For Immigrants, America Was, Is and Always Will be Great
Some of the most enthusiastic Americans weren't born in America.
I was born Xenia Vorotova in Izhevsk, Russia. As a little Jewish girl living in Russia, I idealized the United States as the place where anything is possible. I got that message from popular music, magazines and movies I saw about America. I obsessed over American culture and the English language, often wondering what it would be like to actually live there. At age 17, exactly 20 years ago, my world turned upside down -- my mother, younger sister and myself moved to the famous U.S.A. in search of a better life.
Our destination was New York City. To many immigrants, New York is synonymous with America. It’s seen as a chance to prove yourself, to "make it." They say, “if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” So there we were, three petite women, taking a stab at the Big Apple.
In 1998, New York’s population was 7.4 million -- a staggering contrast to Izhevsk’s half-million. The TV and movies I devoured as a teenager did not come even close to doing the larger-than-life metropolis justice, from it’s 24/7 noise to jam-packed subway cars.
We knew New York was a “sink or swim” kind of place, so we arrived prepared to work our way up from the bottom. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that eager work ethic and my mom’s life savings weren’t enough to keep our family of three afloat. My mother was an accomplished accountant back in Russia, but her education records were taking too long to transfer, and no one would hire her without them. To make ends meet, she started cleaning other people's apartments, and I walked dogs and watched neighbors’ cats to help with the bills. This shocking new reality was hard on the three of us psychologically. There were moments when we felt defeated and thought we were going to have to go back home.
Despite our best efforts and with just $7.56 left to our name, we were forced to check into a homeless shelter on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The next six months was a time of great uncertainty for me and my family. We huddled in a tiny room with a single bed and no kitchen. We stood in line every Thursday at the local church for free meals and pantry. I temporarily escaped the reality by daydreaming about being a fashion designer and even began putting my ideas to paper. We continued to work hard and save our pennies. And we endlessly wondered if we would ever be able to get back on our feet again.
In spring of 1999, we caught a lucky break when a social worker introduced us to Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit legal organization that helped women immigrants in bad situations. Their leader was Dorchen Leidholdt, a lawyer, feminist and all-around inspiring woman. Leidholdt recognized our potential and knew that with some help, we would be back on our feet in no time. She was instrumental in helping my mother get her first job as an accountant. She helped me get into the Fashion Institute of Technology -- based off of my sketches from the shelter -- and later my little sister into Columbia University, where she graduated with honors on a full scholarship.
By 2000, we were transferred from the homeless shelter to the Lehman Projects on 110th Street in East Harlem. East Harlem was gang territory at the time, and you would hear gunshots at night. The projects were dark, brick buildings with graffiti-filled elevators that perpetually smelled of urine. But we didn’t complain. Our own apartment with a real kitchen was an upgrade. My sister and I even had our own separate rooms -- a luxury we had previously never experienced. Things were finally looking up for us.
Even though I wouldn’t wish our trials upon anyone, I know that without them we wouldn’t be the people we are today. Hardships made us more resilient, taught us to stick together and made us want to succeed more.
By late 2000s, I adopted a moniker, Doe Deere, and found my passion as an entrepreneur. In 2008, I founded my own makeup company, Lime Crime, which became a big success -- employing 35 people in Los Angeles and inspiring women all over the world to express themselves unapologetically. I have America to thank for it as it gave me the opportunity to pursue my vision. Every day over the past 20 years I have worked tirelessly towards what some call the "American Dream" -- a successful business, a beautiful home, a family that still takes on the world together. None of it would have been possible without the help we received when we were at our most vulnerable. The fact that someone who was once homeless could someday become a CEO -- or even just live in relative safety and comfort and contribute to society -- is part of why immigrants from all over the world are willing to risk everything to come here.
Let’s remember that not all Americans start out as Americans. Many emigrate from their home countries for the same reason my family did, and if my family is any indication, those on the most turbulent paths to citizenship could one day prove to be the very people who make America great.