Those who leave homeland for U.S. often carry burden of guilt along with joy of freedom

Olga Mossine stands in front of an icon at her local church in Columbia, where she practices Eastern Orthodoxy. She often finds that prayer soothes her worries.

“We are people that quit, people that left, the deserters,” Olga Mossine said.

Leaving one’s country has two sides, the Ukranian native said. One that is wonderful – better opportunities, and one that is terrible – leaving behind your homeland.

In 1986 an infamous nuclear plant accident, called Chernobyl, happened in the Ukraine, and it planted a seed in Olga Mossine’s mind. She was pregnant with her first son at the time and feared for the health of her baby. The economy fell apart, and she and her husband, Val, were struggling to make ends meet. As years passed, the idea grew that they “needed to get out.”

One of Val’s colleagues was able to get him a consulting job in Columbia, Missouri. Initially, he came alone, but it was not too long before Olga and the boys followed him.

“I just could not do without him,” she said. “With two kids and working, I was just missing him so much. There was no Skype, no Internet, telephone calls were too expensive so you would just wait for that letter to come, for weeks.”

Olga and her sons left Ukraine on Dec. 26, 1993.

“It was an experience of a lifetime,” she said. “We were tired, but when we were flying above the United States, every single yard was surrounded by a string of lights, and I just thought it was so beautiful. I will always remember that feeling.”

They settled in Columbia, and have remained here ever since. As time has passed, Olga has raised “three good, Ukrainian boys” many miles away from her homeland. She has also obtained a job as a nurse at the University of Missouri Hospital. And although the move meant wonderful things for her family, she has been left with a deep feeling of loss.

“All these years when people were getting older and dying, or getting married and having children – we were not there with them,” Mossine said. “And I will always, until I die, have a feeling that this was wrong, that I was supposed to be there for those things. This is the guilt. And I will always be guilty.”

Freshman Mariam Yahya, too, battles these sentiments. In September 2008, the United Nations refugee program brought Yahya, her mother and her four siblings to Columbia, Mo. Yahya and her family left Yemen to find opportunities, safety and education within the U.S.

The changes turned her life upside-down. After working tirelessly to learn English and excel in all of her classes, she found her passion. She was a student of the English Language Learners department throughout her schooling, and Yahya plans to give back to the community as an ELL teacher someday. She now attends Moberly Area Community College, and plans to transfer into the University of Missouri education program in the fall of 2015.

Although being in the U.S. has its perks – jobs, school and doughnuts – being away from one’s homeland is hard, Yahya said.

“There are so many things to love about my homeland,” she said. “The thing I miss every day is the smell of the air after it rains, after the usual sand storms we get. I miss it all the times, even when I am here smelling normal air.”

Mariam Yahya after receiving citizenship this year.

Yahya said she also misses knowing her neighbors and the community she left behind in Yemen. But most importantly, when a person leaves their country, she said, they can’t be a part of the changes that are happening there. When the Yemini Revolution was happening in her homeland during 2011-2012, Yahya could not participate.

“I was so proud to see so many women protesting on the streets,” Yahya said. “I thought that I should be marching on my country’s streets. But I couldn’t do more than a few statuses on social network.”

Mossine feels the same way. Recently, when Ukraine’s Revolution made headlines, Mossine could only read about it. When living in Kiev, Ukraine, Mossine was very politically active. The country was on the cusp of leaving the former Soviet Union, and she was encouraging people to vote for independence. She said she handed out leaflets in the squares and attended the protests.

“I missed all these years when the spirit of revolution was developing, and I am very envious of that,” Mossine said. “We were not allowed to say ‘independence’ for my entire childhood.”

Mossine and Yahya both wanted terribly to participate in the changes going on in their homelands, and the guilt was crippling.

“Guilt?” Yahya said. “Oh, I felt so guilty, because if I owe anything to my country, at that moment, it would be protesting for a better leader, a better person that can raise the lands of my country better.”

The guilt, Mossine said, comes from choosing an easier life than those she left behind. Her family’s updates constantly reminded her of that: gunshots by her mother’s apartment, snipers and fires below her cousins’ balcony, and nieces and nephews kept home from school for weeks.

But, the guilt, she said, is something she will handle alone. She is proud of her nation and her people, and this pride outshines any melancholy that comes from not being there. Even without them there, their nations are moving forward and calling revolution for change and a better life.

“Educating others here … that was my way of marching in the streets of Yemen,” Yahya said.

So maybe they are not the deserters, maybe they are the believers – who never forget where they come from.

Maria Kalaitzandonakes

About the Author Maria

I’m a CoMo native with a mile-long last name. I’m a sucker for wool socks, classic Coca Cola and afternoon naps. If I had a pet, I’d dub it Pigwidgeon, or maybe Alastor. I’ve stood right in between Asia and Europe, eaten my weight in lamb meat and walked the Great Wall. I’m fluent in Greek and a little wobbly in Spanish. I’ve broken my arm and lost five pairs of glasses. And I say both with an L, as in boLth, like a true Missourian. Before I became a tiger, I was a bruin, at Columbia’s very own Rock Bridge High School. There I got my start in agriculture and journalism. I ran the student newspaper and magazine, learning that I had a love for storytelling. CAFNR is where I call home right now, as an Agricultural Economics and Science and Agricultural Journalism double-major student. Someday I may use this degree for a career in agricultural public policy or foreign agricultural services. But for now, I’m just a freshman with some pretty blurry pipe dreams.