HIAS award-winner forges path from Kiev to Harvard

In Russia, they avoid doctors like the plague. And even a case of the plague might not spur a visit to the doctor's, where, according to the old saying, "You go in with a sore tooth and come out with an amputated leg."

Irene Linetskaya still has both of her legs but recalls the medical service she received as a young child in Kiev with dread. Gruff, underpaid doctors with hygiene worse than a civil war medic's demanded bribes in return for treatment.

Immigrating to San Francisco at age 12, Linetskaya feared the worst heading into her first pediatrician's appointment. But the doctor was warm, gentle and, perhaps most importantly, didn't yank out her teeth with rusty pliers and no anesthesia. From that moment on, Linetskaya knew she wanted to be a doctor — and her aspirations received a boost last month when she was one of six Bay Area students tapped for a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society scholarship award.

Nationally, 142 emigres from the former Soviet Union, Iran, Bosnia and Nigeria — including the Bay Area's six — each received the $1,500 grants.

For Linetskaya, a Stanford graduate who will be starting medical school at Harvard in the fall, the award lauds an improbable journey. Her father died when she was 2, and her mother and grandfather died of cancer in 1986 — the fact Chernobyl is roughly 60 miles from Kiev is probably not a coincidence.

"They didn't even tell us [about the meltdown] for a long time. I don't remember how long it was before they told us," recalled Linetskaya, 24, the Hebrew Academy's valedictorian in 1996.

"I've since met friends who are from Kiev too, and a couple of their parents worked in the government or had some diplomatic position so they knew and moved out of the Ukraine for a few years. But regular shmoes like us were living there, eating these hugely oversized tomatoes and drinking the water the whole time."

American doctors have since told Linetskaya — who lived in San Francisco with her grandmother — that during her time in Kiev, she was subjected to radioactive exposure equivalent to 2,000 X-rays.

Besides nuclear fallout, another specter was present in Ukraine — rampant anti-Semitism. Linetskaya's family dropped her father's original surname, Vieselman, because it was too obviously Jewish. As a young girl, Irene did not look obviously Jewish, and she still remembers cringing in horror as unknowing schoolmates called each other "zhids" as the worst of all possible juvenile insults.

"Every time the word Jew came up or anything that sounded like Jew, my heart jumped. My older brother looked Jewish, and he was beaten up all of his life," said Linetskaya, who, while at Stanford, worked on programs benefiting AIDS patients and underprivileged high school students.

"The first time [in America] when I told some random person I was Jewish, I thought, 'That's it.' You never breathed those words. But she said 'me too!'"

Zhid is a word fellow HIAS award-winner Igor Gammer found scrawled across the outside wall of his family's apartment in Simferopol, Ukraine in the early 1990s.

Gammer's parents didn't want Igor's Judaism to stand in the way of his academic future as it had for them, and the family immigrated to San Francisco in 1996.

Now a U.C. Berkeley sophomore studying math and computer science, Gammer has finally been able to learn a bit about the religion that made life so difficult in his former country.

"I didn't know anything about Judaism. Now I know much more. I've learned a lot about Judaism and have come to respect some of it," said Gammer, 19, who also attended Hebrew Academy.

"I like the idea of Shabbat. It inspires people to rest and not worry about anything. During my freshman year at Berkeley, I came to respect that a lot. If I could only have had one day a week to not worry about anything, it would have been very great."

Fellow U.C. Berkeley student and HIAS beneficiary Alex Yevelev didn't even know he was Jewish until his parents and two brothers left Belarus for San Jose in 1990.

"The first thing my parents did was put me into a religious school," said Yevelev, a 19-year-old junior who was recently accepted into U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

"I'm glad I've been given the opportunity to be aware of my heritage. The biggest part [of being Jewish] for me is being with my family and understanding what they've gone through."

San Francisco's Anastasiya Nazarova, 19, used to work in the Jewish Home, a novel concept for the Muscovite.

"I don't think you'd be able to have something like that back in Russia. People are prejudiced. Everybody tries to hide" his or her Judaism, said Nazarova, who will transfer into U.C. Davis' economics department in the fall.

"I liked to help people. I didn't have a grandmother or grandfather, so it was a nice experience for me to work with older people, make a difference in their lives. I want to get a degree and a good job, and then maybe someday I'll be able to help others achieve their goals."

Other Bay Area recipients are Dmitriy Ivanov of San Francisco, a dean's list math student at City College of San Francisco, and San Francisco State University graduate Helen Mgebroff, currently a second-year medical student at the Kigezi International School of Medicine, studying abroad in Cambridge, England.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.