'Even the Sky Is Different'
Eight LA attorneys recount their journeys to America
Published in 2019 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine on January 30, 2019
Some were escaping tyranny: in the Soviet Union, Iran, Cuba. Some were escaping war: Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, the aftermath of World War II. Others simply wanted more opportunities for themselves and their children.
But it was never easy. They had to move around the country; they had to wait for their parents to learn new trades. If they didn’t learn English, other children might beat them up. “Kids are mean,” says Kelly Chang Rickert, owner of a family law practice in LA, who came to the U.S. with her family from Taiwan in 1982. “There were so many bumps in the road.”
Here are their stories.
Rafael “Ralph” A. Campillo, Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo; class action/mass torts; Cuba, 1961: I came to the U.S. in 1961 after being in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion. I was 10 years old, and I was one of the fortunate children who got out at an early stage.
Dmitry Gorin, Eisner Gorin; criminal defense; USSR, 1979: I immigrated right before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I came here at the age of 9. There was definitely anti-Semitism [in the Soviet Union].
Edward M. Wolkowitz, Levene, Neale, Bender, Yoo & Brill; bankruptcy: business; Germany, 1952: I was born in Kassel, Germany, in a displaced-persons camp that was run by the British army. My parents are Polish. They left Warsaw in 1939, when the Germans were bombing it, and were immediately captured by the Russians and spent the Second World War in various Russian labor camps. When the war ended, the Russians let all these workers go; they didn’t need them anymore, and they didn’t want to feed them. My parents went back to Warsaw and it was completely flattened, so they kept heading west, and they ended up all over Germany. The Allies set up post-war camps because there were displaced people wandering around all over Europe. This was in 1947 or 1948, before I was born.
Joy Stephenson-Laws, Law Offices of Stephenson, Acquisto & Colman; health care; Jamaica, 1977: I grew up in Sherwood Content. It’s where Usain Bolt is from. I came here just about the time I turned 17. My brother immigrated here earlier. He told me, “If you’re going to migrate from a tropical country, California—especially Los Angeles—is one of the best places. It didn’t get too hot, it didn’t get too cold.”
David B. Golubchik, Levene, Neale, Bender, Yoo & Brill; bankruptcy: business; USSR, 1978: We left in 1978 when I was 7 years old. I would eventually have to go into the [Soviet] army. At the time, the concern was Afghanistan. The only way they would let the Jews out is if they went to Israel. We got our initial permission to leave, and I was immediately kicked out of the kindergarten I was in. My parents got kicked out of their jobs. So for a few months [until we left], we had no jobs, no schooling.
Anna Darbinian, Immigration Law Firm of Asherson, Klein & Darbinian; immigration; Armenia, 1983: My grandmother assisted all her siblings when she was heading an American orphanage in eastern Turkey—what used to be Armenia. She had a good reputation with the American government at the time. She sent them over to the States—everybody except her; because our grandfather was very patriotic, he wanted to stay in Armenia. This was during the Armenian Genocide. It was a very tough decision for my father, because he had a very good position in Armenia at the time. But this was a collective decision that my mother and father made: to reunite with family they had not seen but were in communication with by phone. That was the reason we immigrated. My grandmother actually didn’t make it to America. She died shortly after I was born.
Nikki Mehrpoo Jacobson, The Jacobson Law Firm; workers’ compensation and immigration; Iran, 1980: I was 8 years old when we left Iran. A couple of years earlier, the revolution had happened, and the Iran-Iraq war, and my dad had smuggled my brother out because they were sending little boys, like 10- to 12-year-olds, to war. He was sent to the U.S. to go to Yeshiva, a Jewish boarding school in New York City. [My father] had three daughters. In order not to be harassed, we would sit through Koran religious studies. The bombing was day and night. The week they announced that girls had to go to school wearing hijab, my parents said, “We’re not sending our girls to school like that.” It was like, “That’s it. We’re leaving.”
Kelly Chang Rickert, Law and Mediation Offices of Kelly Chang; family law; Taiwan, 1982: I was 6 years old. My father’s company, which was Formosa Plastics Corp., transferred him. It’s a billion-dollar company in Taiwan.
Mehrpoo Jacobson: Because of the Iran-Iraq war, the airports had already been bombed. It wasn’t like you could get on a plane and fly out. We had to leave literally in the cover of night on a bus and go through the border into Turkey. We were very scared, because my older sister had a ban on her passport. They would do that to certain family members so you’d leave them behind and be forced to return. So she couldn’t travel. You had to get permission to travel. My dad said, “We are all going. We’re going to somehow figure out how we’re going to get her out, too.” My dad had to pay somebody at the border so all three of his girls could leave together.
Campillo: There were thousands of kids sent from Cuba at the time to the U.S. without their parents. I was fortunate that my brother and I were able to stay together, and we had an aunt who started a foster home for Cuban children. … My father said, “Your brother is more emotional than you. Don’t cry. You’ve got to be tough.” I worked really hard to keep my tears from coming out; I remembered my brother not being able to do that.
Gorin: At the border, the Soviet Union took most of our property. The agents told us, “You can only take one rug, one camera; you can’t take jewelry out, you can’t take money out.” We kept Olympic memorabilia from 1980 because the Western countries didn’t have any of that. They boycotted the Olympics. I would stand at the tollbooths selling memorabilia to Italians, while waiting in Italy to get our approval to the U.S., to raise some money for our family.
Wolkowitz: There were several [refugee] organizations—I guess they were feeling guilty about all the Jewish refugees whom they didn’t do anything about between 1939 and 1945—so they started figuring out ways to get them to other countries. They found a job for my father in Chicago. We went through Ellis Island and then took a train to Chicago. This was 1952.
Mehrpoo Jacobson: You’re going through the sides of mountains to get through the border with Turkey. My mom would say, “We don’t need to know what’s going on outside” and try to keep us busy. It was always at night [that we traveled]. She would sing. And lots of card games: gin rummy. It took at least three or four days. We stayed in Turkey for a few [more] days and then flew straight to Israel, where we applied for refugee status at the U.S. consulate. Then we flew into JFK in New York. It was the night Reagan became president: November 4, 1980.
THE NEW WORLD
Wolkowitz: We found a place to live in a tenement house on the West Side of Chicago; we lived in a basement. Chicago had a very, very large Polish population and my father actually spoke five different languages. They were able to communicate. There were two major things I remember about Chicago: snow and Maxwell Street. On weekends, my father used to supplement our income by selling shoes on Maxwell Street. It was vendors and stores and wall-to-wall people. I used to wander around among the thousands and thousands of people.
Campillo: Social services were trying to get families out so they wouldn’t congregate in Miami, and eventually my parents were able to get out legally. We went to St. Louis, then took an Amtrak train to Los Angeles and started from scratch. I lived with my aunt and uncle for a while until my father was able to get a job. His first job was in a plating company, where they would take metal and dip it in chemicals to give it that chrome look. His salary, as I recall, was $1.40 an hour. For the first time in her post-marriage life, my mother got a job—in a sewing-machine factory.
Golubchik: When we moved to Los Angeles, my mother was still in Pennsylvania. My father [went] to get my mom and left my grandmother, who didn’t speak a word of English, and myself in LA. She said, “Go figure out your own way to get to the school.” I was walking around the neighborhood until I found kids the same age as me with backpacks and followed them to school.
Chang Rickert: One of my clearest memories was going to a grocery store. There were aisles and aisles of produce, and they had chocolate milk and strawberry milk.
Gorin: When I came to Los Angeles, it was like out of a movie. You go to the supermarket and you’re like, “Why do you have 20 different chocolates? And why do you have all this meat?” In the Soviet Union, when you see a line, you don’t even ask what it’s for; you just get in this line.
Golubchik: I spent 10 months in a little town called Reading, Pennsylvania—a blue-collar union town. They didn’t have an English as a second language program over there and I didn’t learn English. I do remember coming home with bruises, cuts. Kids just fight with “the outsider”—the communist who doesn’t speak the language. But it forced me to learn English really fast.
Gorin: I definitely got into fistfights in elementary school because I would be called a commie. I had no idea what a communist was, but the way it was said, I didn’t like.
Chang Rickert: I remember the first day not speaking anything. Then my memory jumps to second grade, where I was completely dominating the playground. I remember this boy named Lance saying, “Kelly has a jelly belly,” and I said, “Well, Lance has ants in his pants.” And I said, “I can take charge in this playground now; nobody can make fun of me because I can understand them.” I was fluent within one year.
Mehrpoo Jacobson: I remember being ashamed of taking out my lunch to eat. I wondered, “What is this, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches?” when I’m eating rice and chicken. Everything about us was different. And in January 1981, it was the hostage crisis. I remember being bullied in school.
Darbinian: It was definitely different from what I was used to, in terms of now you’re speaking English instead of Russian and Armenian all the time. At the same time, I was overly prepared. They took me to a junior high, and I had to do certain tests. I passed the math and sciences. I didn’t do sixth, seventh and eighth grades. I jumped into ninth grade.
Stephenson-Laws: I remember one of the first things that stood out was people considering us a minority. And I had to ask, “What is that?”
Mehrpoo Jacobson: A lot of the Persian traditions, people didn’t understand. Girls are not allowed to shave their legs because it’s considered becoming an adult to shave your legs. You’re a teenager and your parents deem shaving your legs or plucking your eyebrows something that only an adult woman does. Imagine living in this society with a unibrow! I always say my older sister paved the way. She started saying, “No, we have to be able to pluck our eyebrows.” When she started doing it at 16, we were allowed to do it at 12 or 13. She paved the way to get us more Americanized.
Campillo: I went to USC as a freshman and walked out and made the cross-country and track teams. Everything was great until I got injured my first year. I realized, “I don’t want to be a teacher.” I’d lost my passion for coaching. “Now what do I do?” My roommate wanted badly to go to law school. Being naïve at the time, I said, “Maybe I’ll go to law school; at least I’ll be able to understand contracts and defend myself.”
Gorin: I went to Fairfax High School in West Hollywood, and there was a mock-trial competition, where you’re representing your high school. I became the lead prosecutor. Ever since that point, I knew I wanted to be a trial attorney. I liked this one girl on the mock trial. She said, “I’m going to be a witness. … You can ask me questions on the stand.” She ended up being my first girlfriend.
Golubchik: In college, I took a year off and sold used cars. I was pretty good at it, but my mom came up to me and said, “I don’t want you to be a used-car salesman forever.” We were short on funds at the time. A good friend from law school was going to sit for the LSAT, and Kaplan had a two-for-one special. I did pretty well. … I got an internship with a bankruptcy judge, spent a year in the federal courthouse and had a great time. I’ve been doing bankruptcy ever since.
Gorin: I was the first in my family to go to college, then graduate school. I became a Los Angeles deputy district attorney. I was the first Russian immigrant who was a prosecutor here in Los Angeles.
Wolkowitz: I have a concern about the change in culture, the rise of populism, and the fact that people who came here as immigrants are now anxious to exclude others who want to come here. That’s really a tragic irony.
Chang Rickert: I’m not against immigration. I’m against illegal immigration.
Gorin: I followed the law to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, so my feeling is the law’s the law. But the new administration is rolling back some of the laws that people have relied on for many years, and to me that’s not fair. With the DREAM Act, all of a sudden the government is changing that—as well as separating kids from their parents.
Mehrpoo Jacobson: In 21 years of practicing immigration law, I have never seen the arbitrary policies that are being applied willy-nilly. That’s the best word I can use to explain this. There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s all mean. They don’t have any concept of being an immigrant and fighting for your life and well-being or for your family.
Darbinian: Judges are being told to look at cases much more carefully. Everything is being done much more intensely. Because of this new administration, there’s a lot more fear and anxiety.
Campillo: When Obama relaxed the travel restrictions with Cuba, I went immediately. I had not been to Cuba in 50 years. I saw people I hadn’t seen for 50 years. I now have my Cuban passport so I can go back whenever I want to.
Mehrpoo Jacobson: I’m married to a non-Persian. In our house, I’ve made it the rule that I speak to my kids only in Farsi. My daughter tells my husband, “Don’t worry, Daddy, I’ll tell you what’s going on.”
Chang Rickert: I’ve taken my kids twice. I really miss the food in Taiwan and the people. There’s a lot of traffic and everything’s a lot smaller. I would like to take my kids there, maybe live there for four years, have them become fluent.
Campillo: I describe Cuba as Hawaii without the mountains. The ground has that red sort of clay look to it. As we were flying in, on a clear day, I could track all my memories of the countryside and the landscape. It was beautiful, I loved it. But when you get away from where the tourists go, what you see is just mindbogglingly ugly and unsafe, the conditions the country is under. Going to my hometown, a city called Camagüey, that was worse. No tourists go there. Nothing had been clean or repaired after 50 years. But people were still living in it.
Gorin: I haven’t been back. When you’re a refugee and they take all your stuff at the border and there’s anti-Semitism, it’s not anything you look forward to.
Stephenson-Laws: I try to go back at least once every two years. And of course, there are customs that we have—we just recently celebrated Independence Day, when we got independence from the British. The music—who doesn’t like Bob Marley, right?
Mehrpoo Jacobson: I will never forget my mom [in the U.S.] saying, “I know it’s the same sky, but even the sky is different. It’s bluer and it’s clearer and you feel freedom in the sky.” To this day, I look up at the sky and say, “Mom, the sky is different.” And she knows what we’re talking about.