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Untold Story: I am the Present and Future Story of Those Who Inspire Me

August 23, 2017

By Yuliya Gileva

Almost everyone I meet asks me the same question: what was the difference between living in Hatton, Alabama and Arkhangelsk, Russia? In Russia, my family and I lived in a ten-story apartment building that towered over the center of the frigid city. In Alabama (from the age of twelve and until my undergraduate studies at Emory University), I lived in a single-family home near a sweltering, small town where people knew not only their neighbor, but also the person living miles down the road — and perhaps what he had for dinner last night. My backyard was no longer a crowded park. Instead, acres and acres of corn and cotton fields surrounded me. The lights of buses and taxis no longer flashed into the living room windows. Instead, a tractor became my alarm clock.

The one aspect I never addressed was the difference in people’s facial expressions when they met me for the first time. In Russia, it seemed as though my physical disability—Cerebral Palsy—had the chance to speak before a single word escaped my lips. On the first day of first grade, skipping toward my school in Arkhangelsk for the very first time, I counted every step aloud. My mother attempted to make a smile and said what, at that time, seemed like the oddest statement. “Remember that no two butterflies are alike.” At that moment, I did not take the meaning behind the words. When I pulled on the school door, it did not budge. I expected my mother to reach out and open it for me, but she stood back and watched. “If you don’t pull harder, it will never open,” she said. After a couple of strenuous pulls, the bulky door opened.

As we entered the building, I dropped my purple backpack next to a bench. When our conversation with the school director, a woman in her forties with fire red lipstick, ended, I grabbed my backpack. My knees bent, and my stride became uneven under the weight of the books. I noticed that the spark and excitement present in the director’s eyes a moment earlier were replaced by sorrow. It seemed the director wanted to ask a question, but she was unsure of where to begin. I wondered whether I should I attempt to restart the conversation or just escape the awkwardness? When I stepped into the classroom, my confidence vanished. I never wanted to see that sorrow again in anyone’s eyes.

Five years later in Alabama, I relived the jitters of starting at a new school. Mrs. Anderson, my social studies teacher and first mentor, did not treat me as a fragile piece of glass ready to break. She saw my strengths before I found them. As we made our way to the classroom through a maze of children, I embraced my imperfect stride.

Twenty years have passed since my first day of jitters in first grade. As I’m about to begin my final week at the International Finance Corporation (the corporate branch of the World Bank), I’m convinced that my family, friends, and many incredible mentors this summer and previously have allowed me to explore what it means to be a woman with a disability and an immigrant with a passion for law. I am seeing the path ahead in more vibrant colors. Thank you to USICD, IFC Diversity and Inclusion Council, IFC Legal Department, my law school mentors, my Emory mentors, my family, and my friends for joining me on this path and for contributing so much to the person that I am today. I’m grateful in ways that words cannot describe. The best way that I can thank you all is to keep paying it forward.

Yuliya Gileva is a member of the 2017 cohort of the USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program and other topics, to be posted at this blog during the summer.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  The internship program was enabled by funding support from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF). Yuliya Gileva is completing her internship at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) at the World Bank.  Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2017 program.  Or read blog posts by other current and past interns. The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD, MEAF, or IFC or World Bank.

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