No 1, 28.02.2001
OUT OF THE SOVIET UNION – PART III
I spent most of my time in Hotel "Amman" reading, watching Jordanian TV, exercising and talking to my new friends. I also spent a lot of time translating newspaper articles to improve my English. From time to time, I would listen to the Russian language programs of Radio Israel. My day-to-day needs were taken care of by the hotel management. My new friend, Fnehir, would usually order breakfast, lunch and dinner for me. He also brought clothes, personal items and books that I needed. For this, he was allowed to stay in the hotel free of charge.
A few weeks after I settled in "Amman", the manager of the hotel told me that Soviet representatives had contacted the Jordanian authorities to request a meeting with me. The next day, Mr. Akbal’s assistant drove me and some local officials to the Jordanian Foreign Ministry. The meeting was held in a large, brightly-lit room on the 3d floor. The room was empty, except for a long wooden table and chairs on both sides of it. After a while, a group of Jordanian officials came in. A bit later, the Soviet diplomats entered the room. Both groups greeted each other very warmly, smiling broadly and shaking hands with enthusiasm, as if they were all good old friends. When we sat down at the table, a bald, mustachioed man in his 50's introduced himself to me in Russian and asked:
– Comrade Badretdinov, please explain to us what happened to you.
Before the meeting, I had thought I would be very nervous and tense during the negotiations but when they actually started, I felt rather self-confident and calm. The Soviet ambassador was polite and did not look threatening. I said:
– I asked for political asylum in Jordan. I did so because I don’t consider the Soviet Union a free country. I decided to remain in Jordan and start my new life here.
The Soviet ambassador continued:
– Let me remind you, comrade Badretdinov, that the Soviet Union gave you, the son of working-class parents, a chance to receive a higher education, free health care, all kinds of career opportunities and so on. Are you sure you want to give up all these benefits for the sake of the uncertainty that awaits you in a foreign country? Can you at least speak Arabic? No? Then how will you live here? What kind of work can you find in Jordan? It seems to me that you are being very irresponsible. You haven't really thought everything through. You made this decision on the spur of the moment. Don’t let this unfortunate mistake spoil your future life.
– No, this was not a spontaneous decision. I've been thinking about escaping from the USSR for the last 5 years.
My answer seemed to have made a profound impression on the Soviet diplomat. He realized that I was not a naive young man who just wanted to see the world. Nevertheless, he pressed on:
– Young people make such mistakes all the time. If you change your mind and return to your Motherland, almost nothing will happen to you, I promise. Here is the phone number of the Soviet embassy. Please call us when you decide to come back.
– I don't need your phone number. I will not change my mind.
After talking with me for a few more minutes, the Soviet ambassador stood up, shook my hand and told the Jordanian officials that the meeting was over. When the Soviets left the room, the Jordanians who accompanied me asked me to follow them into a different room on the 2d floor. There, I was asked to put on sunglasses and a kufiyeh (Arabic head dress). In the kufiyeh, I looked like a typical Jordanian and it was impossible to tell me apart from any other person in the room.
– This is just a precautionary measure, in case the Russians decide to follow us when we drive to the hotel, - explained one of the Jordanians. - When we start walking to the car, I will be speaking to you in Arabic. You must pretend that you understand me: nod your head from time to time as if you agree with me. Act as if you are a Jordanian.
A group of Jordanians and I left the room and walked to the car. It was not the same car that had brought us to the embassy. We were back in the hotel within 20 minutes.
A few weeks later, I had a telephone conversation with Mr. James Precter, the American Ambassador. He explained to me that my case had been taken over by an organization called UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). The UNHCR agreed to provide me with temporary travel documents and arrange my trip to Rome, from where I was supposed to fly to New York.
Several months passed before the day of my departure finally arrived. One day in April, 1986, Mr. Akbal told me to get ready for a flight to Rome. I packed my suitcase with clothes, books and personal items. When Fnehir found out about my forthcoming departure, he became very sad. He and his friends tried to persuade me to stay in Jordan.
– Why do you want to go to New York? Stay here in Amman! We will help you find a job and a place to live. What do you expe ct to find in America?
I thanked Fnehir, Lobhan, Jamal, Islam and others for their hospitality but remained firm in my decision to go to the US.
The flight to Rome was uneventful, but I remember being very excited... Someone was supposed to meet me at the airport and take me to a special hotel for refugees. I was told that the person would be holding a sign with my name. But when my plane finally landed at the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome, something unexpected happened. After I passed through customs, I looked around for someone with a sign. There were many people standing at the exit door. Some of them were holding signs but none of them had a sign with my name on it. I spent almost an hour looking for the stranger who was supposed to meet me. My search was fruitless.
I panicked. It was scary to find myself in a strange country with no money, no documents, no friends and no place to go. I decided to go to the police station and ask for help. The policemen spoke only Italian. Almost half an hour passed before they found someone who spoke English.
— How can we help you? - asked me a young police officer who acted as an interpreter. I explained to him what happened and asked him if they could call the local office of the UNHCR. After consulting with an older police officer, the translator said:
— Sorry, but there is no such office in Rome, it is not listed in the local telephone book.
I went back to the airport, sat down on a bench and fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw a police officer and a stranger standing in front of me. The stranger was talking in a very agitated way to the policeman and pointing in my direction. "Cinque! Cinque!" – he kept repeating and pointing to his watch. ("cinque" means "five" in Italian). He was the person who was supposed to meet me. It turned out that he had been looking for me in the airport for almost five hours.
Later we understood what had happened. When I arrived to the airport, I was looking for a sign with my name on it, but instead, he was holding a sign that simply read: "IRC". IRC stands for International Rescue Committee.
Someone forgot to tell me in advance that the UNHCR was no longer in charge of my case and that from now on I’d be assisted by the IRC, an American organization that helps refugees from Communist countries.
The stranger drove me in his mini-van to a refugee hotel where I was supposed to spend a few weeks before flying to New York. Hotel "World" was located on Via Vicento, a beautiful narrow street in the middle of Rome. The hotel was populated by refugees who were in the process of applying for visas necessary for relocating to the US. In Rome I was not confined to the hotel and its compound. I was free to leave it at any time.