as Hispanic a compliment.

She considers her nationality to be a great conversation starter. “I tend to try and bring it up early in a conversation, mainly because I think it makes me sound really cool, and I’m like, ‘If I say this, they’re going to want to be my friend forever,’” Benitez said.

Benitez noted the ways Australia had an impact on her life. Since she spent the majority of her life there, most of her memories come from Australia. There are little things that she still does in her everyday American life that are picked up from Australia. “It’s the stuff I like to eat. It’s not even good food. It’s frozen meat pies that I like to microwave,” Benitez said.

But those frozen meat pies make her feel a sense of nostalgia. It will take some time for Benitez to become accustomed to the traditions in America. “In Australia, Veterans Day is called Remembrance Day. You wear a red poppy and the phrase is ‘Lest we forget,’ and you play a trumpet song,” she said. “For me, it was weird to not be saying ‘Lest we forget’ on Remembrance Day, because it’s just what you do on Remembrance Day.”

 

A Transatlantic View

Megan Waters on Immigrating from England

Growing up in London, sophomore Megan Waters lived by the seaside, attended a selective school, joined the sailing club in her school, and of course, ate fish and chips. “It was basically the exact same as it is now, but much more relaxed, because I didn’t live in the city,” Waters said.

But when Waters’ mother’s work in journalism and her father’s job in the movie industry prompted an environment change, Waters immigrated to New York in the seventh grade.

Initially, Waters protested the immigration because of the change of environment. “In June, we came over for a weeklong trip, and I hated New York,” Waters said. She lived in an apartment in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan. “It smelled so bad, the trash in the sidewalks,” she said.

Waters also had difficulty assimilating into her new middle school. She said, “Everyone would be like, ‘Oh, you’re British,’ but there would be nothing after that.” Fortunately, Waters grew to love the city as she made more friends and became accustomed to New York through walks in the park.

Waters didn’t know what to expect from her first experience in America. “I thought I would go shopping every day, the typical New York stereotype.” she said. She picked up these stereotypes through movies and expected high school to be straight out of High School Musical.

Stepping off the plane, Waters also noticed another hallmark of New York: pizza. “I remember getting off the plane and noticing a pizza place,” Waters said. “You can buy slices here, but, in England you have to buy a whole pie.” Waters’ love for pizza, especially Hawaiian pizza, was satisfied with this new revelation.

According to Waters, the stereotypes rang true for the most part. New Yorkers had their signature accent and high school looked a lot like the ones in movies. “It’s heavy pace, but I like it,” Waters said.

Due to how recent the immigration was, Waters still has a distinctive British accent. “Everyone is like, ‘Oh my god, you’re British?’ I get that a lot.” Waters said. The attention was a blessing and a curse. Though Waters is aware of people’s genuine interest in her culture, being stereotyped was unavoidable. “People would be like, ‘Can I have some tea and crumpets?’” Waters said.

Waters noted the differences between living in England and living in New York. For her, the major difference was in how people dress. “Teenagers in England dress up and put so much makeup on. People glam up. Thirteen year olds look like 18 year olds,” Waters said. “Here, it’s a lot more relaxed and edgy, because it’s so much more diverse.”

She also noticed the small discrepancies. “In England, we have these big supermarkets that everyone goes to. They’re called Tescoes and Sainsbury’s,” Waters said. “I remember moving here and my parents going, ‘Where is the local supermarket?’”

According to Waters, in New York, everyone is more independent and less connected. “You would always sit down at seven o’clock and watch ‘Eastenders’ [a popular TV series in England],  and everyone in the country would watch this. It’s a routine,” Waters said. “Here, it’s more like everyone does their own thing.”

Waters and her family still preserve their culture by celebrating British holidays. In England, on November 5, there is a holiday called Guy Fawkes Night to celebrate Guy Fawkes, an English revolutionary from the early 17th century, and his attempts to disband Parliament. “We set up fireworks sometimes. Every Sunday, we have a roast dinner: potatoes, chicken, Yorkshire pudding,” Waters said. Waters said she doesn’t regret making the change, because New York has so many new opportunities. Plus, she thinks New York “smells way better now than it did before,” she said.

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