I Am An Immigrant: Dishing out Déjà Vu

A boy in Belarus dreamt of living near the Golden Gate Bridge. Little did he know that his travels would take him from being a dishwasher to a startup founder in San Francisco.

Kirill stands in front of a building at the Haas School of Business where he graduated in 2014.
Kirill stands in front of a building at the Haas School of Business where he graduated in 2014.

This article is part of the I Am an Immigrant article series in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. For more uplifting stories of the American Dream in action, check out the podcast Community Voice.

[KC]: Tell me about yourself.

[KI]: I came from Belarus, a [country that formed after the Soviet Union collapsed] in 2008. Since then, I was able to go to community college and I was able to transfer to UC Berkeley. [I] studied Business there. After Haas Business School, I went to work for Deloitte Consulting. I did technology consulting there for two and a half years. Just recently, about two months ago, I quit my job. Again, it was a big risk and big step for my future life path that I decided to work on my business. I’m starting an e-commerce business selling stuff online. Photography is one of my biggest passions. That’s partially why I quit my corporate job. I wanted to focus on something I enjoy long-term. I was doing interesting work at Deloitte. We were doing Internet of Things implementations with cutting edge technology. [But I wanted to] do something where I can apply my photography skills.

Kirill stands in front of the Deloitte office in San Francisco, where he worked after graduating from UC Berkeley.
Kirill stands in front of the Deloitte office in San Francisco, where he worked after graduating from UC Berkeley.

[KC]: Why did you come to the United States?

[KI]: When I was still very young, about 10 years old, I had a dream/vision based on this movie that I [would] be studying at a prestigious university somewhere abroad. I had a very particular vision from the movie that [this] was kind of my dream future. I had no idea how I was going to get there. I always kept that idea in my head and tried to do whatever I could to make it happen.

Before the United States, I did try to [go] to England… I spent a summer there but I realized it was not exactly what I was looking for.

[KC]: Did you have the same sense of purpose in the United States of what you wanted to accomplish as when you were in England? … As an example, did you want to start your company? What was your general impetus for going to the United States?

[KI]: [I] definitely did not have a very defined goal of starting a company, per se. Maybe now I do, but back then, it was a more general idea. I wanted to be in a place where I have more opportunities to do things, to try new things; to meet new people. Living in Belarus, you definitely did not have that level of exposure to the variety of [opportunities]. … I felt like I was missing out. [I wanted to] access that kind of think tank and that kind of pool of opportunities. There are probably ways to do it staying in Belarus, but I thought [immigrating was a clearer path].

[KC]: You mentioned that there was a movie that led you down the vision of immigrating and going to Berkeley. Do you remember the name of the movie?

[KI]: The movie was called Boys and Girls. I watched it in Russian translation. I was about 10 years old. It was an American movie. I knew pretty much nothing about the United States [except where it was on a map]. I didn’t know anything about the culture or what university [was in the movie]… I was very surprised and shocked when I told the same story to one of my friends while I was at Berkeley… I [told her I only remembered] one big iconic thing from the movie [this big red bridge from the movie which was] the Golden Gate Bridge. “I’m here. My life dream happened...”

“She went back home and watched the movie… [she told me that] the boy and girl from the movie were also UC Berkeley students. I was speechless for a few moments because I only found out about it while I was already a [student there]. ... When I re-watched it again, I literally almost cried. … I knew exactly the streets they were on. I was doing the exact same things they were doing. I don’t think it was a coincidence.”

[KC]: It was not a coincidence?

[KI]: I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s some kind of a greater universal force driving our lives. [By] projecting our minds into the universe and into the future, we’re attracting the things that we think about—both negative and positive. That’s why they say it’s so important to remove all the negativity from your life, because they attract …[other] negative things in your life.

“That was just a very good lesson in my life [that taught me to] always focus on what you want to achieve, not something you don’t want to achieve… That’s definitely the biggest lesson in my life.”

[KC]: Would you be comfortable sharing your story about the political activity you had in Russia?

[KI]: Up until now, Belarus is considered a dictatorship regime. The president has been president since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Even in the constitution, the president [like in any normal country] is not allowed to serve a certain amount of time. He was able to change the constitution. He was able to “ask” people to change the constitution. A lot of people know that the elections and any kind of voting is rigged. … He can serve as long as he wants. He pretty much has full freedom to power and access in the country as he wishes to have… If you meet someone from Belarus, it is quite common for them to have political asylum…

While I was studying in school, I was in participating in some opposition activities through drawing cartoons showing how the government operates, that it’s all [a] kind of illegal activity and how we should all stand up against it … I was expressing [this sentiment through cartoons and distributing them] among students around my school.

[KC]: And you were in high school at the time?

[KI]: No, that was at the university. [I was] studying there for a few years, and then I dropped out. That’s when I came to the United States.

[KC]: You were distributing these cartoons, and then what happened?

[KI]: A few times, I was detained at political rallies and got physically abused a little bit—nothing too crazy, but [I was] detained a few times. That was enough evidence for me [to] prove that it was a danger for me to go back home. When I came here, I had to build my whole case around why I filed political asylum… They would ask you in many different ways the events you described in the past. They want to make sure you’re not lying. They want to make sure your story is consistent. … Usually people hire lawyers for this process because you don’t know the right way to collect the documents and evidence. I in fact did it all myself… I only hired an interpreter just in case I didn’t understand something. That was my first year when I was in the United States. I didn’t speak English as well [as I do now]… When I share that with anyone else from Belarus who went through a similar process, they’re all kind of surprised that I was all able to accomplish [that].

[KC]: That must have been nerve-wracking.

[KI]: Yeah, definitely! … There’s a good psychologist to hear your story and make sure you’re not lying. They’re there …to read your body language and understand your case, understand everything about [your] culture. It’s kind of a big deal for them to grant asylum to a person, to basically eventually give all the rights a citizen has. So they have to be very careful with whom they give it to.

[KC]: How long have you been in the United States?

[KI]: Since 2008, so it’s been about 9 years. I’ve kind of lost track. I came here in May 2008.

[KC]: After drawing the political cartoons, did they ever threaten you?

[KI]: [There are multiple mechanisms how the government can threaten you or your family. Some of them can include job loss (the government controls most jobs in the country), getting into prison for drug dealing (there are known cases when police would imitate that they found drugs in your house during a search), or issuing a large fine.]

Serving in the army is kind of an obligation for all of the younger male citizens. There are a few exceptions [when] you don’t have to serve. One of them is if you’re a full time student or [have] some sort of medical condition that prevents you from serving in the army. In fact, I had both. After I left Belarus, I would be getting those letters to say that I have to appear in military draft even though I’m not eligible… [For instance,] when I was born, my hips were misaligned. [Though they were fixed later on], the doctor said I shouldn’t be in the army. It’s against my health prescription. I had all of these medical records to show that I’m not eligible to serve. They would still try to draft me …

[KC]: For political asylum, once you’re granted that [status] you’re not allowed to go back to Belarus. Is that correct?

[KI]: Yes, that is correct.

[KC]: Is it hard for you?

[KI]: Yes, it is hard… I’m a U.S. Citizen now and I’m not planning by any means to go to Belarus or live there.

[KC]: So that movie that you watched became your reality after immigrating. Apart from studying in a big university, was there a big dream you wanted to achieve? Or was the dream to be able to move to San Francisco?

[KI]: The bigger dream that I always had was for me to experience life to the fullest through all class levels. I started [in a] poor family in Belarus, and I wanted to end up at [the] highest class [in the] best country. I think I would get the most satisfaction from basically figuring life out [in that way]. It was about [moving] up not income-wise, but intelligence-wise; to be recognized for some kind of contribution, a kind of mental potential. I want to be recognized for that.

[KC]: How do you want to be remembered?

[KI]: I definitely want to be remembered as a big contributor, somebody who helped to improve the world as it is now in one way or another. It doesn’t have to be specific to the United States. I look at it more broadly, on a world scale: … to help improve the current world conditions.

Challenges

[KC]: Tell me a little more about the sacrifices you made while you were immigrating either for you or for your family.

[KI]: I feel there were more sacrifices for my family than for me… Back home, the normal thing to do was you grow up and you have kids fairly early in your life, maybe in your early 20s. You have your kid, and then you give everything to your kids. It’s not written anywhere, but it’s an expectation that they expect your kids to take care of you. It's kind of a norm… For them, they put so much energy and sacrifice [so much] to make sure I grow up and go to school, and [then I leave] the country.

Of course I’m planning to help them. Perhaps soon enough, I’ll be able to bring my mom here. But when I was leaving, [they were probably thinking: “Our son is gone – we’re not sure if we’ll ever see him again.” I think for them that was more of a sacrifice and a struggle for me. … At the same time, I had that vision in my head [that] it was all very temporary.

You will stay connected to the people you’re meant to be connected to. So, I wasn’t worried about losing those people, because I knew I will stay in touch with the ones that are truly on my life path. Was I [really] sacrificing too much? For a lot of people, after they move to a very different country… they really want to go back home and they really want to go back to their previous life. For me, I didn’t have that. Not even a day [did I think], “Maybe I should go back. Maybe I should consider doing something else.” I don’t necessarily think I sacrificed too much.

[KC]: I remember that your mom came to our graduation. When she was there, it must have been an emotional moment for both of you guys to see you on your upward trajectory. How was that for you as a son, as someone who just graduated at this new touchpoint in your life?

[KI]: It was definitely very emotional for me, to see my mom there. She definitely was very proud of me, and I respect that. I started believing in myself even more. I’m trying to remember other emotions apart from being proud and kind of emotional about it.

[KC]: Are you the only child?

[KI]: I have an elder sister. [As with some of my loved ones,] my life is so distant [to them], so far away [that] they just don’t understand it anymore.

[KC]: Is that hard since you’re now in a different wavelength? And a totally different way of life?

When [my sister and I] were growing up we were fairly similar with our opinions. Once I moved, the gap [started] growing, growing, growing. We can’t even exactly talk about the same things. We’re just very different… it’s just 2 different life paths. It’s like you looking at someone else that you don’t understand. Is it hard for you that they have a different lifestyle? Probably not. Even though they’re relatives. That’s how life is… some of us take different steps in life, and I think that’s okay.

[KC]: While you were in the US, what was the biggest challenge for you? (Was it assimilating? Was it discrimination? Was it finding your identity?) What exactly was most hard for you?

[KI]: Probably since I didn’t speak the language very well. I barely spoke any English.

My first destination… was in North Carolina in this little touristy town called Kill Devil Hills. [It was on the] east side of North Carolina by the ocean… When I was still studying at the university, the way you can [go] to the United States was through a work and travel program. It always you to [go] to the U.S. for up to 6 months. They give you temporary social security, and they want you to travel and experience the country. That’s a great notion. ... You need to get a job offer before coming… and usually there are more seasonal low-skilled jobs in places like I went, since it’s a small touristy town that have jobs in summer. ... I was a dishwasher when I came, and at the same restaurant, later on got promoted. I became a prep cook, and a month later, I tried to learn [knife skills as fast as I could learn my English]. … By the [end], I was already working as a line cook with the main chef on the line.

After leaving Belarus, Kirill at a restaurant in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina as his first job in America. He recently le
After leaving Belarus, Kirill at a restaurant in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina as his first job in America. He recently left his job at Deloitte as a management consultant to start his own technology company.

[KC]: How long were you there for in Kill Devil Hills?

[KI]: I was there for about 3 months and I was there during the summer. … One of the challenges was finding a job. ... I knew one guy from my hometown [in California], so he kind of guided me to where to find a job.

[KC]: Where did you work when you were in San Francisco?

[KI]: It was called Renditions. [This was] in 2008, and it was just opened, and it was closed that year. When I moved, I looked for jobs in food industry. [With my 3 months of experience, I figured it was easier to find similar jobs.]

Triumph

[KC]: What’s been your proudest achievement since coming to the US?

[KI]: Getting into UC Berkeley, because it has this backstory of me dreaming about it my whole life and [finally being accepted].

Kirill is pictured here in his graduation gap in front of the iconic Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus, the university he
Kirill is pictured here in his graduation gap in front of the iconic Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus, the university he had been dreaming about since he was a young boy in Belarus.

[KC]: Do you have any regrets about your journey in coming to this country?

[KI]: Any regrets? I try not to regret anything about life even if I think I should have done something else. I think the feeling of regret—we should all try to get rid of it. It actually makes [things] worse. The only thing you should be doing after you make a mistake is [figure out] how to make it better. What regret does is basically say, “I can’t really change anything about the past but I’m still going to feel [bad] about it.”

Reflecting on His Experiences

[KC]: What did you learn about yourself in the process of immigrating?

[KI]: I’m definitely discovering myself more in the role of being a very social person and being very curious about different personalities and different cultures. … Before I never had that exposure. I really never would have known that I would like those sort of things. I truly enjoy meeting people with different cultures, different opinions. I like to have conversations, debates… I really learned how to connect, how to get respect from a stranger, how to [help people] open up.

[KC]: What is one takeaway from your immigration experience you want to share with the world?

[KI]: I only got this mindset in my head because I live here now: … We all are part of the same community but the problem is historically, there are groups of people or individuals who are trying to control one group or another by introducing an idea. It is all [about] clashes or conflicts of ideas. ... [Any] kind of idea can create conflict if you use it in a wrong way which is something we’ve seen historically. I think we need to have an idea in our head that we are all part of one community. We can all have opinions. We should all respect people’s opinions without violence.

Try to really understand why [someone] is behaving in that way. Just because you don’t understand [this behavior] doesn’t mean it’s wrong, [it] just means you’re missing some important pieces of information that [are] driving that behavior. That also actually helped me to connect with people… We are all normal human beings until we’re bought through certain experiences that made us a certain away.

Another takeaway is I truly believe that if you’re a normal person and you can function in society, anything is possible. [Regarding the actual path], it will depend person to person. I went to school with some geniuses. For them, it would be really easy for them to learn something, and it would take me much longer to learn something. The pace is different, but we can all get there… Don’t compare yourself. There are different circumstances. You can always get there by taking the right steps and being consistent in [adjusting] your goals.

[KC]: We haven’t talked too much about the work that you’re doing. What is your company about?

[KI]: It’s basically my current goal to learn as much as I can how to run a successful ecommerce store, how to sell stuff online instead of having a regular store. … I have a business partner. We started with a low investment, low risk item. After doing some research we tried to figure out what’s [been growing] steadily in the last 12-18 months. We’re starting headbands for women, for yoga, for working out, and for leisure.

[KC]: Wait let me stop you right there. [Being in California], I could have sworn you were about to tell me, you were starting a medical marijuana business. [laughs]

Oh, haha! When I talk to some of my friends, some of them are like, “That’s so random! Why would you do something like that?” I was very broadly looking at the market. Amazon provided me some good metrics to understand the ranking of the product and how many items were sold for a consumer product business. The website is already live. It’s called Pavoproject.com.

We’re doing it primarily [using] Instagram for business. It’s a hub of attention. People are trading attention all the time. Whoever has the most attention, those people have more power on their platforms. They steer attention left and right. … Hopefully, more people are using it for good. But it is a powerful tool to get the attention of people in the direction you want them to take.

[KC]: What’s the end goal for you? Do you just like the art of creation? What’s driving you to do this?

[KI]: Always have a very detailed vision and imaginary future of you doing something for which you’re having an ecstatic experience. Basically for me, I’m imagining myself sitting in [a] house that has big floor-to-ceiling big windows. This house is on a mountain. From the right side, there’s a cute town on the mountain overlooking the ocean. It’s a warm climate. I’m sitting and playing the piano. [There’s] this big white room with lots of sunlight, big white curtains floating in the air, and [it] has this dreamy kind of vibe. So that’s the next place where I’m headed, my next kind of heaven. How exactly I’m going to get there, I don’t know.

[KC]: Has this [visualization technique] been something you have always done? By the way, if you haven’t read the book, I think you’d really enjoy The Secret.

[KI]: I had it since a really early age but consciously, I started thinking about it when I read Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. A long, long time ago, I read it in Russian when I was in school. It resonated with me ... I was always thinking about [my dreams] but it never came out consciously.

Footnotes:

  • To hear more stories about self-starters, student entrepreneurs, and small business owners across the country, tune into the podcast Community Voice available on iTunes.
  • To learn more about Kirill’s plans for launching Pavoproject.com, direct message @igkirill on Instagram.
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