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Florina Altshiler: America, the great, don’t shut your door

As I often tell my juries, to understand how we got here, we first have to take a look back.

1993 was the year of the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My father worked for the city when both towers came down on 9/11. (He was also there in 1993.)

2001 was a wake-up call to many. Terror alerts, heightened security, the pawning of personal freedoms, the fear that paralyzed many, the loss of friends and family.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris revived those same feelings of fear and terror and blame. Sadly, it is being cast on an entire ethnic group – the Syrians – and this impulsive political reaction is to close our borders to refugees. My concerns are personal and many.

I, too, am a refugee immigrant.

In the late 1980s the USSR became no more. With two suitcases and a small stuffed mouse, my parents and I started a two-year journey toward America. We traveled through Austria where we (five refugee families) shared an apartment. We then were transitioned to “temporary” housing in Ladispoli, Italy, a lovely summer bungalow community – less lovely through the winter. There, I learned to ride a bicycle without brakes and shared blankets as our pipes failed to heat the bungalows we shared. After several interviews with uniformed men, background checks, medical clearance and long periods of simply waiting, we boarded the no-longer existing Pan Am flight to JFK and landed in my new home, the United States of America.

1989 was the year that I learned I was Jewish. In the years that followed, I entered public school and learned English. This was the first time I realized that people speak more than just Russian and watch television that is not government- owned. I realized that money was more than toilet paper. The proverbial, but real, bread lines ended. It was a grateful acceptance of freedoms previously not afforded.

Stockholm syndrome explains victims’ affinity for their captors. Bank robberies, hostage situations and kidnappings are sudden and unexpected events. People do what they can to survive. Initially, victims are scared. Ironically, they begin to look at their captors in a positive way.

Being born in a foreign country is not a matter of choice. Introducing first world privilege such as technology, medicine and education creates a desire for the same. The existence of these privileges affords people empowering options to make life-changing choices.

Freedom and peace did not exist for me until 1989. With their acceptance, my choice is clear. I embrace America’s enduring freedom and pursuit of peace. Having left behind a life without these freedoms, I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of America to allow refugees to share in these freedoms. It has been both a privilege and an honor to become a U.S. citizen. The road was long and not easy. People may fear that terrorists will attempt to invade our country by seeking false asylum here. I will be the first to tell you, while the process is every bit worthwhile, it is neither quick nor easy. If terrorists really want to infiltrate our country, they can do so on a tourist or student visa – a simpler and quicker process.

I hope this country does not now forsake others from achieving the dream of citizenship. Without a doubt, I would not be who I am if I was not afforded the privilege of an American education. Thank you, America. Don’t shut that door just yet.