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. [
Brooklyn, which is home to 30,000 Poles.
Kazik sings: "It's just like home, although it's America
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
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
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 its 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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