My two sisters and I grew up in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. We had a gas-burning stove, sufficient food and clothes, and lived what was considered to be a middle-class lifestyle. As a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, we didn’t want to identify as Jewish and rarely spoke about it.
When I was 16, my older sister, Lyuba, got married and moved to America, settling in Michigan with her husband. My parents were eager to follow and live in a place where we could achieve our dreams. We finally received visas and emigrated in 1995. I was 18 years old, and my youngest sister was 17. We settled in Brooklyn, where my baby brother was born less than a year after our arrival.
Our transition from the Caucasus to the bustling streets of New York was very challenging. We didn’t speak English, and were unfamiliar with the lifestyle of our new country. Yet I was determined to receive a good education and have a successful, fulfilling career. These values were very important in our culture, and were even more important now.
At first I attended a local community college, where I took English as a Second Language courses for a year until I learned the basics. Full fluency took several years of intense studying and effort. I achieved my dream of American citizenship and enrolled in the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York system, on a full scholarship. I hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement or perhaps become a lawyer someday. I graduated in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. My parents were so proud of their Liana, who had persevered and brought honor to the family!
Now it was time to get a job and work my way up the ladder. Shortly after graduation I was hired as a fingerprint technician at an application support center in Brooklyn, which was under contract with the United States government. It was there that I met my husband who worked as a security enforcement officer. We were married in 2002.
Being Jewish meant nothing to me at the time. Even in New York, religion played no role in my life. I did observe Yom Kippur and tried to fast as long as I could, but that was the extent of it.
In 2005, when my son was only a toddler, I left my job as a fingerprint technician and decided to pursue a career with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, something that requires security clearance and American citizenship. I worked there for two years before taking a more advanced position with US Customs and Border Protection, a federal agency for which I continue to work to this day.
A few years later I applied for a job as a national import specialist with US Customs, and was sent to a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia, for several months of advanced training. During my absence my husband and parents took care of my son, who was already in part-time day care.