When applying for her passport in the Soviet Union, Marina Volin had a decision to make: Did she want to be registered as Jewish?
Since her father was Jewish but her mother was not, Volin could have gotten off easy, and marked her nationality as Russian – the Soviet government regarded being Jewish as a national distinction, not a religious one.
But she felt compelled to identify as a Jew, and accept all the pressures attendant to such a choice in the Communist regime.
"I wanted to fight prejudice," said Volin, 44, now a lawyer living in Holland, Pa. "Why can't I call myself what I want?"
It didn't take long for her to be discriminated against: When she attempted to take a trip to Bulgaria with her college classmates, for example, she was denied a space because the trip's organizers said there were already too many Jews. The three who were going maxed out the quota.
On another occasion, while attending the I.M. Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas in Moscow as part of her graduate studies, she went to Simchat Torah services at a nearby synagogue. The following day, she was told that if she did it again, she'd be expelled.
"I actually was just startled that somebody watched and saw what I had done," said Volin, who admitted to taking a break from going to synagogue until she finished earning her master's degree in chemical engineering. After graduation, she began attending again on some holidays.
But after successively feeling the heat for being Jewish, Volin decided to look for a fresh start.
"I saw that people don't value me for my knowledge," she said softly, with a slight accent. "They look at my passport and make decisions based on that. And then I knew I wanted to leave."
In 1989, Volin immigrated to Philadelphia with her husband and 7-year-old daughter, with assistance from what's now the Jewish Family and Children's Service. At the time, she was pregnant again.
"It was kind of scary," she said about expecting a new baby in a new city where everyone speaks a new language.
But Volin was encouraged by the way Americans were eager to help or answer questions.
"A lot of people are patient; they take time to help you learn things," she said. "In Russia, they expect you to know. Here, I was not afraid to ask a question."
She took English classes, and after giving birth to her son, found a job as a chemical researcher.
"I learned the area," she said. "The kids were happy."
While working for eight years at a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania – it later moved to the Fox Chase Cancer Center – she found herself in 1995 face to face with the the American legal system: She and her husband went through a divorce.
"I was threatened that I would lose my children. I did not know enough law at the time," she recalled. "It seemed like you pay money and you don't know what is happening to you."
This introduction eventually caused Volin to take matters into her own hands two years later, when she represented herself in her child-custody case – and won. Her victory inspired her to enroll in law school at Temple University in 1998.
She now works at Caesar, Rivise, Bernstein, Cohen & Pokotilow in Center City, as a patent attorney. She represents inventors, including those developing new drug formulations.
In 1999, Volin took a trip back to Russia.
"The changes were just so drastic; it looked like everything was upside-down," she reported.
But of the United States, she has kind words: "This country gives you the ability to study and change professions. This country provides much more opportunity to learn."