By Sue Henninger
“The Ukraine is my homeland, but the United States is my home. I’m an American now,” Anna Garber Hammond said firmly. An only child, Garber Hammond was born and raised in Gorlovka, a small, industrial town in East Ukraine. She recalled her childhood as happy, with pets and close relationships with her large, extended family. Her mother was an elementary school teacher; her father worked in a steel factory. Though their basic needs were always met, their home was small and she remembers her parents struggling at times. “I was in middle school when the Soviet Union dissolved,” she explained. “My parents had a savings account for me that was for college. My mom finally had to use that money to buy us a frying pan.” Nonetheless, Garber Hammond was able to attend the university in Donetsk, one of the largest cities in Ukraine. There she received Masters’ degrees in both psychology and linguistics.
While studying in Donetsk, she met her future husband, Lorren Hammond, online. “I got involved with dating websites as a fun way to practice the languages I was learning,” she explained. “He came to Ukraine to meet me and my family. We traveled a bit and that was it!” She remained in Ukraine to finish her education and in 2008 they were married. “I got my diploma, had a wedding, and moved to America in 10 days,” she laughed. “We had ceremonies in both countries. First with my friends and family in Ukraine and then a beautiful, traditional American wedding at Sheldrake Point.” The couple settled in Trumansburg and it was then that Garber Hammond realized how much her life would be changing. Unable to work her first year in the United States due to her immigration status, she found the transition from big city life in Donetsk to a rural village in Upstate New York difficult. “I had no friends,” she recalled. “The house was super-country. You couldn’t even see your neighbors. And my English wasn’t great. I thought, ‘Now what? What do I do? This is my American dream?’”
She invited a girlfriend to come stay with her for three months, learned Quick Books so she could help Hammond with his business, and spent a lot of time at Island Health Club in Ithaca. “I was lucky to have a supportive husband,” she noted. However, it was joining the Ithaca League of Women Rollers that dramatically altered her life trajectory. “I was hooked. It kept me sane. Eight years and two knee surgeries later, I still love it!” she said. It was through the friends she made skating and competing that she got her job as an event coordinator for International Programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This position involves plenty of logistics, networking, and travel, all of which she enjoys and excels at.
Despite being married to a US citizen, becoming a naturalized American citizen was a costly, complicated, and lengthy process for her. “I had to go through all the hoops,” Garber Hammond recalled. “It wasn’t easy but I’ve had worse struggles in my life than US immigration services.” One of the reasons she obtained full citizenship was to sponsor her mother so the older woman could achieve permanent resident status and relocate to the United States once she’d retired.
These days, Garber Hammond makes her home in Ithaca with her mother and six-year-old son who is being raised bilingual, though Garber Hammond said he prefers English as it’s easier. She described the youngster as an excellent, adventurous traveler who has already been to China, India, and, of course, Ukraine to see his cousins. “He’s already on his second passport!” she said proudly.
Over the past few years, fighting has been continuous in certain parts of her homeland. Garber Hammond likened it to the American Civil War in the ways it has impacted family relationships. “I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union,” she said. “Ukraine is independent and has been for 20 years. This was never a big deal to me until this conflict started.” While some family members Skype regularly to maintain connections, others found themselves on different ideological sides of the struggle and drifted apart. Even her relationship with her mother has been strained by the conflict at times. “My mom and I have opposite versions of what we believe,” she observed. “She is pro-Russian and thinks Ukraine is being aggressive and bombing its own people. I identify as Ukrainian and think Russia is the aggressor…We’ve had a few major fights so we just stopped talking about it. We need to keep the peace to live together.”
Did her years in Ukraine influence the person she is today? Garber Hammond considered the question carefully. “It made me tough. It prepared me for anything and everything. I learned that you have to fight for yourself to get somewhere.” She paused, considering. “I remember my first roller derby in 2010 in Rochester (New York). I was standing there listening to the American Anthem play, thinking ‘How did I get here?’ All the changes I’d been through that I couldn’t have predicted. It was luck and taking advantage of opportunities.”
If there was one piece of advice she could offer to the United States regarding current immigration policies what would it be? “I’d want the politicians to understand that we aren’t here to undermine Americans. Believe in us. Trust us. We aren’t here to take advantage of the system or take things away from you. We give up a lot to come here. We want to be equal, contributing, happy members of this amazing society.”