While gardening in Sedona, AZ, Helena Sigman heard a sound that, she says, paralyzed her completely. The city was putting on a show of old airplanes. Although over 70 years had passed, she recognized one of the planes as the same kind that would swoop down and shoot during and after World War II. At the time, she and her parents were Russian refugees traversing Germany by foot. As Helena’s parents pushed the little wagon that carried all of their belongings, she kept an eye out for the planes.
Refugees from Russia were not a priority for resettlement in the United States at first, but with the help of Church World Service, Helena’s Latvian cousin was able to resettle in Lincoln, NE. Later, CWS helped Helena and her family do the same.
Helena’s hopeful journey to America was tainted by what she calls, “the one and only attack of appendicitis.” About two-thirds of the way through a nine-day voyage, she was hospitalized on the ship. Upon arrival, she was taken by stretcher directly to a navy hospital for an operation.
According to Helena, the young residents of Lincoln were curious about her and her family. She found it difficult to relay her experiences to a community that couldn’t possibly conceptualize a war that took place abroad.
One day in the tenth grade, Helena’s class was reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The assignment was to look up the definitions for unknown words. In theory, this presented a challenge for Helena, who could speak Russian and German but hadn’t yet mastered English. But during a pop quiz, the teacher asked everyone to define the word “taciturn.” Students took turns unsuccessfully giving the meaning, until it was finally Helena’s turn.
Her education in Germany required Latin classes, so she applied her knowledge of a quiet Latin emperor by the name of Tacitus to make an educated guess: taciturn was a synonym for quiet.
“And lo and behold I was right,” Helena said. “There was no stopping me after that. I knew I’d make it.”
That moment was a turning point for her to not be quiet, to use her voice instead, to tell her story.
As the CWS media intern this summer, I got to experience this incredible firsthand account in a secondhand way—by processing the footage of an interview with Helena. Helena’s story is not only a testament to CWS’ long-standing commitment to refugees, but a beautiful representation of hope after hardship.
Helena on her immigrant identity: “I don’t stop being Russian. I just became also, an American.”
Helena on her first friend in the US: “There was a girl in my class, whose name I don’t remember at this point who kind of adopted me. She became my step-mother somehow and through her I found out an awful lot about how to survive in the States as a teenager.”
Helena on gratitude: “I imagine if I had lived anywhere else I would not have had the ten thousand opportunities to do anything and everything I wanted. And I wanted too many things. So I’m grateful for it all being available to me.”
Helena on what defines a home: “A home is not a house, no. A home is a connection with human beings, I would say.”
Helena on the importance of travel: “If you travel and you see the rest of the world, your eyes and your heart opens up. You see different ways of approaching life. You develop compassion among other things and you recognize that you’re part of everything, not just the US.”
Anne Lizette Sta. Maria was the CWS Summer Media Intern in 2021.