This is what a refugee looks like


“No one can know, you understand? You can’t tell anyone.” My mother told me.

I was 10.

I didn’t understand everything but I did know that I had to keep it a secret or we wouldn’t be able to leave. Or worse.

Being Jewish in that part of the world was never easy. WWII memorials sprung all over Ukraine in places which were previously occupied by the Nazis. Even decades later my family and I were affected. My mother could not get accepted to a university for 13 years after graduating from school because of her Jewish last name. One of the universities she applied to even told her that they do not accept her kind and referred her to a foreign Jewish school instead.

In a lot of ways I got off easy compared to my family. My Ukrainian language teacher always gave me 4’s (B’s) instead of 5’s (A’s) and when my mother went up to her to complain, the teacher explained, “You have to understand that the only Jew in class can’t have perfect grades.” She explained it with the tone of someone telling a child that she cannot have extra candy before supper, a tone which suggests that the necessity to lower one’s grade for the mere crime of being Jewish is a universal widely accepted truth and that it truly is for the best of everyone around if we do as we are told.

Many of my neighbors and classmates were not allowed to play with me. One of them once came up to me when we were both in first grade and said with a big smile on her face, “My mom says you’re a kike.” When I shook my head, she laughed, “Yep, you’re a kike. I knew it!” She laughed again and walked away.

When Soviet Union fell in 1991 the Ukrainian economy fell as well. Most of the people in the country lost their jobs or were paid once or twice per year the amount they would normally earn in 1-2 months. Poverty made people drink more. Poverty made people angry. Violence ensued and Jewish people became an easy target.

I remember a lot of it in flash glimpses. I remember leaving quietly to take a long train ride to Moscow to meet with the American embassy for many days of grueling interviews and background checks. I remember over a year of waiting, sending additional paperwork and verification.

I remember having to lie to my friends and neighbors.

“Is it true that you’re moving to America?” One of my brother’s acquaintances asked both of us in front of his cronies.

“Oh yeah, absolutely it is.” My brother said sarcastically.

“Michael! What are you saying! He’s lying.” I said to them, my heart beating, expecting them to knife us for treason.

“No, really, are you moving?” One of them asked.

“Oh, YEAH! Tomorrow, in fact,” Michael said trying to sound as sarcastic as possible.

“Whatever, he’s lying. Let’s go.” The leader said and the boys left us alone.


I remember quietly packing and making it look like we were simply moving to another location. I remember the frequent suspicious remarks by our friends and neighbors, I remember being interrogated by the airline security. And I remember the many nightmares I had leading up to the move.

I remember arriving to the United States on September 15, 1995. It was a Friday. JFK looked like a magical place and getting out of the plane in New York City I experienced an emotion that I never had prior to that day – hope.

I would never say that my life after that moment became easy. It wasn’t. It was hard on me and my family. Not knowing the language or the American culture, trying to fit in, to belong, that took a long time, though a part of me will always feel like an outsider.

One thing that became drastically different after moving here, was that for the first time it was okay to say that my family was Jewish. I wasn’t judged or excluded as a result of it. What a difference it made to feel like a human being, one like those around me. For the first time in my life I did not feel like a second class person.

Coming to this country has allowed me to follow the American dream. I went to college, I got my PhD, first in neuroscience, then additional training in clinical psychology. I then decided to dedicate my life to working with trauma survivors and to fight for social justice and equality using pop culture examples in evidence-based therapies. And so, Superhero Therapy was born.

I don’t think I can ever fully express how grateful I am to have been able to come to this country with my family. I will spend the rest of my life paying back to its people and working to help heal those who need it. This is why I stand for equality. This is why I stand with refugees.


Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management. Her book, “Superhero Therapy” with Little, Brown Book Group released on December 1, 2016 in the U.K. and is expected to be released with New Harbinger on August 1, 2017.

If you would like to learn more about Superhero Therapy, please feel free to contact Dr. Janina Scarlet via Twitter @shadowquill, Facebook:, or via her website at

5 comments on “This is what a refugee looks like

  1. Shelly scribner on

    A wonderful story my grandmothet came from the a small.tiwn from.kiev when shevwas 17 with an aunt she had to.leave as jewish people were being shot


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