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From Kazakhstan to America: The Journey of Leonid Roytman
by Sarah Kopman-Fried

Photo Courtesy Leonid Roytman

A recent photograph of Roytman.

When Leo Roytman was 9 years old, he and his parents and 5-year-old sister, Toma, immigrated to the United States from their homeland of Kazakhstan. The Roytmans, who had little money, were able stay with family in West Hartford while Leo's mother, Bella, studied to get her nursing license. Meanwhile, Leo's father worked as an X-ray technician, finally earning enough money for the family to move into their own home in Farmington. Currently a junior at the University of Connecticut, Leo is studying finance and hopes to work for a Fortune-500 Company after graduation.

What was it like traveling to this country?

My family and I came here on July 16, 1996. It was the day before TWA flight 800 crashed. We were on that same plane. When it landed in New York, the landing was so bumpy that my mother and my little sister threw up. I was so scared and I couldn't understand anything the captain was saying. I spoke only Russian then and it was the first time I had traveled outside of Kazakhstan

Why did your family decide to come to the United States?

Life is Kazakhstan was very hard, very poor. We had wanted to leave the country for a very long time by the time we got here, but it was very difficult. You had to have someone to sponsor you and we had to wait 'til my cousins and grandparents were here and settled before we could come.

So how much time had you spent in Kazakhstan before your family was finally allowed to come to America?

I was 9 when we came to America. I had lived my whole life in a little village near Balkash in Kazakhstan. Just to get to America we had to fly from Balkash to Karaganta and then to Moscow. Then from Moscow we flew to Paris and from Paris to New York City. Then we had to drive to Connecticut. I had never traveled so far before. I remember being amazed by the airports and the planes, I had never seen anything like it before.

Did you know any English when you came to America?

My mother's best friend in Kazakhstan had been an English teacher so I had learned more than most. I remember being so proud of myself, I knew six whole words in English: yes, no, blue, green, hello and goodbye.

So what was it like coming to a new country and not being able to speak the language?

Well, for the first two months it was OK. I wasn't in school yet and I was home with my family so it wasn't so bad. But then I started school and it was terrible. They put me into ESL and I was so scared. I couldn't understand anything. I felt like a monkey.