Ketevan Kharshiladze vanished into the hole while a friend stood guard outside. She then carefully navigated her way through the reinforced concrete pipes that lay on a desolate hillside overlooking Tbilisi.
It was a dress rehearsal of sorts for Kharshiladze, an accomplished theatre director in her late 40s. It was the fall of 2000, and she was preparing to smuggle herself into the United States through a subterranean tunnel under the Mexican border.
“I thought that by going through those pipes I would get accustomed to being in a dark, damp and tight space like that tunnel,” Kharshiladze said during a recent interview.
Now an ebullient septuagenarian with gimlet eyes and patrician features, Kharshiladze reminisced about her journey in the kitchen of her suburban house, just a couple of miles away from her erstwhile training pipes.
“I could think of millions of ways things could go wrong in that tunnel in Mexico: What if we all get raped by our guides, I thought, killed and harvested for organs?” she said as she poured coffee for a visitor.
Today, that kind of journey is becoming increasingly common. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told Eurasianet that in 2021 a record number of 238 Georgian migrants were stopped trying to sneak in from across the Mexican border. That is sharply up from previous years, and it is likely a small fraction of the number who make it through undetected. Now it seems as if every Georgian knows at least one person who has made the cross-border run over the past two years.
But 20 years ago, Kharshiladze was in uncharted waters.
She had been declined a U.S. visa, and so resolved to turn to an underground network that smuggled migrants across international borders. She sold her car and one-bedroom apartment to pay the $7,000 fee to the smugglers, who were about to sneak a group of Georgians into the U.S. by sea into Florida.
The plan fell through at the last minute because of a crackdown on the smugglers’ partners in the U.S. Kharshiladze and the rest of the group were given the option to get their money back or try an alternative route via Mexico. The caveat was that the last leg of the new itinerary involved passing though storm drains under the border.
Kharshiladze was terrified, picturing herself gasping for air in an underground tube. While she is fit and exudes energy even today, she was still a genteel socialite unaccustomed to physical rigors. But she just could not let go of the dream of lifetime to see America.
The American dream
“I’ve always had itchy feet and the Miklouho-Maclay [a famed 19th-century Russian explorer] in me kept pushing me to go explore the world,” she said with a laugh. “And I wanted to see America more than anything in the world.”
Many relatives suffered from political persecutions under the Soviet Union and she grew up listening to Radio Free Europe, fantasizing about the world beyond the Iron Curtain – most of all the United States.
Working in the theatre, Kharshiladze was able to travel internationally far more than an average Soviet citizen could. But the cultural junkets she was allowed on were carefully controlled by the authorities. A KGB agent was invariably assigned to Kharshiladze’s troupe to watch every step they made.
“All our movements were carefully controlled,” she said. “We were not allowed to properly socialize or get really friendly with anyone we met abroad. It was truly suffocating. As one of my colleagues said, ‘I don’t want to travel around in a prison on wheels.’”
By 2000, the Soviet Union was dead, but her world had grown even more claustrophobic. Georgia was caught in the maelstrom of conflict and economic collapse. Lawlessness ruled the streets of Tbilisi and the essentials of modern life had become luxuries. There was “no electricity, no water, no heating […], not even KGB,” Kharshiladze wrote in her memoirs.
Hankering to get out, she obsessively turned over the Mexico plan in her head. She says she found herself in a fugue state, losing her grip on reality, oscillating between worry and the urge to leave, whatever the consequences.
“To suppress the anxiety, I convinced myself that all of this was just an adventure movie and I was simply playing a part in it,” she said. “That feeling that none of it was for real stuck with me for a long time.”
Her friends and family tried, but failed, to talk her out of the scheme. After a few dry runs in the Georgian pipes, Kharshiladze got her Mexican visa and embarked on the long, multi-leg journey along with handful of other Georgians. She had $1,000 and her broken English to get her through.
Today Georgians have far more options to plan a Mexico trip than Kharshiladze had in the era before social media. Now there is a slew of Facebook groups where people share their experiences, give advice, suggest reliable fixers and caution against sketchy ones. There are even video tutorials online.
While the majority of Georgians undertake the risky journey for economic reasons, Kharshiladze was an exception. “All of these people had had to tear themselves away from their families to provide for them from far away,” she said, referring to other people in her group. “One woman needed money to bribe her son out of jail, another had to pay off her husband’s debts, most simply had to help their families survive in the dark place that Georgia was then. […] I was perhaps the only person who did it on a whim.”
Being part of the cultural elite, Kharshiladze was still slightly better off than most Georgians and, divorced with no children, she had nobody depending on her. “I was not going to America to survive or to help others survive,” she said. “I just wanted to see America, to get out of the rut, to change my life.”
Down the drain
The 25-hour, jet-legged bus ride from Mexico City north to Ciudad Juárez only added to Kharshiladze’s feeling that she was in a movie: “We passed though forests of cacti and I felt like I was on another planet.”
From Juárez, the party of Georgians was driven outside town and then proceeded on foot to enter the underground drainage network that led to Juárez’s Texan twin city, El Paso.
The seven Georgian women and three men put their fate in the hands of two Mexican teenagers who served as guides. “While their parents made the arrangements, the boys were tasked with ushering people across the border because they would not face full criminal prosecution if they were caught,” Kharshiladze said.
Another cinematic mise-en-scène occurred at the final stretch, when the Georgians had to run to a river in short bursts, zigzagging between rocks and bushes while border guards were looking the other way. Making it all the more bizarre, most women were sprinting on high heels, having decked themselves out in their finest threads.
“They showed up on that day sporting their we-are-going-to-America look,” Kharshiladze said with a laugh. “This music teacher went full-on Marilyn Monroe. She had her hair arranged in elaborate, golden curls and wore party make-up. I don’t think they fully understood what kind of hoops we had to jump through.”
“We came to the edge of the river, which for the most part was quite shallow and perhaps twice this wide,” Kharshiladze continued, standing in the center of her kitchen and spreading out her arms. “On the other side, there was a big hole in a massive concrete wall that went along the bank.”
The hole, an outlet from a drainage tunnel, was covered with metal bars but at the very bottom, below the surface of the water, an opening had been dug out. It was only then that the travelers realized that they had to go underwater to get inside the tunnel, but there was no going back. Taking turns, they gulped air, went under, squeezed their way through the opening and resurfaced inside the tube.
“I’m an excellent swimmer,” Kharshiladze said. “When I jump into a large pool I can glide beneath the water all way to the end, so I breathed through it, but it was difficult for the others.”
The Mexican boys helped push people through the hole, while Kharshiladze was pulling them up from the other side. “I will never forget the sight of that music teacher popping out of the water, gasping for air, all that hair and makeup a total mess,” she said.
With the Mexicans leading the way with flashlights, the group plodded through the labyrinth of tubes for over an hour. Running on fumes, they were all soaked, covered in muck and terrified of what awaited around every corner. They drew courage from sharing jokes and camaraderie. She recalled one of her companions, a stocky 65-year-old named Tamazi, who fell increasingly frail after all the running and diving. He panted and clutched his chest at the heart.
The real thing turned out to be much larger than the training pipe in Georgia. Even at 5’9”, Kharshiladze did not have to stoop, and the catacombs grew increasingly cavernous as the party neared their destination.
Finally they got to the manhole that was to be their entry into America. It took a collective Georgian-Mexican pushing and pulling to get Tamazi up through the manhole. Rail-thin and tall, Kharshiladze needed little more than a little leg up. She pulled herself out of the hole and climbed into America.
They went to a motel to spend the night, but were quickly discovered by police. “There was ramming through the door, pointing of guns, handcuffs, the whole nine yards,” Kharshiladze recalled.
The group spent over a month in a processing center, which seemed like an all-inclusive hotel to Kharshiladze: “They fed us several times a day and the menu was really diverse. We could take showers three times a day.” They got comprehensive medical checkups and, if needed, treatment. “Nothing like that was available in Georgia back then, even for money.”
Kharshiladze is eternally grateful to an El Paso-based immigrant advocacy group, Las Americas, who bailed all of the Georgians out of their gilded cage. Although the Georgians won their release from imprisonment on bond, they were still subject to removal from the U.S. Las Americas provided pro bono legal advice at their deportation hearings.
“All of us claimed that we faced persecution at home,” Kharshiladze said. “We could claim being persecuted religious minorities or lesbians – there were no terms like LGBT back then, just gay or lesbian – but political persecution was the hardest one to prove false,” she said.
Most of her fellow travelers were granted asylum, but Kharshiladze’s plea was turned down. She blames a judge who, in her words, was a “raging Republican.” To avoid imminent deportation, she started a long process of appeals to buy herself more time in the U.S.
In jail Kharshiladze had befriended a domineering Russian woman, Natasha, who had taken her under her wing, teaching her to cut lines and otherwise beat the system. And now that they were on the outside, Natasha took it upon herself to find an American man Kharshiladze could marry for citizenship.
Of the American bachelors Natasha was lining up, Kharshiladze did feel chemistry with one of them: a preacher-turned-IT-specialist named John William Ussery. “He seemed like a real mensch, was divorced like me, and was very interesting to listen to,” Kharshiladze said.
But a sham marriage wasn’t her goal. She moved to the city of her dreams, New York, and got a job taking care of an elderly woman. “My plan was to stay as a long as could, see as much of America as I could, make some money and then go back,” she said. “In the meantime, I came to love my new life in New York. I was meeting people from everywhere. I would go see a theatre show once in a while.”
Happily ever after
The New York part of her odyssey is now depicted in an autobiographical theatre show, “Somewhere in America,” that premiered in Tbilisi this fall. The plot of the play centers on a wheelchair-bound elderly American woman named Omma and her Georgian caretaker, Lia.
Omma takes delight in teasing her emotional aide-de-camp, but over time the two women come to love each other. At one point the crotchety old woman does manage to reduce the caretaker to tears, as she accuses Lia of plotting her death. “We Georgians would never want old Americans to die, and you know why? Because we would be left without jobs,” Lia says, breaking down.
Long in the making, the play has become ever more relevant today, as Georgia is hemorrhaging citizens. The population is now 3.7 million people, nearly a million fewer than it was in 2000.
Perhaps the biggest merit of the play is that it puts the spotlight on Georgian woman migrant workers, the unsung symbol of the nation for past 30 years. It offers a peek into minds of countless mothers, grandmothers and daughters who put their own lives aside, travel abroad and take up menial jobs to provide for their families back home.
In one scene, a boisterous gang of these women meets for a picnic in Central Park, and one of the women shows up looking distressed. “He sent me divorce papers,” she says, referring to her husband back in Georgia. “For all these years, I’ve been toiling here to send money to him, to his mother, to our kids, and now he wants a divorce, no warning, just like that. What do I do now?”
But both the play, and the story it is based on, have a happy ending.
When Kharshiladze moved to New York, Natasha kept checking in every now and then with fresh matchmaking attempts. At one point, she said that Ussery, the kindly man she had introduced to Kharshiladze, was regularly inquiring about the Georgian and wanted to reach out. Kharshiladze and Ussery eventually had a phone call. They quickly became friends.
And when Kharshiladze had exhausted all her legal avenues to stay in the U.S., Ussery finally convinced her to marry him for the green card. He insisted that there was nothing to it and that he simply wanted to help.
Still, Kharshiladze returned to Georgia thinking that her American adventure was over. Ussery did not give up on her, though. He began visiting her in Georgia and kept trying to make Kharshiladze an American citizen.
What started as a fake marriage turned into a real one. After 10 years of trying, Ussery finally succeeded in making Kharshiladze an American. The couple moved to the U.S. for several years. Working on a play based on Kharshiladze’s memories became their shared pandemic project. Kharshiladze returned to Georgia again recently and now the couple is trying to decide in which of the two countries they want to spend the rest of their lives.
“To wrap it all up, I wanted to see America, but ended up becoming an American. I married for citizenship, but ended up being married for love,” said Kharshiladze – Kharshiladze-Ussery to be precise.