When she was a young woman in the former Soviet Union, Svetlana Geguzina followed in the footsteps of her physicist father and earned a Ph.D. in physics. For 26 years she put those skills to work for a government physics institute.
“I liked it, but I did not see why do I do this,” she said. “Everything was for the military.”
Svetlana and her family lived in Kharkov, Ukraine. As Jews, they faced persecution from the government. On January 17, 1990 they left their life behind and came to the United States. They arrived as refugees and were resettled in Pittsburgh by JFCS.
Coming to America
They were among a large wave of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, and were eager to move ahead with their lives. Svetlana’s husband, Victor Simkhovich Grinberg, who died in 2019, was a mathematician and was hired by Carnegie Mellon University. Unfortunately, Svetlana’s academic credentials were not recognized in the U.S. She tried unsuccessfully to find a job as a physicist.
However, Linda Ehrenreich, JFCS’s former Chief Innovation Officer, who then led the JFCS Career Development Center, appreciated Svetlana’s intelligence and drive and recruited her in 1994 to work as an interpreter to assist Russian speaking clients who were looking for jobs. Svetlana helped them write resumes and prepare for job interviews.
“She’s a genius,” said Ehrenreich, who also praised Svetlana’s speed, efficiency, and accuracy. “She was extremely serious about her job.”
Ehrenreich recalled seeing Svetlana dash down the hall to meet clients who had arrived for appointments.
“She would literally run down the hall to get her next client,” she said. “Whatever came her way was never too much for her. She gave it 200%.”
In 1998, Charlotte Zabusky, who led JFCS’s refugee and immigration services, hired Svetlana to assist clients with applications for green cards, citizenship, and other changes of legal status. Zabusky saw great potential in Svetlana, and encouraged her to go to law school. While Svetlana did not pursue a law degree, she eventually became an Accredited Representative, a designation from the federal Department of Justice.
Svetlana Helps Immigrants at JFCS
Over the years, she helped clients navigate cases that were often complex, such as helping clients in the U.S. to bring family members from abroad.
“I remember one client, from Africa,” she said. Svetlana helped him successfully petition to bring his wife to the U.S. “And several years later they came back with two kids. They said, ‘you made this possible because you brought their mother.’”
Because she assisted many refugees who were applying for green cards, she acquired the nickname “Ms. Green Card.”
For the last several years Jamie Englert, director of JFCS Immigration Legal Services, was Svetlana’s supervisor.
“She was incredibly efficient and productive,” said Englert, and this was true even when Svetlana cut back her hours. “When she was working three days a week, she still saw more clients and filed more petitions than people who worked full time. Her discipline, efficiency, and attention to detail was incredible. ”
Because she herself had been a refugee, Svetlana brought an important perspective to her department at JFCS.
“She understood both sides of the process. Coming as a refugee she knew what it was like to give up everything that was familiar for a chance at a better life,” said Englert. “She would often share stories of what things were like in the Soviet Union. She never forgot where she came from and was flexible in dealing with our clients because she understood not everything is what it appears at first glance.”
While she was sympathetic, she was also tough, demanding that clients be honest, and responsible.
Svetlana Retires, Loved by Her Coworkers
“She also has an incredible sense of humor. We never knew when she was going to tell us something that was absolutely hilarious,” said Englert. “This one time, we were celebrating her birthday and I joked that we should get some vodka to celebrate, and she said ‘Jamie, listen, you can never tell anyone this, because all good Russians love vodka (which she pronounced waadka) but I hate the stuff. Never buy that for me! We keep it in the freezer for guests, but I hate it. Yuck!’”
Mirroring the 26 years she spent working for the Soviet government, Svetlana retired from JFCS after 26 years of working for the agency.
“For 26 years, I had no bad things, no issues with clients,” said Svetlana. “I have 26 years of very good memories.” She would have continued working but her son Mikhail, who lives in New York State, urged her to move to be near him after her husband died last year.
Over the last 5 years, in addition to her work for JFCS, Svetlana had been working to get a set of textbooks authored by her father translated and published. She edited much of the text herself and was proud to complete the project to honor his memory.
Her plans for retirement include enjoying her life with family and friends, and staying connected to Pittsburgh friends and colleagues via Zoom.
She is missed by her JFCS colleagues.
“Over the years, she has made us laugh with her funny stories, and she has made us appreciate how lucky we are to be born in the U.S. with the freedoms we have by comparison to her early life,” said Englert. “She has changed hundreds if not thousands of lives for the better by helping people navigate bureaucracy they can’t manage by themselves. She is our Babushka and we miss her terribly.”
-Written by Susan Jablow, Grant Writer, JFCS