A twin aliyah

“We dreamed about living in Israel,” says Maria. “We understood that Israel was a place of opportunity for us and we could make a better future for ourselves.”

MARIA (RIGHT) and Natali Radu. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MARIA (RIGHT) and Natali Radu.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the age of 16, Maria and Natali Radu turned their lives upside down. They went from the freezing city of Irkutsk in the heart of Siberia to the boiling fields of Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev. Russian-speakers, they learned Hebrew and quickly adapted to the informal and open Israeli culture.
“We were never treated differently when we were growing up because we were Jewish,” says Maria. “We were aware of our Judaism because of our grandmother, who took us to the synagogue with our mother and older brother when we were little girls.”
Maria and Natali attended the local high school and both excelled in math and physics. Their parents, who had divorced when they were younger, always encouraged them to work hard in school in order to get ahead.
However, the girls felt that there was really no place to move forward in Irkutsk. Through attending Jewish and Israel-centered activities, they learned a lot about Israel.
“We dreamed about living in Israel,” says Maria. “We understood that Israel was a place of opportunity for us and we could make a better future for ourselves.”
Their older brother, now married with a young daughter, had made aliyah a number of years earlier, and this gave Maria and Natali even more motivation to do the same.
Right before going into 10th grade, they went to Israel on the Na’aleh program, which brings high school students to Israel before their parents. They were based at Kibbutz Shoval in the northern Negev, where they lived with other newcomers from all over the world, and completed their high school matriculation with honors.
“The first thing that hit us when we went to the kibbutz was the smell from the cowsheds,” laughs Maria. “We had never seen real cows before, and we couldn’t understand where it was coming from.”
“From the minute we came to the kibbutz, we felt the warmth of the people. We made lots of friends and had the best time. It was so interesting and felt like summer camp,” she continues.
Although the girls did not know a word of Hebrew when they arrived, they learned very quickly. Their Hebrew teacher did not know Russian, so from day one they had to converse in Hebrew only. Despite this, both graduated high school with honors. Maria excelled in math, physics, computers and electronics, and Natali in math, physics and chemistry.
Like their Israeli-born friends, the girls were called to the army. But the army sent the draft forms to Natali with her identity number but Maria’s name.
“They thought we were one person,” laughs Maria.
When they finally got this straightened out, Maria served as an ambulance driver, and Natali went to the air force. They were both given lone soldier status.
“I loved the army,” says Maria, and she looks forward to doing reserve duty. She wanted to sign on to the professional army, but knew that it was very important to go to college.
AFTER THEIR service, Maria and Natali were on their own. Their mother, an early childhood teacher, and father, a metal designer, both had remarried and were unable to help them financially.
“We needed to find an apartment, find work, save money for college and study for our college entrance exams,” says Maria. “It was a crazy time.”
They rented an apartment and both found work at an investment company. They studied hard and scored high on their exams. When they were at a Nefesh B’Nefesh event for young newcomers, they heard about the Afeka College of Engineering in Tel Aviv.
They both applied and were accepted as mechanical engineering majors. They had saved money, but were not sure that this would last them through four years of college.
“We both wanted to invest all our energy in studying, as engineering is really intense and we wanted to do well,” says Maria. “But even if we had to work to support ourselves, we were determined to go to college.”
They met a childhood friend from Irkutsk in Tel Aviv who told them about the Atidim organization, whose Takeoff program helps new immigrant students who have no family or support network in Israel.
“We applied and were so happy when we were accepted,” says Maria. “It is unbelievable how much support they give us – tuition, living stipend, academic counseling, online tutorials, a tutor if needed and even a laptop.”
Although they are only freshmen, Maria and Natali have big dreams.
“We both want to use our mechanical engineering skills to build robots that help people with disabilities to lead better lives,” Maria says. “We want them to be like everyone else, and not to have to live with the stigma of being different because of their disability.”
The twins hope that one day their mother will join them in Israel. In the meantime, she and their father try to visit at least once a year.
“Other than being far from our parents, living in Israel is amazing. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure that this isn’t a dream,” says Maria.