Immigrant Dema Kohen tells his story

By on September 19, 2018

Dema Kohen (photo by Sarah Hummer)

Recently, correspondent Sarah Hummer met Ukrainian immigrant Dema Kohen, now living in Lititz.. She had the opportunity to sit with him as he shared the story of his immigration to the United States.

With determination and commitment to the United States’ immigration process spanning over eight years Dema Kohen of Lititz proved he loved and cherished America. He overcame trials of waiting, hard work and tragedy to become a citizen to the United States from the former Soviet Union.

Back in the U.S.S.R.

“I was born in 1975 in U.S.S.R. (Soviet Union) at that time the biggest rival to the United States. Cold War, arms race, space race and the Olympics were in the background. Pride and competition led to prove which country was the fastest and the strongest,” said Kohen. “That was the environment where I was born, behind the Iron Curtain.”

“A lot of propaganda has been fed to me from such a young age about how bad America was and how great the Soviet Union is. Such as we had free education and free medicine and in America you have to pay for everything, which is cruel,” explained Kohen. “We just said wow we live in paradise and we live in heaven and over in America they just take advantage of their people and life is very hard there.”

All lines of communication were cut off. Kohen described that he had three national television channels under the government.

“We thought what they wanted us to think and felt and saw only what they wanted us to see,” said Kohen.

Kohen was born into a Jewish family in a country in which the Jewish faith and heritage were greatly persecuted under the Soviet regime.

“My family told me that even when I was born my religion was heathen, and I was given a Ukrainian last name — Chernenko” said Kohen. “People would hide any paper trail that linked them to their Jewish roots. If they were sniffed out the roads to universities, and job opportunities would be closed. They would try to keep you at a lower level socially.”

People went to great lengths to hide their Jewish heritage. Kohen’s father, Mikhail Kogen, and his grandfather were part of a huge Jewish population in the communist country.

Nadia, his mother, whose name means “hope,” was Christian, and also treated as a heathen in the Soviet Union.

“From my very birth I just felt you are not welcome in this place, you don’t belong,” said Kohen.

Kohen dreamed of coming to America from the young age of 8.

“I made myself an American passport,” he said. “I did not know how to spell some things. I made myself a name. So this passport became my escape from the Soviet Union.”

As he explained this, he pulled out an index card with a blonde child’s picture on it, decorated with a crayon and written in crude English.

“That picture is me; in my imagination I pretended my cousin and I were American citizens, by using my passport.”

“When you were born in the USSR you were born in a cage,” explained Kohen. “You could not go anywhere. Everybody was contained within the boundaries of the country.”

Even though any chance of a soviet ever getting out of it were then next to nothing, he still had a dream.

“The only thing we knew about America back then was that there were skyscrapers, and people had bubble gum — something that we did not have. I knew about bubble gum because people would smuggle it in and sometimes you could buy it on the black market,” said Kohen. “It was amazing that you could chew something, it was sweet and you could blow bubbles. I remember seeing pictures of American cars and I thought they were the very best thing.”

A young Dema Kohen created this “passport” for himself when he was eight year old. He taught himself English by reading a dictionary A-Z, then practicing English on church missionaries from America.

Learning English

Taking English in school was difficult for Kohen, and as a child he did not enjoy it. The phrases they learned were elementary level, such as introductions.

In 1990, Kohen was 15 years old and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. His mom took him to a church where people went to avoid being persecuted and put in jail. American missionaries with translators, would talk to them and it was like magic to Kohen.

“My mom leaned over and said, ‘Son one day you will be doing just that,’ I had no idea what led her to say that. My grades were failing. I did not like the language. At that moment, she spoke the right words that gave me confidence and hunger for the English language.”

At home that evening Kohen found the only book he could — a dictionary — and began to read through, teaching himself phrases word by word and practiced communicating with the church missionaries, learning new phrases each week.

“At that point, freedom came and missionaries were there every Sunday. I would gather up my courage and after the service I would go talk to them. I thought, wow, they understood me. Then they would say so much more that didn’t make sense. I was so happy I would learn more vocabulary and practice the next Sunday.”

Pursuit of happiness

“I think it was in my early 30s, I remember going and visiting my mom who was in her late 50s. I remember she said, ‘Dema, did you know there is a country in this world that the government wants their people to be happy, and they put the word happy in their constitution.’ At the age of 60 it was a revelation to her. I said ‘Mom I have no idea what that country would that be.’ She said ‘It’s America. I was listening to this broadcast and they said that it’s your right to pursue happiness. They actually want you to be happy.’”

She could not believe it is a basic right to pursue happiness. Her whole world was shattered by that revelation in a good way.

“From where we come from, you don’t have identity; you don’t have a worth as an individual you are just a part of this big machine,” explained Kohen.

A dream derailed

As he grew up and started living an adult life, Kohen forgot about the dream. He became a translator of books, videos, and gave tours of the beautiful city of Kiev to tourists. He became an English teacher in college.

“Orphan kids in the Ukraine have been fed so many lies that Americans just want to bring you here and to sell your body parts…they just want your organs,” said Kohen with disgust. “American families were on the final step in adoption. The children just have to testify in court and say simply yes, I want to go with this family.”

Kohen was part of several family’s adoption journey, waiting for the process of adoption from the Ukraine and other Russian speaking countries to America.

America, at last

“The first time I came to America was in December 2009. I was on a grieving journey,” explained Kohen. “I lost my wife after eight years of being married. She suddenly died. I was 35 when she passed away very silently. She had one dream, and that was to go to Disney World and see Miami, because she loved the ‘CSI Miami’ series. The opening scene was always oceans and skyscrapers.”

He walked through the park and enjoyed the rides. He imagined what she would say and when she would laugh. It was going to be the first Christmas and first Valentine’s Day without his wife. If he went back to the Ukraine, he knew he would bury himself in work. He felt the need to focus on the memories, cherish them and let go.

Anna

Kohen visited friends who were missionaries to Ukraine; he had translated for them for many years. It was his final week of staying in America in May of 2010 when he met his future wife, Anna.

“I saw this girl and she turned my world upside down. I lost my appetite, I lost my sleep, and I just felt so drawn to her. I kept bumping into her and got to know her, before I left for Ukraine,” Kohen continued his love story. “There was a church picnic and we spent two hours talking to each other. My grieving was over and my heart was open.”

In August 2010 Kohen had sold everything he had and came to America with two suitcases, by Oct. 30, they were married.

“I came to America to stay because of this girl I fell in love with, and I wanted to be where she was,” said Kohen sincerely.

Going green

This started a new journey in the United States: applying for a green card and lots of paper work. Those waiting a green card and work permit for cannot work for eight months. Anna Kohen was the sole breadwinner, with three jobs.

Kohen came from a country where public transportation is excellent. She had to teach him how to drive when he was 36.

It took about two years before Dema got his permanent green card. There were two intense interviews in which his wife was terrified after she and Kohen researched the process on the internet.

“Are they going to send you back, are they going to find something wrong on the paper?” she asked him.

“In the interview, they look you straight in the eye and say, ‘Have you killed somebody? Are you part of a terrorist organization? Are you selling drugs?’” said Kohen explaining the grueling interview process. “They also ask what’s your wife’s name, date of your marriage. My wife got the date of our marriage wrong, she was so stressed. So I just stepped in and corrected her.”

In about two years, Kohen became a permanent resident, then had the chance to become a citizen after in the U.S. for five years.

“It is drawn out because they need to make sure the marriage is legitimate,” says Kohen who is very understanding of the process. “Because of a couple of dishonest people, the rest of us have to pay the price, and that’s how it is in life.”

Citizenship

Kohen studied for an extensive citizenship test of about 100 questions on American history and English reading, writing, and speaking.

“My coworkers would say how I know more about America than they do,” said Kohen.

He passed the test and received a letter to appear at the third floor of the Lancaster County Courthouse to be sworn in as an American citizen. They dressed up for the ceremony, brought friends and family along, with about 40 other people representing 20 different nations.

“I remember we walked past a hall that said, ‘Bail.’ People stood beaten by life who were born here. They don’t even know what they have taken for granted and are squandering it by making some stupid choices,” Kohen said passionately. “I was shattered inside, here we are people from all over the world coming into this courthouse to embrace America as our homeland a place of opportunity and I see these people. I had emotions, it made me really appreciate the opportunity.”

“The ceremony was solemn, very elegant,” said Kohen. “The judge was dressed in his robe and he gave the most beautiful heart-warming speech about his personal story working in the court system.”

First, the hopefuls denounced any loyalty to the country of their birth. They had to pledge allegiance to America and embrace it as their homeland. Kohen had the chance to change his name completely from Kogen, his father’s name, to Kohen when he received citizenship.

There were representatives from several political organizations who cheered for them.

“It was a wonderful event and an amazing feeling. I walked into the Lancaster Courthouse as a citizen of Ukraine and walked out as a totally different person,” said Kohen, his identity changed forever.

“I appreciate the duty of being here, the dignity that I feel as a human being — the self-worth, and the opportunities I have in front of me,” he said. “The friendliness of people around me and their smiles is unparalleled to anything I have experienced.”

“Yes, you can pursue happiness, you can tap into the dreams and become what you want to become,” said Kohen. “The system won’t hold you back and there will be enough people to support you and uphold you. So my pretend passport — this childhood imagination — became a reality. Every day in America I walk the streets and with every breath, I breathe in freedom.”

Sarah Hummer is a freelance contributor to the Lititz Record Express. For story tips and comments you may contact her at hummersarahj@hotmail.com.

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