From Ukraine to UA: HIAS aids M.D. hopeful

Ella Starobinska (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Ella Starobinska is an enthusiastic 20-year-old college student at the University of Arizona, but her path to the Tucson campus took a different route than most. On March 1, 2005, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society brought Starobinska and her parents from Kiev, Ukraine, to Tucson to join her brother, Eugene, and his wife, Radmila.

The family had experienced flagrant anti-Semitism in their homeland, causing them to request U.S. immigration status at the American Embassy. Starobinska and her brother had both attended the only Orthodox Jewish school in Ukraine. It wasn’t unusual to see swastikas scrawled all over the school building, says Starobinska. “Sometimes there were swastikas on our apartment building too. I had to hide the Star of David I’m wearing now because it was dangerous,” she says. “Here I can wear the Star of David openly. I’m proud to say I’m Jewish.”

A harsh memory for Starobinska stems from her childhood: “My brother was 17 or 18, coming back from shul one day, wearing a kippah and he got beat up.”

Here, she says, “we are able to observe Shabbos at home together as a family. We speak Russian or Ukrainian at home. But I’m wearing pants to be comfortable, not a skirt like Orthodox women do.”

Now a UA junior majoring in physiology, Starobinska, who intends to go to medical school, recalls her first day at an American high school after arriving in Tucson: “A guy walked up to me and asked ‘How are you doing?’ in English. I said ‘Thank you.’ He laughed at me, but people were very welcoming” at AmeriSchools College Prep Academy. “My parents didn’t want me to go to public school,” she says. “They [had] heard all the horror stories.”

Starobinska and her mother had studied English while still in Ukraine. “I used to speak Hebrew a lot but I think I lost it,” she says.

“I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to attend university in the Ukraine,” says Starobinska. “Being Jewish it would be really difficult. There you have to have rich parents or connections.”

“Jewish” was marked on the family’s passports as their nationality, instead of Ukrainian, she explained, adding that it’s also the policy for other minorities, such as Gypsies.

“My mother wanted to go to medical school. She was in the top of her class,” says Starobinska, but because of Jewish academic quotas she wasn’t accepted. She became a biology teacher instead. Her father was an engineer who worked with dangerous radioactive equipment in Ukraine, and developed related health issues; he’s now retired, says Starobinska. In Tucson, her mother, Zinaida, teaches preschool. “The Ukrainian government doesn’t send retirement money to people who leave the country,” she adds.

As part of her third year at the UA, Starobinska will continue to work in the UA cellular biology and anatomy laboratory run by Bradley Davidson, an associate professor. ­“I feel so blessed to be able to go to the UA,” she says, and grateful for the help HIAS has given her family. Starobinska received HIAS scholarships for her first two years at the UA, and in June was awarded the Lt. Steven Zilberman Memorial Scholarship to continue her education.

Zilberman, who was originally from Kiev, Ukraine — “just like me,” says Starobinska — had immigrated to the United States with his parents, Anna and Boris. He became a military pilot, but his dream was to go to medical school to become a Navy doctor, she says. In April, his plane crashed in the North Arabian Sea as he returned from a military operation in Afghanistan.

“Lt. Zilberman was a true hero because as commander of his crew,” says Starobinska, “he made sure that three other crew members jumped out of the plane on time. He did not have time to save himself. He had a wife and two children.

“I hope to live up to his legacy,” she says, adding that her dream is to work for Doctors Without Borders. Zilberman’s sacrifice “really shows a positive side of immigration, which is especially important in light of [Arizona’s] SB1070. Immigrants are a big part of this country and make great contributions to American society — even if it means to risk your life for the well-being of others.”