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The Illegals

By Tsira Gelen

Copyright 2018 Tsira Gelenava - Volobueva

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Tbilisi, Georgia

In memory of all the vanished ones who so longed to see the glorious Year of Jubilee


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

About Tsira Gelen

Other books by Tsira Gelen

Connect with Tsira Gelen

Chapter 1

Wow!” – Exclaimed Frank. He was a no-nonsense New England Lawyer, and the look on his face told me that my brief account of our family’s misadventures in the first months of our stay in America were surprising to him. “You should write a book about this.” – he said.

Considering that I was still working on my historical saga at that time, the advice struck me as a daunting task, so I brushed it off skeptically:

“And who would read it? Most readers aren’t interested in this.”

“Why? I would. We love politics and social issues,” - he protested - speaking on behalf of all Americans, of course.

Well, we’ll see.” - I replied, unpersuaded.

Years have passed since that chat, and I never thought about fulfilling Frank’s advice; never until now. The recent rise of heated political debates about illegal immigration changed my mind. The internet is alight with differing views, objectives and arguments.

Well, here comes my confession; although I am a foreigner and currently living in my motherland of Georgia, not so long ago I resided in the USA as an unwelcome alien for almost a decade. Not a very lucrative way to accost an already irritated reader, I guess, but do I have a choice? If I want to say anything about the matter, which I most certainly do, I have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God. And now, before you shove my book aside, I better start talking.

My name is Tsira which means ‘young lady’ in the Megrelian dialect of the Georgian language. Although I should have stopped considering myself as particularly young a long time ago, I still feel like I’m eternally trapped in that formative age. And perhaps the same linguistic magic of my funny name makes me childishly hold onto the hope that if only I find the right words, people would understand that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are just regular clean-cut, I would even say, law-abiding folks. I’m guessing that ‘law-abiding’ would be the key metaphor that will raise the most questions here. Of cause I’m not implying that illegality shouldn’t be considered a serious misconduct. I just want to illustrate on the example that under certain circumstances even the most unlikely person might find him/herself in an unimaginable scenario.

Let’s start with me.

So, what is the Law to me? In the early days of my life it had a different name – it was called “mommy’s rules”, and ever breaking them was absolutely out of the question. That’s not because I was a good girl but because of my steadfast belief that disobeying mom was simply an impossible thing to do. Even my daddy, Nodari, a ‘big’ man and a ‘big’ boss of the ‘big, big’ factory, would never dare to challenge the softly spoken words of his always calm but steady as a rock wife, Madonna. Every time when I or my younger brother tried to insert his authority between us and mom’s everyday requests, he would just grin and decline:

“Don’t come to me. She is the queen of the house.”

And indeed, she was the true ruler of our tiny private world; strict but always fair and undoubtedly always right. Of course, this innocence couldn’t last forever; one day I became a teenager and the sweet taste of disobedience stealthily snuck into my heart. This is when I discovered that rules were not always so indisputable after all. But even this rebellious phase of life didn’t bring the razor-sharp sensation of ‘breaking the Law’ into my inner world. As most of us, I went through this perilous stage of human existence quite ordinarily; not as a dazzlingly wild child but not as mommy’s shy little girl either.

And then legal adulthood came, the period when all of us start seeking actual maturity and independence. That was the very first time when the definition of the word “law” truly entered my freshly developed mind, the point at which I consciously realized that I actually turned into “Tsira”. Now I was totally ready to accept all of the consequences of becoming a decision maker and a master of my own life. How proud I felt just considering myself as a law abiding middle class citizen. After finishing university I married my husband Dimitri. As you see, my path through this stage of life was not extraordinary either.

The daughter of a well-off family and the wife of a hard-working and talented husband, a promising young woman myself, one of the youngest lecturers of the State University, I felt quite confident in myself and the future seemed very bright and secure. We lived in a nice apartment in a prestigious district of the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. Our dwelling was a little bit crowded for us because we lived with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her son, but we were a very happy and close knit family in which all adults had well respected jobs with steady incomes and we sincerely loved each other.

And then a beautiful baby-girl entered our lives; Nino. What could be better than her? Who would even think of breaking laws in such a nirvana of complete happiness? Certainly not me. Little unavoidable lies of everyday life, harmless naughtiness here and there, insignificant mischief, well, these and other inconsequential misbehaviors, of course, sometimes took place but never true delinquency. Never an act of actual wrongdoing. I was even convinced that neither I nor any member of our family was capable of committing any serious wrongdoing.

And then boom... With the collapse of the Soviet Union the whole world collapsed around me and not only around me. One might think that finishing off a totalitarian regime and dismantling such an enormous empire is a positive thing but it’s more complicated than that. Along with the liberation of many subjugated nations and granting citizens personal freedoms, which are undoubtedly great achievements, it also brought a lot of thorny, ill side effects. Unfortunately, true democracy cannot prevail on ruins of despotism right away. It requires time. Time and sacrifice of many innocent lives as old regimes almost never go without a fight. This is exactly what happened in Georgia; ethnic wars staged by the intelligence service of the former USSR, broke out and in the blink of an eye nearly a hundred percent of our relatives became homeless refugees from Abkhazia. Ethnic cleansing, bloody battles, criminal gangs all over the place, lawlessness, joblessness, and intolerable cruelty entered our lives...

That was a time when the malady of the schism plagued even the best and the most modest families. Even under such horrible consequences many tried to remain calm and obedient, always playing by the rules, but others started to seriously doubt the sanity of such inert behavior. “Fight the Devil with its own weapons,” – became the most popular creed of the time, euphemistically called ‘revolutionary’ by historians. Many good men were broken physically and morally under such tremendous pressure; some ending in suicide, others becoming homicidal and many simply dying from heartbreak.

Our little family fought back doing everything possible to remain humane and alive. In such harsh times our second daughter, Mariam, was born - a huge surprise even for me and a real blessing to our bleeding hearts. God truly acts in mysterious ways; the more responsibility, the more reasons to stay firm and keep fighting. And so, once more we clenched our teeth and intensified our resistance to the circumstances. At that point, my husband, Dimitri, had already lost his job. The family business, a multi-profile construction complex, which we co-owned with his brother, was also under constant attack by criminals in an attempt to force us to sell it for nothing. De jure we still owned it but de facto we were not able to run it. Things were getting uglier and uglier every day but we had no right to surrender.

So, in the battle for survival, Dimitri, who was an artist by nature, noticed an abandoned basement located conveniently close to the central park of Tbilisi. He breathed life back into that shabby little space, transforming it from a waste of space into a beautifully exotic alcove. And that is where we opened our tiny cafe. It was a desperate move, because opening even the smallest canteen without the “protection” of the local gangs was dangerous.

Consequences were swift and harsh. They came, we refused their ‘protection’ and they came again, but this time in masks and with guns. Of course, they took everything that they could carry. We were ruined but due to the stubbornness of our men we still didn’t give up and after a while we reopened the cafe again. And they came once more. This happened three times during two months and finally we, the women, came to the conclusion that if we wouldn’t halt our men, we would lose not only the goods but them as well.

That was it. After that point my husband didn’t try to start another business. The only thing he was still capable of doing without any involvement of criminals was collecting fire wood in the winter and picking berries in the spring and summer. At home he entertained our kids, painting fairytale characters on our bedroom walls and playing make-believe. He would pretend to be a camel and they were princess riders on his back. This is how he kept them away from the harsh reality of our circumstances. A perfect father for our little angels.

Meanwhile, we were desperately seeking a way to create a steady income. If we failed to do so, we would parish as many others already had. As I mentioned before, our family used to be prosperous. Not very rich, but we had gained a few valuables through four generations of scholarly ancestry. So, we started selling personal belongings from our home, mainly to foreigners and sometimes to the contemporary members of our government. This decision was especially hard on my husband who already felt guilt for having failed to provide for his family. I think that the emotional damage from those days kept haunting his soul to his final days. I still remember how we would sell one tiny porcelain statuette from the renaissance era and our whole family could live for a month. Then the antique books, jewelry, a grandma’s bureau, brought by her and grandpa from Paris during their honeymoon trip in the beginning of the twentieth century. Then grandpa’s bronze ashtray vanished; beautiful and dear to my husband’s heart.

“You never used it, anyway,” - I tried to comfort him.

“Damn it and damn myself,” - He grumbled back.

But those reserves eventually come to an end, and after almost half a decade of selling possessions from our home the only valuable thing still remaining there was grandma’s grand piano which survived only because its sounding board, a decca, had been cracked. The last thing we sold was Dimitri’s old car. It was then when we finally acknowledged that we had no option but to sell one of us to slavery abroad. I label it as ‘slavery’ only from today’s prospective but back then we looked at it as an opportunity to find a job. I guess many readers will not appreciate me choosing the word “slavery” to describe the situation where a person might find him/herself under these particular circumstances, but believe me, I am not using such extreme terminology in a slinky attempt to make someone feel guilty or to gain fleeting sympathy, but simply because it is the most honest way to describe a situation in which many people find themselves in due to the struggle for survival. Ironically enough, modern ‘slaves’ will probably hate such presentation of the truth even more than the ‘slave buyers’ would, but I’m abhorrent about hiding behind euphemisms.

By the way, there is nothing new or unheard of in selling oneself into slavery. It is an ancient practice which is well described in the earliest-known set of laws, the four thousand-year-old Hammurabi’s code, and which, as we all witness here, successfully prevails to date. And our family was among those who dared such a fate.

Somebody told us that there was an office downtown which sent people abroad for work. So, naturally, we went to try our luck.

“For a reasonable fee, we can get a job for you in the US”, - the nice lady informed us.


“We can get a guest visa for anybody.”

“Guest visa? I thought we were talking about jobs.”

“Yes, but it’s faster this way. We can certainly get a work visa as well, but in that case the whole procedure would take about seven years.”

Seven years sounded like a hell of a lot to us. We wouldn’t survive so long, but a guest visa? We still had doubts.

“Why do we need the guest visa? What can we do with it? Can we work? Is it legal?”

“Everybody who wants to work there goes through this. It’s a shortcut in a formal procedure and it’s absolutely legal. You go to America as a tourist, and when you’re already there, you find a job and your employer goes to the Labor department and they change your guest visa into a work permit.”

“As simple as that? How can we find an employer like that?”

“That’s why we are here. That’s our part of the deal. We already have employers. This is why we are getting paid”, - was the polite answer.

“How much would all of this cost?”

“Almost nothing; $100 for a visa, + $300 as our payment, and of course an embassy fee + air tickets.”

Their “almost nothing” was quite a bit of something for us but did we have a choice? No, we did not. So we started asking the details and that was when our troubles began. It appeared that in order to get a visa approval from the American Embassy we had to hide our intentions to work in America.

We didn’t like it. We didn’t like it at all.

“Why can’t we just tell the truth? If everything you say is true, and there are jobs that Americans don’t want to do themselves, then why would the Embassy deny us visas?”

If you’re so worried about a little white lie, go for it and apply for a work visa and wait seven years to get it. But first, you’ll have to go to Moscow because that’s the only American Embassy that does that kind of work around here.”- the clerk coldly explained.

Moscow. One of the most hostile Cities for a Georgian to visit? The one where even a short stay would cost a small fortune by our standards? We couldn’t afford that in a million years.

We went home completely disheartened. I’m not going to whine about all the details we had been through, recounting how difficult it was to explain to the children why we were always walking in 90 degree blistering heat when others were sitting on a bus or even taking a taxi, why mommy was always so cruel that she would only let them eat half a piece of bread at a time when they obviously wanted to munch a whole slice. I will only assure you that after we had nothing else to sell, things got much worse. The only remaining sources for survival were the little daily provisions from my parents, and kind contributions brought by our friends and distant relatives every now and again. Even refugees from Abkhazia used to help us out by sharing the monthly food donations they’d been getting from international humanitarian organizations. This is how we learned that canned meat from 1953 US Army reserves was still good. Although this was valuable knowledge about the miracles of modern food technology, it was certainly not the way of life we wanted for the rest of our lives. That was a landmark point when our bona fide principles had gotten seriously breached for the very first time. We started revising our previous thoughts and many ubiquitous doubts snuck into our hearts:

Why do moral dogmas always get in our way?”

“Why should we follow all the rules, especially when they don’t make sense?”

“Why is telling one harmless white lie so unthinkable to us?”

“A little lie never killed anyone, has it? It’s our children’s lives at stake, for Goodness sake! We can’t jeopardize them.”

That was it. We were done. We vigorously started collecting money and soon entered “the office” door once more.

“I knew you would be back”, - the lady smiled. - “Don’t torture yourself with fruitless doubts. This is the right thing to do. We all have been in your shoes. We all want to survive.”

Before we knew it, the people from “the office” got a valid invitation from New York for my husband. We prepared all the necessary documents in accordance with their advice, sold our last valuable possessions - our wedding rings - and finally we were ready for our last and most important step; to get the visa.

“Don’t worry. You almost don’t have to lie”, - I consoled my husband on his way to the Embassy.

He didn’t answer, just looked the other way.

God, I was scared. I thought it was written on Dimitri’s forehead in red marker that he was up to something and everyone was going to see it, but everything went surprisingly well that day. I was not completely dishonest while stating that he almost hadn’t have to lie and “almost” was the key word there. I hadn’t suspected yet that “almost” would become such a principal word in our life for many, many years. Dimitri had to leave the impression of a wealthy, flamboyant, carefree person. While this was indeed his true face in his past life, things were different now, and my husband would have to portray his old self rather than who he was now. Luckily, all of his documents were authentic. Technically, he was still a co-owner of the factory, but he had to “forget” to mention that his business had been dead for several years. But most importantly, Dimitri’s affirmation that he was not planning on staying in America forever was indisputably genuine. The Embassy believed him and gave him the green light.

“You see, it was not the end of the world after all”, - I comforted my husband later. – “Don’t worry; the worst part of our life is over. From now we won’t be starving and won’t be forced to disgrace ourselves with swindling either.”

If only I knew that it was just a mere harbinger of a much bigger and more colorful saga.

Getting money for the round trip ticket didn’t appear hard at all. For such an occasion my father sold his car and gave us the money. I was very touched by this. I knew how much my dad loved his old GAZ 24 and what a huge sacrifice it was for him to make this decision, practically leaving his family without any source of income.

Finally, Dimitri bought the ticket.

“Be brave, woman. I’ll be back in six months,” – he said at last and left home, visibly trembling.

Chapter 2

It was an unfriendly, cold winter day of late December in 1997 and most of our neighbors were preoccupied with preparation for New Year’s Eve. Despite the rough life and catastrophic shortage in almost everything, this time of year still remained the merriest for everybody, especially for children. I stayed in bed and silently cried all day. I didn’t want to scare my girls but I was terrified. No heat, no electricity except for a few hours a day, no tap water most of the time, no money, and now no husband alongside. What should I do? How would we survive? My head was ready to explode. Thankfully, the girls, 7 and 5 at that time, didn’t share my feelings at all. They hadn’t even missed daddy yet, being sure that he would come in any minute.

“Mommy, aren’t you going to put the Christmas tree up for us?” – They kept badgering me.

It worked, it helped me to keep my head and in a few days I was almost alright. Dimitri called as soon as he arrived in New York. We had a very brief talk, just a few comforting words and he promised me to call back straight away when he would be settled. Meanwhile the New Year came, bringing new hopes and new worries along with it. One week passed after the first call at a snail's pace but my husband didn’t call back. Initially I got angry at him but then I became nervous. My friends and relatives were trying to cool me down with lame jokes.

“Who will miss a skinny one like you? He has probably already found a chubby American girl for a change”, - they teased but this trick didn’t overwhelm my worries.

I was getting more and more anxious with every minute and after a couple more days I went to the ‘office’. It was quite chilly inside, and since the kerosene stove creaking in the corner of the room could not cope with the freezing cold, both clerks were wrapped in their coats, with scarfs around their necks. The boss was napping in a shabby armchair, and the woman was sitting at the old, slightly splayed wooden desk, devotedly veneering the peeled spots on her long nails with the bright red nail polish. The same feigned grooming, like all their business! Suddenly I got pissed off, more at myself than at the woman sitting in front of me, and hissed through clenched teeth, barely containing my anger:

“Where is my husband?”

The woman raised her head in complete ignorance. The man also woke up abruptly. An uneasy sense filled the room but pretty quickly they came round and assured me that my qualms were baseless.

“If anything had gone wrong, we would have been notified immediately. So, don’t worry. We’re sure your husband is fine.”

Their certitude was not enough for me at all and I let them know that very clearly. The lady got annoyed at my stubbornness but still promised that she would personally find out every detail of this misunderstanding and would call me at once. And indeed, after a while she rang and told me that it had been some unexpected delay with jobs but now everything was settled. Five years earlier it would probably have been enough to cool me down but not then, not after I’d already witnessed so many betrayals and heard so many horrific stories.

“I want my husband to call me!”

“Of course; he will call you!” – The women responded irritably.

“Do something fast, lady. Otherwise I’m going to call the Georgian Consulate in New York and I will find out what’s happening with my husband in my own way!” – I grumbled and hung up.

A few more days passed and during this time I had everyone in law enforcement that I personally knew or had any other way to get touch with acquainted with my troubles. All of them advised me not to jump at any conclusion yet and keep waiting. They also explained that they controlled almost everything within Georgia’s borders but in order to get help in America, I had to make contact with so-called ‘thieves-in-law’. Again, criminals? Even in America?! I was stunned. No way! I was not going to do such a thing under any circumstance.

After the two week nightmarish waiting Dimitri finally called. I remember that moment very clearly. I was sorting through sprouted, withered potatoes to pick out edible ones and at the same time was enthusiastically trying to assure our youngest daughter, what a wonderful dinner awaited us, if only she would wait a little longer. Poor Mariam was a mommy’s good girl but still couldn’t help but beg with a charming smile:

“Mom, don’t feed me, just give me a little bit of bread.”

I couldn’t do it. We didn’t have bread. I silently sobbed inside myself, but outwardly continued to cheerfully smile and kept assuring her that I would pick out the good potatoes, add the onion, a little garlic, and some melted cheese that I had hidden for such an occasion, and pretty soon the soup would be ready for the whole family. After all, good girls did not want just only them to be fed while everyone else would have remained hungry, did they? Mariam obediently nodded her head, but her huge black eyes got filled with tears. A sharp pain pierced my heart, but at that moment the phone rang and by some sixth sense I felt that it was Dimitri. I quickly wiped my dirty hands on my robe and ran to the hall. I was right. It was him. After I had learned that everything was all right with him, I started asking about the case and then I heard something very strange.

Don’t worry. I’ve got my passport back.”

“What? Your passport?”

“Stop it, Tsira. Everything is ok. I’ll call you soon.”

Dimitri didn’t explain anything further and simply hung up on me. Man, I was furious! Furious and immensely worried at the same time. Dimitri was a unusually strong physically and a hardy man, but he had diabetes, and he also suffered with a relatively mild form of hemophilia, but this "light form" was so insidious that for any small cuts he could bleed to death. Therefore, every time he had his tooth pulled out, he had to get stitches on the wound and had to be given special medicine to prevent bleeding. And with each such instance, I could not sleep at night, so that God forbid, some sort of trouble did not happen. Thus, you can easily imagine in what state of mind I was in.

After another two weeks of gnawing my fingernails he resurfaced again... this time from North Carolina.

“What? You disappeared and I was dying here from fear and now you’re in North Carolina? What are you doing there?” – I screamed at him.

“What do you think I am doing, woman? Getting a suntan, of course!” – He shouted back.

For a few seconds I was speechless. My always calm and kind hubby had just snapped at me! It was unimaginable before. And then I heard his softened voice again:

“I work here, Tsira, mopping floors and cleaning toilets at Kmart.”

Here I realized that if I wanted to learn more, I had to hold my horses and stop making his already uneasy situation even worse with my edginess. So, I pulled myself together and pretty soon I was listening to a very disturbing story. It turned out that the American business partners of the ‘office’ met Dimitri and a few other guys from Georgia at the JFK airport in accordance to the prearranged agreement, and then collected their passports supposedly for some formal paperwork. After that the newcomers were taken to New Ark, to some apartment where every single room was packed with people from all over the world, but mostly from the former Soviet republics, and left there without any clear explanation. I cannot tell you much about this episode of Dimitri’s vicissitude because he was not talkative by nature but in one thing I can assure you: that was not the place where any human being should have belonged in. Living conditions in this temporary ‘station’ were awful, almost like in war stricken Georgia. For a few days Dimitri and his companions had to sleep on the floor, using their coats as blankets, in the blistering cold winter of the north-eastern coast of America. They were given very little food once or twice a day and were strictly warned not to leave the apartment, otherwise they would be arrested.

After a couple of days Dimitri rebelled and I must tell you it was something that I would never imagine my husband would ever do as he was the most peaceful, polite, nonviolent and friendly person I’ve ever known. And not only did he rebel but he influenced the other Georgians to do so as well. Actually, I learned about this incident more from the secretary of the local "office" than from my husband. She shared with me behind her boss’ back that the partners from New York called and complained about my husband. It turned out that on New Year’ Eve Dimitri slipped out of the apartment and called his old friend who lived somewhere in Brooklyn. So, his first new year in America Dimitri spent in a serene circle of Georgian-Jewish immigrants. Apparently they had advised my restrained husband what to do in such an unusual situation. He was enlightened that since he was in the country absolutely legally, he had nothing to fear from the police, and that those guys from the office were the ones who had to worry about cops. A couple of days later, Dimitri returned to New Ark and resolutely demanded his passport back. This was a very risky step, as it was clearly smelling of organized crime, and entering into a conflict with the Russian mafia was not a joke. But God was merciful and everything worked out peacefully. They gave him his passport, but even that appeared not enough for my husband who had gone wild. I am writing these lines and I have a feeling that instead of describing the life of our most ordinary, quiet and peaceful family, I am composing some kind of crime fiction novel. But it was just like that. My most humble husband, who by the will of fate turned into the Moses for the rest of the Georgians trapped in that New Ark flat, demanded that they return the passports to all his fellow countrymen. This caused a real hassle which came down to assault, but as I noted above, Dmitri possessed incredible strength, so pressing on him physically was not so easy. Fortunately, the confrontation ended without any serious mutilation. Both sides received their fair share of cracks and bruises, but without any further complications it all ended there. As a result, all the Georgians got their passports back. That was when the business partners from New York had called the Tbilisi ‘office’ and demanded that they would never send them such an ‘intelligent freak’ ever again. Later, when I asked Dimitri what a miracle had turned my complaisant hubby into such a thug of Rambo, he replied that it was the dejection of the situation. He simply could not let them down.

But Dmitry's responsibility for those people did not end there. Being the only English-speaking person among them and having some money in his pocket, he was regarded as some kind of lifebuoy by the others, and everyone literally stuck to him. It would have been much better for Dimitri to stay in New York, where we had many friends and acquaintances, but he made a hard decision. I don’t know how exactly, but Dimitri managed to contact some American woman of Bulgarian origin and explain to her their situation. It happened that she knew someone who owned a cleaning business in North Carolina and now all the Georgians from the New Ark apartment worked in a huge chain store company called Kmart.

But at the moment when I was talking to my husband on the phone, I didn’t known all these details yet. So the key question that bothered me the most, after his health, of course, concerned his documents. On my inquiry if he had got a working permit, Dimitri responded briefly:

“Not yet”.

“Is your employer going to do anything about it?”

His uncertain answer was: “We’ll see.”

Well, as you can guess, I was not completely thrilled by the fact that my delicate husband had become a public toilet cleaner but when I learned that Dimitri lost twenty-six kilograms, trembles swept through my whole being. The hidden fear that his diabetes had probably gotten worse, most likely because of the tremendous stress he had been through lately, clenched my heart in a tight fist. We knew from the very beginning that there would be no milky shores waiting for poor job seekers in America, but I could never imagine that it could be so emotionally difficult for him. I stood in the cold hallway, (we could afford to heat only the bedrooms and then only in the daytime) and nervously twisted the telephone cord in my fingers, trying not to let my voice betray the extent of my anxiety. I could not help him, but I could hurt him by displaying my weakness. So I started cheerfully saying something about Dimitri’s current situation being much better than the launch of his adventures, and I thanked the Lord for the little progress we still managed to achieve and encouraged my husband by assuring him that all of the steps he had made so far were absolutely right and he should continue his efforts with the same courage.

The first month’s paychecks Dimitri and his companions got had to go to the woman who had found them the jobs and they also needed some money to feed themselves too, so no help for their families had been available yet. The next two months they had to pay for a car the employer prearranged them to buy. Only in May did we receive some money from Dimitri, but it was not enough even to cover our debt for his traveling expenses. Another huge problem - at the end of June his six month visa would be expired but his employer hadn’t even started the paperwork to get him a work permit. We were confused. Should he come back? He still had a return ticket. But without any money what would he do? The conditions got even worse back in Georgia. The only gleam in this stressful situation was that we regularly talked on the phone. Every day I waited for a call from America as manna from heaven. Nothing really mattered for me anymore, just to hear the voice of my beloved. I missed him terribly. At each call, I rushed to the phone like I was on fire, so that no one could beat me. If it were only for me, I would have called him back long before. But behind my back stood the whole family and I should have always remembered that. Therefore, during our brief conversations, there was almost never time for sentiments, just only deeds and deeds. Of course, the current issue was the working visa and I constantly tormented my husband with the same question:

“Why isn’t your boss doing anything about your visa?”

At some point his silence gave a crack and he answered sincerely:

“You know, Tsira, it is not necessary for us to have work permits. Boss says he has to go through lots of paperwork to get them for us and he does not want to. He says personally he does not even need our work permits to keep us as employees.”

Another blow to my face.

“You can’t be there without a visa. They’ll kick you out!”- I started arguing but he cut me short:

“No, they will not. Nobody cares about papers here.”

I couldn’t believe that my husband was saying that. As if my fears because of his health were not enough, now I got scared for his safety too and started begging him to get at least his guest visa extended. He took my advice, although as the future proved, he was partially right about documents and his legal papers not being important for most of the people around.

Right now it is not my intension to start speculation about this very important issue that the American legal system has stuck with for too many years, although it’s extremely urgent, in my point of view, for many of its citizens. When it comes to illegality, the first thing that prompts to everybody’s mind is Mexican workers and temporary agricultural jobs which they’re supposedly taking from Americans. But what about others, those 2,5 million non-Mexican undocumented aliens who are left just about invisible? In this narrative I’ll tell you about one very private case of how ordinary newcomers from Eastern Europe, under certain circumstances became illegal aliens.

Dimitri and his co-workers lived together. They had only one car, so my husband used to drive all of them to their work places and only then would he go to his own. They all worked very hard, seven days a week, every single night, without any weekends; no Independence Day, no Christmas, no Easter, no Veterans Day, nor any other holiday was ever available for them, but despite such intensive labor they still had very little earnings, so little that Dimitri barely was able to send a few hundred bucks home in almost a year.

As for life in Georgia, it didn’t improve a bit. Time was passing by swiftly and very soon another six month visa would be expired but we hadn’t achieved anything yet; no money, no husband around. I started complaining and demanded that Dimitri should return home but my mother-in-law strongly opposed this.

The goldish weather of late autumn, so typical for Tbilisi at this time of the year, was glowing outside. The entire enclave of the inter-mountain areawhere the capital of Georgia is situated was literally flooded with sunlight, but it was a deceptive radiance. In fact it was quite chilly outside. Therefore, all the windows were tightly closed, but the sun's rays through the panoramic pane perfectly heated the inner space of our living room. Since these were the hours when we were given electricity, Marina, my sister-in-law, was ironing her clothes in the far corner of the room. Next to the window, her mom, madam Natela, Panica, as we lovingly called her due to her constant readiness to panic for any trifle, was resting, reclined on her couch, as usual, nervously shaking her little elegant leg, a clear sign that she was in a skirmishing mood. In such moments Marina and I always tried to dodge the confrontation with our plump snow-white. Don’t get me wrong. We all sincerely loved her, but that did not mean that her sometimes intrusively provocative character didn’t test our self-control, which, I must admit, every now and then had been successfully breached. And so, here I was, sitting opposite her in an armchair, determined to withstand any of her onslaught. The girls, an inalienable phenomenon of our surroundings, were playing behind me, squeaking and murmuring relentlessly.

I started first:

“It cannot continue like this any longer! It's just not working! Dimitri must come home!”

“And what will he do here?” - Madam Natela blurted out, squinting her penetrating green eyes.

“And what should I do without him? What kind of family is this?”

My mother-in-law was a very stubborn woman and because of this I expected great resistance from her, but instead of her usual tantrum she suddenly agreed:

“Yes, you’re right. It’s no good for spouses to be apart for such a long time. And it is no good for my grandchildren either. They need a father.”

I was very surprised and glad that she agreed with me so easily but what she said next, made my jaw drop.

“Why don’t you join your husband then?”


“Yes, take the girls and go to your husband.”

It was such an absurd suggestion that my sister-in-law started impulsively laughing and I couldn’t hold back a smile either:

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No”, - Madam Natela hilariously rounded her lively green eyes, theatrically showing us her frustration that we couldn’t see such an obvious thing: - “Dimitri is not coming. It is absolutely out of the question. Then there is only one option left; you should go.”

Arguing with my mother-in-law was never a good idea, so Marina and I just smiled again and left her room. But Dimitri’s mother was not the type of woman one could ignore so easily and pretty soon I had my lesson taught. In next to no time everybody around me became aware that I was going to America. Even people I barely knew would stop me in the streets and ask:

“When are you leaving, dear?”

“Who told you that? I am not leaving anywhere.”

“You aren’t? Sorry, our mistake”, - they would apologize but in their doubtful eyes I saw that they didn’t believe me.

Even our closest friends started questioning my words.

“Don’t hide the truth from us. We won’t tell anybody.”

I got annoyed by the bizarre situation in which I found myself plunged and a few times even argued with my mother-in-law.

“Madam Natela, stop spreading rumors, please. It’s getting ridiculous. You know I cannot go to America.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to... And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Do you know how many people are trying to get visas and they cannot? Only one from a hundred gets the American Embassy’s approval.”

“Nonsense. They won’t resist you.”

Why not? Because I’m your daughter-in-law?”

“Hush, girl. Don’t get fresh here!”

Madam Natela, I don’t even have an invitation.”

“We got it for Dima, We’ll get it for you.”

“Why are you so desperate to send me overseas?”

“Because your husband needs you there. You see? Soon it’ll be a year he has been in America and he still hasn’t got things straighten out. It’s because he is too soft and too polite and I’m sure everybody is taking advantage of his modest character.”

“And in your eyes I’m what? Margaret Thatcher?!”

“Margaret, not Margaret, tougher than my son. What? You don’t want to help him?”

“Of course, I do, but we don’t have money for that. Whatever Dima is sending is barely enough for food.”

“That’s fine. If needed, we’ll sell our apartment.”

“For Goodness sake,” – I waved my hands again and left her sight in despair.

Regardless of my resistance, Madam Natela’s words still had an impact on me. I didn’t want to discuss this matter with her. Instead I started consulting with my sister-in-law. We used to retire to her bedroom and in a half-whisper discuss the current state of our affairs:

“What if I try, Marina? You think it’s impossible?”

“With two children? Absolutely out of the question.”

“I cannot leave the girls!”

“Of course you can’t.”

Painful doubts hunted me for almost a month and still I couldn’t make any decision.

“What if I try, Marina? What if it works? You know I am better than Dimitri with papers.”

“You sure can try but what about an invitation? Are you going to ask those horrible people again?”

Going to the ‘office’ was not an option.

“I’ll do it in my way.”

So I did. We hadn’t got any American relatives back then but I had and still have a lot of friends from all over the world thanks to my university years and academic connections. So, I contacted one of my old buddies who worked at the Chicago University as a research scientist, and mentioned that I would like to visit America with my daughters for two weeks. After a few days she faxed me an invitation letter which soon became a laughing matter for everybody around.

Our neighbor from the fifth floor and a close friend of the family, Leah, openly told me straight to the face:

“People with money and connections have official invitations signed and sealed by American attorneys with golden seals on them, and still cannot get the Embassy approval and you hope to convince the consular with this funny piece of paper?”

Soon our tiny kitchen turned into some sort of meeting spot. What kind of absurd thoughts its walls did not hear. Not believing that any good could come through my ‘piece of paper’, people familiar with immigration matters started giving me absolutely unimaginable advices, such as: “Forget about your funny invitation. You should go to Canada first; it’s much easier to get a Canadian visa. Then you can drive down to the US.” Or even crazier: “Go to Mexico and then walk to America through the desert, we heard it’s possible.”

I was stunned by such advice; walking through an unfamiliar desert with kids! No thanks; I much preferred dying from starvation at home. But I still had my invitation, sure no ‘golden seal’ but at least it was authentic and I felt like it was worth to give it a shot. Meanwhile our family became extremely polarized, on one side my mother-in-law enthusiastically cheering for this endeavor, and on the other side my own mother, Madonna, loudly wishing that this entire venture would fail.

And finally the big day approached. I had to look like a respectable and, what was even more important, wealthy lady who in such a disastrous time for Georgians had nothing else to worry about but to go to a foreign country with two lovely kids just for fun. But I faced one big problem: although the girls were still nicely dressed, I had nothing suitable to wear for such a special occasion. All my appropriate clothes were long sold off. That was the time when the incredible openness of Georgian society came in especially handy. As soon as I mentioned my dilemma to my friends, in the blink of an eye I had every necessary tinge to show off. On top of all the other nuances of the wealthy dress code I was trying to mimic I added my aunt Maria’s antique jewelry and wrapped myself in a neighbor’s beautiful long sable coat made from the winter pelage finest fur, probably more expensive than our apartment. When I looked into a mirror, I was knocked dead.

“Damn it, Marina,” – I turned to my sister-in-law, - “I never looked so elegant in my life. Not even when I was the wife of a factory owner. I wish I had more time to get used to all of this luxury. Don’t you think it’s too much? Do I look fake? I feel a little awkward.”

“You’ll be fine”, - she dismissed my worries with a smile.

The next day we had an appointment at the American consulate but at night Mariam, our youngest daughter, got very sick. She’d been throwing up all night and only by the morning did she feel a little bit better.

Even before the dawn, my parents rushed to our place. Dad remained, as I expected, very optimistic and positive, but my mother was completely beside herself with frustration:

“That’s a bad omen! God doesn’t want you to leave for America. Cancel the journey. Don’t go!” – she pleaded but I was unshakable.

“How do you know that it is God, not the devil trying to ruin our plans?”

My poor mom. If only I knew.

So, at the appointed time I went to the Embassy with the girls. We paid our fees and then an embassy employee took us into a huge hall, where about eighty, eighty five visitors were waiting for their interviews. The girls behaved like perfect little ladies, as though realizing how important this day was for our whole future. We were among the last ones and thus witnessed that only few visa-seekers got the consular’s approvals before us. All of this didn’t look very encouraging at all and my heart started jumping from anxiousness and fear but when our turn came, suddenly everything went unexpectedly, I would say, even mysteriously smoothly.

A consular, an approximately thirty year-old neat -looking guy, quickly browsed through our documents, then he picked the invitation letter among the bunch of papers, cautiously read it and when finished, he politely asked me how I had known the person who was inviting us. I was prepared for this inquiry and presented him a bundle of letters, received from my friend during fifteen years or so of our acquaintance. The consular was seemingly impressed. After that he didn’t even look at the remaining documents. He just asked me a few more questions.

“Where do you work?”

“I don’t work”.

“How come?”- He sounded surprised.

“Because my girls are too small and they need me at home. Besides, there are no good jobs anyway. At my previous job at Tbilisi State University I was getting a salary equivalent to 30 cents in American currency.”

“One cannot call it a decent salary,”- the consular shook his head in disapproval.

I agreed with a sour smile and the consular moved on to inquiring information about my husband.

I blushed. I don’t know if he noticed it or not but my ears started burning like hell. Now I had to lie to this nice guy and it didn’t turn out as easy as I had hoped.

“He is abroad.”

“For what purpose?”

“Because there are no jobs here anymore. Nearly half of the Georgian men work in Russia or Ukraine nowadays.”

I was painfully awaiting for the next question which undoubtedly should be about Dimitri’s exact whereabouts and I already had a phony document prepared that he worked somewhere in Russia but suddenly the consular put my papers aside, looked at me smiling and announced:

“That’s a pity. I would give him a visa too.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Are you giving us visa approvals?”

“I certainly am.”

I was so shocked that for the moment couldn’t move and became completely speechless.

“Do you have any further questions?” – The consular asked impatiently because other candidates had been waiting for their turns.

“No, I don’t. Thank you,” – I barely managed to answer.

I stood up, grabbed my girls’ hands and left the hall. I was so bewildered that I even forgot my precious letters. What was that? A joke? I couldn’t understand. Did the consular realize that Dimitri was already in America and just pitied us or did I fool him? I often wonder about this mystery till today, but one way or another it was a true miracle for us.

When I came home and told the family what had just happened, it was like a bombshell. Hearing that, my mom’s heart sank but everybody else was very happy about it.

“The time will come and you will regret it”, - mom told me quietly and reproachfully looked at my father. Until the end of her days, she did not cease blaming my innocent dad for helping me and Dima in the realization of this insane adventure. Forgive me, Mom, for any pain I caused you in this and the next world.

The news spread among our acquaintances quickly. Many of them had been encouraging me to try getting visas but as it turned out only a few had actually believed in its success. Now they all were caught with a huge surprise and started asking me questions about whom we bribed and how much it cost so that they could do the same. I was swearing over and over again that no such kind of thing ever took place but nobody listened to me. Nobody believed in random miracles in embattled Georgia anymore.

“What? You want us to believe that a woman with two children got a visa approval without a bribe? Not a chance!”- That was their overall verdict.

At first I became very upset about all this and tried to pursue the doubters but then I realized that I didn’t have time for such nonsense. I had much more important things to take care of and to take care of immediately. We had got visas on January 13th and they would expire exactly in three months. I needed act swiftly and wisely if I didn’t want to lose our only chance. But I had no money for the journey. According to the law of meanness, Dimitri was not able to send even a dime during that time period. Knowing that my husband and I would soon be able to pay back, all our friends and relatives were willing to lend me a hand but even then, I managed to collect only one thousand USD in two months, certainly not enough to buy three round-trip tickets to America. I was utterly devastated. Then another miracle happened.

One lucky morning our neighbor from the fifth floor, Leah, dropped in and brought a couple of sweet rolls for our girls. I cut the buns into pieces so that everyone would get it and put on the water to make fresh tea. The children immediately grabbed their portion, as well as a slice for their grandma and ran into her room. Leah sat down on a chair closer to the gas stove.

“Exhausted, utterly exhausted!”

“Why? What’s up?”

“Just coming from the bakery and barely got to the house.”

“Don’t say that there is the problem with flour again!”

“No, thank God, everything is quiet there, but you should have seen what’s going on at the exchange booth! Barely snuck through the frenzied crowd.”

“It's weird. I thought no one has cash anymore.”

“So it is so, but no one wants to lose those pennies they still have.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Me neither but someone in the queue was explaining to others that at the stock market the American dollar made an enormous jump against the Georgian currency a couple of hours ago and this is why all exchange booths are buying dollars like crazy now.”

It felt as if I got an electric shock.

“And how much are they paying for a dollar?”- I asked impatiently.

“Twice as much as yesterday evening.”

“This might be our chance, Leah.”

“What you mean?”

“They sell tickets only for the Georgian currency at the air ticket office.”

I didn’t have time for further explanation. I left our astonished guest in the kitchen, grabbed my coat and the purse and jumped out. We lived in the centre of the city and everything was within a ten-minute walk from our house. I ran to the nearest exchange booth, sold all our dollars, and then ran to the travel agent’s to buy tickets in Georgian currency. And it worked. I had just enough money for three tickets. How odd was that? What could you call it if not a true sign from heaven?! After that even my mom gave up on her holy crusade against our venture.

Then departure time came; March 16, 1999. Nearly all our family and close friends went with us to the airport, and my mom was among them. She wasn’t talking; she was just staring at me with wide, almost crazy eyes. When we passed the custom service and went across the gate, I turned to her and not being able to bear that gaze anymore, told her:

“Mom, stop it. It is not the end of the world. I’ll be back in six months, in worst case, in a year.”

She shook her head and whispered in a trembling voice:

“No, I’ll never see you again.”

Regardless of how long I’ll live, this painful scene will never fade away from my memory, but back then I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was too preoccupied with another matter; a whole new world was waiting for me and my daughters across the ocean and I was worried only about that.

Chapter 3

When our plane landed at O’Hare International airport, America greeted us with beautiful cool weather. It was lightly snowing but no wind or gale as we’d been warned of beforehand about Chicago’s harsh climate. We had just gone through a long tiresome flight and the girls were a bit too capricious. I felt nervous myself too but the reason behind it was quite different. I was warned beforehand that even at the destination checkpoint there still might be some unexpected problems, so I had to be watchful. Fortunately, everything went smoothly that time too.

Welcome to America”, - an elderly chubby customs officer greeted us with a friendly smile and stamped my passport in three different places.

When I glanced inside it, I noticed that instead of two-week permeation, he had granted us with six months staying approval. I was so happy. I thanked him sincerely and headed with the girls towards the waiting hall where my friend was supposed to meet us but unfortunately one unpleasant surprise was also awaiting us there: our suitcase didn’t arrive at the luggage section. It had disappeared somewhere between Tbilisi – Moscow - Chicago.

“Don’t worry. This happens quite often at international airports,” - my friend comforted me. – “They must have sent your luggage to some other country. They will find it and bring it to you in a few days.”

It still upset me very much because I realized what an unforgivably stupid mistake I had made when I put almost all our documents into that suitcase. Now if it was gone, that would be a great inconvenience. But could moaning after the fact or crying fix anything? No. So I sucked it up, filled out all the necessary papers for lost and found items and left the airport, putting all my hopes on the Almighty’s mercy.

If anyone wishes to see the New World for the very first time, choosing Chicago as a starting point is probably one of the best decisions. But if you get such a cordial host to welcome you and show you around as we did, you may consider yourself not only smart but lucky as well. Our first week in America was just amazing. Without our luggage we faced a serious shortage in clothes but fortunately my friend had a lot of unused new garments of her daughter and she generously presented them to my girls. She found a few jeans and shirts for me too, so this problem was easily fixed. But if this was not enough, the very next day Olga took us to the toy store and bought two beautiful Barbies for Nino and Mariam. The girls were thrilled. They never had such fine-looking dolls before. Personally I was shocked by the price. Each toy cost over fifty bucks.

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