Coming to America: Oleg Zvezdin

Claire Goldberg, Staff Writer

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Science teacher Oleg Zvezdin’s cultural identity pulls from both his Russian-Jewish heritage and his American upbringing, he said. Zvezdin was born in Minsk, Belarus in 1985, and left the country with his family when he was just nine years old. Zvezdin’s family came to America in pursuit of a safer, better life with more opportunities.
Zvezdin was born to a Jewish mother. In Belaurs, his mother was a doctor and his father was an engineer. Life in Minsk was a struggle for most people for a variety of reasons, he said. At the time, the country was in a food shortage and the government-controlled food distribution. “The government rationed food so that at least in theory the basic needs of the people could be met, but even that was challenging. The government would give out coupons for food, but even though people had coupons there wasn’t any food,” Zvezdin said.
Workers would often go extended periods of time without proper pay from the government, Zvezdin said. “My father was an engineer and he would go almost half a year without his payment,” he said. Because Zvezdin’s family had a Jewish lineage, they were placed at a disadvantage for job and education opportunities.
“It wasn’t so much persecution, but there was some discrimination in the opportunities that were afforded for Jews,” he said. “Tests were administered to go to higher level institutions, and some of the tests were oral. The oral tests were different and harder for Jewish students than they were for others.”
In 1986, a nuclear explosion in Chernobyl, a town a few hundred miles away from Minsk, was kept a secret from the public by the Soviet government. The secrecy surrounding Chernobyl also compelled Zvezdin’s family to leave, he said. “The government didn’t really explain the danger of the incident, and I think [that] in my mother’s eyes if we had the opportunity to leave, that [would be] really important. Not knowing how the radiation affected our country was a really big fear of my mother’s.”
Zvezdin’s family immigrated to America just a few years after the rest of his extended family had migrated. When they arrived, Zvezdin’s parents worked hard to learn English, the language that would grant them job opportunities. “My mother had to learn English, relearn medicine in English, and then pass boards [or a test that all doctors must past],” he said. “It took her four or five years but she did all of those,” Zvezdin said. However, with the influx of Russian refugees, residencies were scarce and his mother was not able to find one. Zvezdin’s mother had to return to school to become a social worker.
Zvezdin participated in multiple extracurricular activities, like the Boy Scouts of America organization, to help him make friends in his community and adapt to American culture. His transition wasn’t very difficult, he said. Within his first year, Zvezdin had already made friends and learned the language.
“I wanted to make friends and do activities, so I had to learn English,” he said. “I have a clear memory of when I started thinking in English; it was about four months in. That was when I knew I was really fluent in the language.” Zvezdin attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he met many Russian students who shared a similar culture to his.
“My culture is a blend. I still speak Russian, eat Russian food at home, and a lot of my friends are Russian, but I’m also culturally American too. Like any immigrant, it is sort of a dichotomy of fitting in and maintaining our culture at home.”
The assimilation process is easier for younger generations due to different cultural barriers, Zvezdin said. “I love what this country has given me, but I also see the difference between me and my father. It was easier for me to adopt this culture, harder for my parents, and even harder for my grandparents.”
Zvezdin said that the community needs to continue to learn about the many different perspectives people at the school have, he said.“I have conversations with my class where we talk about Chernobyl and about my own experiences as a kid. I don’t hide it from anybody,” he said. “The sharing of experiences gives us empathy which is ultimately the thing that makes us human.”