40 years ago

40 years ago on August 3rd, 1976, a hot summer day, a young family landed at O’Hare with just $116, a suitcase, and a small soup pot that the young mother used to make kasha and bullion for her infant. The couple, still kids themselves, left the Soviet Union to escape the stifling life of communism, dictatorship, censorship, and scarcity. Life behind the wall was lonely, they were completely shut out from the rest of the world.

Smolyansky Family


The young man had read the US Constitution and told his bride he believed life would be better in the US … that they would be free to speak, free to pursue their limitless dreams and that it would be the best place to raise a family. On the black market he found vinyls with sounds of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, quietly playing them and dreaming of a different life knowing that just by listening to these albums he was at risk for being arrested.

He was a mechanical engineer and was able to wire an old radio and picking up a particular radio wave, Voice of America, aware that this could land him in jail or dead but he risked it all, hungry for news and information further confirming what he felt in his heart…escaping the Soviet Union was the only option. He was angry and sick of being followed, watched, and dragged into police stations for questioning, the noose around his neck was getting tighter.

A few days after his 29th birthday he and his family defected, patiently waiting in Rome for 3 months while various refugee agency’s worked on the paperwork and green cards. His bride discovered Nutella and other foods she had no idea existed while he walked the streets hustling any belongings he could to survive the waiting time. When they took their fists steps on US soil 40 years ago today, a representative from HIAS was there to welcome them as one of the first 48 families from the Soviet Union allowed to settle in Chicago. They were offered vouchers for a motel and food and the volunteer helped them make their way to Rogers Park. The first nights were scary. The young mother would not close her eyes fearful a cockroach would crawl into her baby’s ear.

They saw “Hot Dogs” for sale on every corner, using a dictionary to translate the two words they became terrified that the land of opportunity eats dogs for food. Perhaps they made a mistake? Today it’s funny but I can not imagine how scared and brave they were. They walked into grocery store after grocery store and cried struck by all the food and all the options there were. The young mother at the age of 26 declared she would open a grocery store for all the Russian families that would be arriving after them. For a year and a half they saved every penny they made from her job washing hair at a salon and every dollar he made on his new job as a draftsman at a local engineering firm. It was a far demotion for him but he didn’t care….he was free.

During his spare time he walked the Chicago alley’s looking for broken electronics he could fix and sell. The young mother went on to open one store then two and eventually five as well as an international distribution and food importing company and of course inspiring the launch of Lifeway Kefir. They went on to deliver another baby, this time a baby boy born as an American.

This is the story of our beginnings. So here’s to 40 years in America (and Chicago). We hope we’ve made you proud. So much gratitude for our parents and their courage, bravery, ingenuity, resilience, strength, and their dreams of a better life. I could not do what they did. I just couldn’t. And so much gratitude for this country which has given us so many opportunities and welcomed us with open arms. Gratitude for all the activists and philanthropist who fought so hard to allow us and so many others like us to come and enjoy the freedom and opportunities this country has offered. We are blessed. If I spent the rest of my life trying to repay this country for all it has given us, it would still not be enough.

Follow @JulieSmolyansky on Twitter.