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Public Service Recognition Week, Part III: A Refugee Officer's Story: 'Countless Narratives of Suffering and Loss'

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In this series of four blog posts celebrating Public Service Recognition Week, we honor the dedication of USCIS employees who fulfill the USCIS mission of securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.

By Ben Rubenstein

For six years, USCIS Refugee Officer Slava Madorsky traveled the world interviewing applicants to determine if they were eligible for refugee status, because of persecution or fear of persecution. For three of those years, until she was able to use a laptop during interviews, she handwrote up to 40 pages of notes each day to record their stories. Once, as she interviewed a man in Baghdad, her pen flew from her hand in a bad case of writer’s cramp. The man – who had been describing torture and being shuttled from prison to prison – laughed. Madorsky apologized. “‘It’s just my hand. I’m not actually throwing a pen at you.’ He was the nicest man in the world. He actually felt bad for me, and I was thinking, ‘Why is this person feeling bad for my stupid hand?’”

Madorsky and her father, Vladimir, around 1982 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Madorsky, 38, was born to Jewish parents in the Russian city of St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad during the Soviet era, which ended in 1991). Her father, she says, wanted to emigrate when he was 18, but after college and military service he accepted an engineering job with a security clearance. He knew if he tried leaving the Soviet Union, he would be denied an exit visa and put under surveillance.

When Madorsky was born, her father quit engineering to become a television repairman. He wanted a job that would not hinder him from trying to leave once his clearance expired 10 years later—and he actually made three times as much repairing TVs. “That was the Soviet Union,” she says, “what are you going to do?”

When Madorsky was 11, her family was granted refugee status as members of a persecuted religious group. She didn’t want to leave for the United States, but her parents persuaded her by promising she’d finally have her own bedroom.

She and her parents arrived in New York City on May 12, 1989. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Madorsky got the bedroom. “It really felt like I was living the American dream,” she says, even though, for a while, the room only had a large piece of foam to sleep on.

“Coming from the Soviet Union, I was not used to people treating me well. One of my favorite things about the U.S. is how friendly people are. Some say Americans are fake when they say ‘Hi, how are you?’ and ‘Have a nice day.’ Really? Try having people bark and scowl at you, instead.”

In the Soviet Union, people were not supposed to practice religion. She recalls her parents shushing her the one time she asked what God is. But other people knew the family was Jewish and harassed them. In Brooklyn, on the other hand, Madorsky attended a yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish school, and says others looked down on her for not being “Jewish enough.”

Madorsky at the Great Pyramid of Giza in May 2013. She took a side trip to Cairo during a refugee processing detail to Sallum, Egypt, on the Libyan border.

Her mother has blond hair and blue eyes and grew up with a Russian last name. She didn’t experience the kind of prejudice Madorsky had or, more so, her father. When the family returned to Russia for a visit after Madorsky graduated from college in 2001, her mother’s view of Russia changed. While on a bus, when passengers openly degraded Jews, the Madorskys slumped in their seats, and her mother said, “This is not how I remember it,” she says.

Madorsky returned once more while living in Poland in 2003. She says she would go back again, but only if she had “an extremely compelling reason.”
Madorsky joined the USCIS Refugee Affairs Division in 2009. Officers in the USCIS Refugee Corps travel at least 180 days a year. She traveled for six to eight weeks at a time, and sometimes chose longer stints. In 2011 she was away for 10 months including six in Baghdad. She has also traveled to Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Kenya, Ethiopia, Jordan, Bahrain, Romania, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. She was with the last team to enter Syria before that country fell into war.

“Horrific things happen in this job a lot. Sometimes even when you can help people, just listening to their stories is demoralizing because you know these things happen and human beings actually do that to each other.”

One of the things that has motivated her is a deep-seated interest in studying the crime of genocide. She used to teach about the Holocaust in Auschwitz, Poland. “When you stop for a moment and look at the overwhelming history of atrocities perpetrated during the Holocaust against Jews, Gypsies and countless others, you begin to see that it wasn’t just one mass tragedy. It was 11 million individual tragedies.”

Madorsky switched jobs in August 2014 and now trains other officers in how to conduct refugee interviews. She also wants to develop a resilience training program to focus on occupational hazards such as compassion fatigue and burnout. “We don’t live anywhere most of the time. We lose touch with our loved ones and our communities. We have to learn to function without solid ground, while absorbing countless narratives of suffering and loss.”

Celebrating her birthday at her office in Washington, D.C., in September 2015.

She still travels occasionally to do field training and interviews. But after moving 33 times in her life, this is the longest she has lived anywhere besides the Soviet Union as a child.

Madorsky still writes, both for personal enjoyment and her job, but on the computer now. I asked how her hand is. With more than a hint of Russian stoicism, she replied: “I can’t write too much, but it’s fine.”