'Tashkent Was Awful. We Came to Israel With Nothing. We Have No Homeland'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli X-Ray technician who has lived in 12 cities so far, and an American aspiring psychiatrist who is training a psychiatric assistance dog

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Serj Alexeenko.
Serj Alexeenko.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Serj Alexeenko, 32; lives in Haifa, flying to Paris

Hi Serj, where are you headed?

I’m going on a trip to France, it’s a birthday present from my mother.

Congratulations! What do you do?

I’m an X-ray technician. I wanted to study medicine, but it takes too long. I also didn’t plan to stay in Israel. With X-rays, wherever you spin the globe and place a finger, you’ll find work.

What does an X-ray technician do?

It’s a huge field. I specialize in operating rooms, so I deal more with orthopedic screening. Screening is X-ray live: Today, every orthopedic operation requires screening. We have a special instrument called a CR [computed radiography]. We wear special gowns, but we’re still bombarded with radiation.

Is it exciting to be in an operating room?

It’s a job. I was a paramedic in the army, and afterward I was a volunteer with Magen David Adom. With your first accident, you’re excited, but by the 100th accident, no longer. So in the first year after studies you’re excited by the operating room, but in the eighth year it’s already just another operation. It becomes routine. If you’re too worked up, it’s not good, you need to be precise. You need to know how to photograph, how to use the machine. There’s a patient for whom we need to supply a certain service, and we deliver that service with all our professionalism and ability.

What do you in your leisure time?

Mostly sleep. The hours in health care are always weird – you work at night, during the day, on evenings following holidays and Shabbat. I also used to do photography – I have all the equipment, but I don’t do it much now. I photographed social events – bar mitzvahs, weddings, parties – and then I started school and gave that up. I started doing photography at age 16 or 17.

Did you like photographing social events?

It was pure work – punching a clock, as they say. You come in and you see the whole mass; half are drunk and half don’t know what they’re doing there. If I were to have an event, there wouldn’t be any people there. When I imagine my wedding, I see the priest, myself and my wife. That’s it. Who else should I invite? I am a native of the Soviet Union, so who do I have, after all? My mother, father, my grandmother is no longer with us, a dog, two close friends.

Where did you grow up?

There is no one place where I grew up. Haifa, where I live today, is my 12th city. I was born in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. When I was 6 we came to Israel, and we were in an immigrant absorption center in Kiryat Gat, and then we moved to Arad, from there to Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva, Kiryat Shmona, Kibbutz Shamir, and after that I moved to Herzliya and my parents moved back to Ashkelon. After that I went back to Ashkelon, from there to Rishon Letzion and then Haifa. We moved about every two years.

Do you remember your childhood in Tashkent?

I don’t remember much, but it was awful. It was cold and sad. We moved here in 1994, when the [failed] Islamist revolution took place. People were being shot in the street, so obviously it’s a good idea to leave a place where you’re being shot. We came to Israel with nothing, because we were robbed in the airport. We have no homeland, anyone who left the Soviet Union has no homeland. We weren’t wanted there, here we are not really desired, you don’t really have an association or a closeness to a certain place. Any place can be a home – you chose a place to live in, so that’s your home. I am specifically an Israeli in every respect, you can say that I was born here.

What was it like to immigrate to Israel?

I remember that in the first grade in Tashkent we learned [arithmetic] functions and equations, and when we got here we were taught what a clementine is. By age 6, I already knew English, and I came here and we were taught colors. So I didn’t go to first or second grades in Israel, instead of that I went to an ulpan, and from there to third grade.

What’s it like for a child to move so often?

It has advantages, now I can relate to things in a second. I could sell sand to Bedouin. I don’t know what I’m doing in medicine, I should have been in sales.

Why sales?

When I was very young, I sold candy at school. I had an agreement with the neighborhood kiosk that he would sell to me cheap and I would sell expensive. I had a good turnover, 100 percent profit. Watermelon-flavored gum cost me half a shekel and I sold it for a shekel. I got caught and was almost thrown out of school because of that. I always felt that I was smarter than others. Not with any justification, but that was my feeling. It took me a long time to understand that I was dumb. Who sells candy to children in the sixth grade?

Avital Fischer.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Avital Fischer, 32; lives in Irvine, California, arriving from Los Angeles

Hi Avital, what brings you to Israel?

My sister is getting married tomorrow. I’m waiting for my father, who’s now arriving from Virginia.

Congratulations! Where are you from originally?

I was born in New York, we immigrated to Israel when I was 7, and I lived here until I was 19. I went to high school and did army service here for a short period, because I had medical problems. I went to MIT and did an undergraduate degree in the humanities and cognition, and now I’ve completed med school at UCI [University of California, Irvine] and I’m going to be a psychiatrist. I start psychiatric residency at Stanford in a month. I have three sisters in Israel and one in the United States, so we’re five sisters and I’m number four.

So you’ll all meet at the wedding?

The other sister who lives in the United States won’t be coming: She’s pregnant and is afraid of getting vaccinated. She’s also a physician.

Are your parents doctors, too?

They are professors of criminology and psychology.

And what brought you to psychiatry?

I didn’t know that I wanted to be a psychiatrist until half a year ago. I applied for both family medicine and psychiatry. I like to deal with the mind-body connection. I think there’s a lot of prejudice about psychiatry, and stigmas about people who have psychiatric problems. The situation in California and New York is better today – I don’t know what the situation is in Israel, because I haven’t lived here for a long time, but I hope it’s improved. When I was here as a student for a year, my health insurance didn’t include anything connected to mental health. In the United States, it is included.

What needs to change in this realm?

It needs to be understood that mental health is part of health. Many times if you tell someone you’re seeing a psychiatrist, you’re considered crazy. In the United States, every second person is seeing a psychiatrist. Obviously there are serious conditions, but there’s a spectrum of problems in mental health and there are many things with which psychiatrists can help. You can go to the family doctor for something small and something big, and it’s the same with mental health. Everyone experiences something involving mental health, because that’s how it is: Life is hard.

Have you ever encountered less accommodating responses to the subject?

At MIT, there was a lot less openness to the subject. Now, in med school, half our class is going into psychiatry. That’s normal; everyone talks about it.

Do you think there’s a connection between intelligence and certain achievements, on the one hand, and mental stability?

I think that the pressure the establishment exerts on you can affect mental health. The places I studied at are very achievement-oriented. MIT, for example, has a very demanding culture. But it’s clear that achievement is very important if you’re going to study medicine and treat people.

What makes for a good psychiatrist?

I think it’s the ability to be empathetic and to imagine yourself in the shoes of the person facing you. And also to think about mental illnesses as a medical condition and not as a choice – because many times people think a person simply needs to overcome it, but it’s not really like that.

So how do you get results, nevertheless?

There are so many things that we know it’s good or not good to do, but we don’t behave the way we should. We know it’s good to eat in a healthful way, that we need to exercise, shouldn’t smoke – but everyone needs to improve in these matters. Many times it has nothing to do with knowledge, it’s a lot deeper than that. There are a great many things one can do in psychiatry; it might take more time than giving a prescription, but it’s very satisfying work. In the end, the real improvement must come from the person himself, but therapy and medication can help. I think of psychiatric medication as being like a massage before a workout, but you need to work out, too.

By the way, what’s with the dog?

This is Sesame, he’s 8 months old and I’m training him to be a psychiatric support dog. I always wanted a dog, so I bought him with the money we received as economic stimulus during the coronavirus pandemic. By the time he’s finished with his training, he’s supposed to sense when the person who’s with him is tensing up or is about to have an anxiety attack, and to be able to calm him – such as by putting a paw on him or touching him with his nose. I want him to be with me and help the patients. Everyone on the plane loved him; he supported all the passengers.

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