Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Maksim Chmerkovskiy perform during 'Dancing with the Stars' in New York on Sept. 27, 2016.
Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Maksim Chmerkovskiy perform during 'Dancing with the Stars' in New York on Sept. 27, 2016. Eric McCandless—ABC/Getty Images

Dancing Pros Living the American Dream

Life Before America

Growing up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, the Chmerkovskiys had little exposure to Western culture. American goods like a “a pair of jeans or a cassette tape” were rarities, says Maks. After the fall of the USSR, the brothers’ father, Aleksandr, started a lucrative retail business but “knew that could be taken away at any moment,” says his older son. When the business burned down in what the family believes was a mafia arson attack, they immigrated to the U.S., where Aleksandr eventually came to own a chain of dance studios with Maks and DWTS’ Tony Dovolani.

Finding Their Way in Brooklyn

Maks was 14 and Val was 8 when they moved to New York City. Within eight months the family went through their entire savings. “My dad had two college degrees but came here and was boxing pizzas,” says Val. “He was willing to pay his dues for the opportunity to live here and breathe this air.” Maks was mugged for his Rollerblades on his second day in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and both brothers recall being bullied because of their accents and last name. “We had challenges,” says Val. “But we never let it chip away at the gratitude we felt for the opportunities we had.”

Becoming Patriots

“I watched the buildings go down on 9/11. I saw how much that impacted our country,” says Val, who began ballroom dancing in the USSR and won world titles on behalf of the U.S. “I wanted to provide not only for my family but my country.”

Proud to Be New Americans

Being immigrants gave the brothers a work ethic that brought them success. “I was very hard on Tia Carrere my first season on DWTS,” says Maks. “But I knew if we lasted longer, we got paid more, and my legs were helping pay for Val’s lessons and my family’s bills.” Adds Val: “I’ve never felt like this country owed me anything. If anything, I am forever in debt to this country. I’m very aware of the political rhetoric surrounding immigrants right now, but they come here to contribute and are the backbone of this country—and that’s why we are the megapower we are.”

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.