JUNE 2003

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The New Emigration
From Nowy Dziennik
May 17-18, 2003

By Rafal Szczurkowski

In 1960, Witold Gombrowicz (Polish novelist and dramatist) posed a question: what is the difference between emigration and a can of sardines? And he answered: Hermetic isolation is [good for sardines, but not for immigrants].

As opposed to Poles in Argentine, to whom Gombrowicz referred in his writings, our emigration in the United States is an open can. The subsequent waves of immigration not only faithfully reflect the economic and socio-political changes in the country, but also prevent our immigrants from locking themselves up in the strongholds of Polish history and religion. Poles coming to America become the litmus paper [reflecting] changes in our homeland.

Wojtek discontinued his architecture studies in Krakow and came to New York in 1998. He works and is about to graduate from college. I chase after him while he is rushing to an evening lecture.

"I don't think the wind has stopped blowing. It was carrying me all throughout the 90's until I ended up in America."

A 28-year-old Wojtek [is part of] the new wave of immigrants from Poland. He left not only for economic reasons, but to test his strengths at an American university. He supports himself, working and going to school at the same time.

"Look around," he says. "That's how all young Poles I have met do it."

Analyzing the phenomenon of crystallizing a generation, we look for a point of reference, some moment [in history which connects people], like war for the Columbus generation or the protests during the Vietnam War for the hippie generation. But the generation of 23-28-year-olds lacks such a moment. [What connects them is their desire to have a better, more interesting life].

Rafal received his degree in physical therapy from the Academy of Physical Education in Warsaw. I am waiting for him in front of a hospital, where he is interning at the DNA research laboratory.

Rafal came here to continue his studies; he wants to get into medical school and specialize in genetics. He asks me: "Do you think that all this - my work, school, and dreams - would be possible if Poland was not becoming normal at a fast pace?"

Rafal is convinced that more Poles will be coming here not "for bread" but to further continue their education.

Natalia from Brooklyn

Writer and journalist Jerzy Surdykowski is the first consul general in New York nominated by the new Democratic leadership after the fall of communism. He speaks of several waves of immigration to the United States. The most significant ones […] came before Word War I, World War II, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He thinks that Poles, especially the peasants who came here first, were locking themselves up in a national, regional and traditional ghetto. They were passing on the poor English skills, hard work [habits] and traditions from [generation to generation]. It was usually their grandchildren who were able to assimilate [into the local culture], achieving the American dream and functioning in the American society.

I am on my way to Greenpoint, the Polish neighborhood in New York, to meet with Natalia. Natalia does not really exist [she symbolizes an average Polish young woman living in Greenpoint]. She is the heroine of Kazik Staszewski's song "Natalia from Brooklyn." There are tens of Natalias in New York and Kazik is just telling their stories. Everything starts in Lomza, a city in Eastern Poland. Natalia graduates from high school and leaves for America, where she joins her sister and family. […]Destination: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which is home to 30,000 Poles.
Kazik sings: "It's just like home, although it's America…Greenpoint is the greatest tourist attraction…[where] a Polish tourist spends eight years on average."

I ask Wojtek and Rafal whether they know Natalia. They nod their heads [and say] that such description fits every other Polish girl living in New York.
"But there is something else, " they say. "We [see] them not only in the Polish neighborhood, but also in school."

If the story of Natalia is a continuation of the well-known immigration for economic reasons, then obviously a change has occurred. The newcomers no longer question the importance of education, a college diploma or the knowledge of English.. It does not matter whether one is a child of rich parents, an urban elite or poor peasants from Eastern Poland. Natalia, just like Wojtek and Rafal, works and goes to school at the same time, because there is no other way.

Doors to Normalcy

Surdykowski tells his story mentioning other waves of immigration. To a group of immigrants who come here for non-economic reasons he adds soldiers from demilitarized Polish units in the West, political refugees and scientists who come here to do research. I ask him what he thinks of the 23-28 year-olds.

"I think the brackets are closing," he says. "Once again, we see immigrants coming here 'for bread,' especially now when the unemployment rate in Poland is 20 percent. People believe that it is easier to find a job outside the borders, even if they are illegal immigrants. The myth of black market dollar has disappeared, but it is better to have any job on the other side of the ocean than no job at all."

But it is not only about having a job and this is especially visible in New York. The new wave of immigrants from Poland is not looking to make quick money and go back. Young people come here to study not only because there are no jobs in Poland, but [because they want to grow] in new places, facing different challenges […] The doors to normalcy have been opened to them by the socio-political changes in Poland. Many take advantage of the chances given to them in their homeland; others go further and decide to face the great challenge of [continuing] their studies in the USA.

I interrupt Agnieszka in preparing for a lecture and anti-war protests. (She is an adjunct of political science at City University of New York). I ask her about her participation in the life of the Polish community. Agnieszka takes a deep breath.

"I come from a very progressive environment in Poland," she says. "Here I do research on theories of feminism. No, I am not interested in the conservative, traditional life of the Polish community here."

She tells me of her contacts with independent groups in Poland, offering me their addresses and Web sites.

"I feel good at this college," she says. "I have met many people who think the way I do, but none of them are from Poland."

Agnieszka does not have much time to talk. She has to go the Bronx. In this most difficult borough of New York, she teaches her students the basics of political science.

What is the social and cultural life of young Poles in New York? I attended the annual ball sponsored by the Organization of Polish Students in New York. A beautiful banquet hall, food, drinks, elegant atmosphere - every one is dressed up. […] I ask Piotr Habrzyk, the president of the organization, whether the $40 admission fee is not too much for a student's pocket.

"It's different, " he says. "Our organization brings together hundreds of people; we offer logistical help to those wanting to start college here. We host informational sessions in the Polish Consulate and we help in looking for jobs and internships. We organize trips and parties. It's all for "thank you" and not for the $10 membership fee included in the price of the tickets. The money from this banquet is used for scholarships for Polish students anyway."

I observe the guests. The members of OSP are not only Polish students but also young Polish professionals. The spectrum of professions is quite broad, but economists are the majority.

The Dream About America

Dorota nervously lights a cigarette. She came to New York right before finishing her studies at the School of Economics in Warsaw. Here she continues her education. She is not going to tell me about her immigrant status, because it is none of my business. The attacks of September 11 made it difficult for international students [to study here]. The laws have become stricter since some of the terrorists were on student visas. Dorota says that her life has become more difficult since she came here in 2000. The school administration treats students with unregulated status as a "necessary evil." Those who at one point were needed to raise the academic standards of colleges, now have become a burden.

Security concerns and the need for peace overshadowed the mission of public colleges to educate all those who are willing to study, including illegal immigrants.

"Do you want to know the other side of the dream about America? " asks Dorota, showing me the clips of articles about the suicide of a Polish student in Marymont College in California last year. "Sometimes I think this place is a jungle. You make a mistake and no one looks at you with compassion. I miss Europe, doesn't matter whether it’s Poland or Spain. The lifestyle and the culture over there are completely different. I want to go back."

Dorota''s parents own a business back in Poland and she did not come here for economic reasons. Those who come here to study, not always end up staying here. Young people often go back with rich experience, which they can use in Poland.

In the prestigious Manhattan neighborhood I talk to a college professor Alex Alexander, the head of the Slavic Department at Hunter College. He tells me about his students, about the Polish club which has been in existence since 1943, about the cooperation with the Kosciuszko Foundation, and about how happy he is that Polish students come to study at Hunter College. I ask him what he sees in this 'sample' of Polish society.

"Resourcefulness and openness, "he says. "[I also see] that Poland is entering a period of peace and normalcy. The young people coming here not strictly for job, but for education and life experience, are the evidence of that." And what about the immigration can? "It remains open," he says.

Translated from Polish by Joanna Sufin


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