Misha, a Vermont-based professional graphic artist, is an English Language Learning (ELL) student at Vermont Adult Learning. She was born in a small village near the city of Orsha in Belarus’ northeastern corner. She earned a Master’s Degree in Graphic Arts at the Vitebsk State Technological University. She speaks Russian, Belarussian, English and a little Polish.
“I arrived in the United States in 2014,” Misha said. “My family was trying to emigrate for over fifteen years.”
Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, is ruled by President Aleksandr Lukashenko, whose authoritarian government forces many to flee. Misha’s family lived under the weight of economic and political pressures forced upon a country deeply scarred by World War II and decades of communist rule. She was a toddler when President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned office on December 25, 1991, paving the way for dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Turmoil ensued as former republics sought standing and stability as newly-formed, independent nations.
“Belarus is a very narrow-minded place,” Misha said. “It’s also a county of shared trauma, You learn to figure out how to get what you need. Survival is in our DNA. It was hard for me as a creative child. I always had to fight. You don’t really dream about things in Belarus. Watching a romantic movie about Paris reminded me that it was equally impossible to go to Mars as it was to go to Paris. You cannot plan. You cannot dream. Something inside told me I could question that!”
Misha’s path to Vermont was winding. As a young woman, degree in hand and experience as a graphic designer, she announced to her family she would try to travel to England, “for a vacation.” This was not an easy task. It was unclear if she’d be granted a UK visa and, if she was, would Belarus let her leave. There was also the question of cost with the weak standing of Belarussian Rubles to British Pounds. She worked “like crazy” to save money for the trip. Thankfully, her mother steered her to an article about Couchsurfing and she signed up for www.couchsurfing.com.
“My host in London said I could stay as long as I taught them Russian. It was amazing—I saw Tower Bridge from my window! I stayed there for 6 months. After that, I traveled with Couchsurfing to twenty-six UK cities and even slept in castles. I was working as a freelancer. I had my laptop for Russian clients. My survival skills were good. I went to Starbucks with my own tea bag. I built a community of friends. It was mind-blowing to see the generosity of strangers. In Belarus, people are not so open. One host said, ‘Here’s the key, don’t break anything. I’m going away for two weeks. Let me know if you break anything.’ He left me fridges full of free food.”
Misha spent a year in England and Ireland, developing beginner English skills before coming to the U.S. She spent time in Denver, where her aunt lives before moving to Brooklyn where she biked to her office at advertising firms in Manhattan.
The work was interesting. The lifestyle was taxing.
“I had a good job in New York City, but I was kind of lonely,” Misha said. “The lack of human connection felt wrong. I wasn’t finding ‘my’ people. I traveled around. I had a vacation in Vermont four years ago and fell in love immediately. I made it my goal to do whatever it takes to move to Vermont.”
Since moving to Vermont, Misha has become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen while continuing her freelance work. She also left an abusive domestic partner. Misha, as a survivor, now advocates for other survivors through Uplift Vermont, a program of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Misha credits Steps to End Domestic Violence and VAL for helping her fight for her rights and regain personal freedom.
“Beverly and Meg’s (VAL teachers) classes helped me a lot with writing endless motions for my cases,” Misha said.
Misha’s current focus is drawing illustrations for children’s books. She appreciates the English Language Learning classes at VAL and is embracing opportunities for personal and professional growth.
“VAL was one of my first experiences in Vermont,” Misha said. “I Googled English classes in Burlington and it started from there. I feel welcomed into the VAL Family. VAL gave me this whole community!”
Misha just returned from the UK, with time spent in London and Edinburgh. She visited friends made during her couch-surfing odyssey.
“After all these years, we are still very close friends,” Misha said.
“From the day Misha joined my classes, she was fully engaged with them,” Beverly said. “It was clear that the curiosity and determination she brought to my classes are how she approaches all of her goals, given how far she had come before finding VAL. Misha was particularly fascinated with my civics class, discovering what a richness of organizations and opportunities exist for Vermonters to influence what happens in this state. I could not have been happier to see how she embraced these opportunities in her personal life; that was exactly what I wanted from the civics class, for all of the students in it.”