Starting Over, Then Paying it Forward

Lana Alman escaped the U.S.S.R. with her family as a small girl with assistance from Federation-supported agencies. The generosity she was shown inspired her to pay it forward to help other immigrants professionally and through volunteering with Federation partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in its work to resettle refugees. This is her story.


While my dad stood in line at the U.S. Embassy, my mom and I pressed our faces against the store window to hide from the bitter Moscow cold. After hours of waiting, I saw him running down the street waiving a piece of paper in the air, as if he won the lottery. It was the winning ticket granting us refugee status and permission to leave the U.S.S.R.

Anti-Semitism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and civil war in Moldova, my place of birth, led my family to desperately search for an escape. Finally, on December 22, 1990, with $600 for a family of four we left for America on Pan Am Flight 031.

We arrived in the middle of winter to Cleveland, Ohio to empty snow-covered streets and houses decorated with Christmas lights. Our first trip to a local supermarket left my mom in tears of disbelief from aisles full of cereal boxes, large pyramids of fruit and shelves bursting with bread.

Despite the generous assistance we received from Federation beneficiaries HIAS and the local Jewish Family Service Association, our new life was still difficult. I began third grade knowing only how to count to 12 and say "I love you" in English. Children were extremely cruel, and not knowing their language or culture, I felt helpless.

My dad, a textile engineer, worked the night shift at a bed making factory; my mom, also an engineer, sewed wheelchair covers. She often fell asleep at her desk, only to wake from her fingers getting caught in the sewing machine. Eventually, my father became a recognized florist and my mother, a master tailor.

Throughout high school, I tutored ESL classes and welcomed new immigrants. In college I studied Spanish and received scholarships from HIAS and the JFSA of Cleveland, always important names in my family. I later interned at the former Immigration & Naturalization Service, served as a Fulbright Scholar in Chile focusing on migration issues, and worked with unaccompanied Hispanic minors detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

When I moved to Washington, DC to work at a government consulting firm, I again found a vibrant Jewish community. Through HIAS, I prepared Hispanic immigrants for their citizenship tests, and currently support programs for Russian-speaking Jews with JDC—which also played a key role in the Soviet Jewry movement—and Entwine, JDC’s initiative for engaging young Jews in humanitarian work.

Had I not been a refugee, I can’t imagine what my life would be like today. My personal immigration journey defines who I am, including my true passion: accompanying other immigrants on their journey no matter where they might be from. Thanks to Federation-supported agencies like and HIAS, my family and I were able to come here to pursue dreams we didn’t even know we had. I am beyond proud of our story and eternally grateful for all of the opportunities that we were granted in the United States.


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