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Being an Immigrant

Grey Hound Station, NYC 1981

My lips were parched, headache splitting my head. I have been traveling for over 24 hrs without sleep. The sea of welcome signs held by the crowd at JFK – endless. Despite any logic, my eyes were searching for my name. No, there was nobody that even knew that I have arrived in U.S.A.

My original plan was to find a quick temp work in New York, in order to go west and climb Yosemite. But now, all was too overwhelming. Where to go? I had a Plan B. I asked Polish stewardess where to find a bus to Chicago. She looked at me concerned and said “It’s far away, don’t take a bus. There is a flight for only $99”. I thanked her and continued. How could I tell her that I had only $130 in my wallet? Spending most of it was out of the question.

I am not sure how I made it to the Grey Hound station in a middle of NYC night. People pointed me to the bus, then another. I stood in line and asked for the ticket. “$99, please.” No, no, no! “You don’t understand, I want the cheapest, slowest bus”. “Ma’am, there is only one bus to Chicago. It leaves in few hours. $99.80”. I bought the ticket.

I set on a bench devastated. I tried to collect my thoughts but the reality was too harsh. Simple math, I had $30 left. I was dehydrated, I did not know about water fountains. There was a soda machine in front of me, I got up and bought a can of soda. It cost $1. I had now $29 left and a backpack.

This was one of these moments you never forget. My whole body was trembling. I had a round ticket for Warsaw/JFK flight. As long as I was in New York, I could make it back home. The bus ticket to Chicago was only one way. All I had in Chicago was somebody’s address, a name my friends gave me, person I have never met. I had $29. What should you do? The fear was drenching my body, my soul, my mind.
I got on a bus. For the next 30 hours I did not spend a single cent. I chewed my stale sandwich from home, drunk from the bathroom faucets. I made it to Chicago. 
Being an Immigrant
Let me give you some background. I was born in a country which had lost millions of people in WWII. Throughout my childhood lives, films, stories, revolved around horrors of war. Parents were struggling to overcome it, the grandfathers were dead.

Communism, resisted by most, still offered some stability, health care, education. Unfortunately, it also weakened the economy so much that there was no food. Walking into grocery stores, you would only see the rows and rows of white vinegar. It was the store keepers’ effort to make bleak shelves better, decorate them with one item that even hunger didn’t want – vinegar.

People's desperation grew. In 1980, just a year before my trip, Gdansk shipyard went on strike, an event unprecedented in communism and penalized by jail or death. The only news came via word of mouth and severely scrambled Radio Free America. The handmade posters of support started showing up. The word traveled. Universities like mine joined the strike, then more and more workplaces joined the strike.
Fear grew as well. The Soviet Army, mounting at our borders in large volumes was getting restless. Poland held some limited autonomy but fragile. Challenging the communist system threatened Russians and their intervention was looming. Fear grew. Fear that was larger than each of us. It was a fear of losing the country. The choices were excruciating. A glimpse of freedom. Vinegar. Russian occupation. 

County by county, workplaces went on strike throughout the whole country. Our steel mill, our mines. Armed forces threatening each place. Fear in every heart. But the whole country unified in a protest till the government started negotiation. Fear did not win. The government gave in. Russian tanks stayed furious outside our border. Solidarity won.
Solidarity movement in Poland (Being an Immigrant)
A year later in 1981, I graduated from college and before starting a “real” responsible life, I decided to fulfill my dream of climbing Yosemite. I arrived in Chicago and got a job as live-in nanny & housekeeper, 24 hrs on call but I had food and shelter. Soon I had little money, half of which was sent home to my parents. My spirits were up, Yosemite were getting closer.
But then unthinkable happened. There was a military coup in Poland. General Jaruzelski, backed by Russian regime, grabbed the power and announced Martial Law -- a state of war with Poland’s own citizens. A year old Solidarity movement, which changed the world by cracking the communism – was shot down, thousands in jail, tanks on the streets.

Foreign journalists were forced out, curfew on streets. Phones went dead, all mail stopped. I did not know if my family is OK and had no way of finding out. What do I DO?  I have never planned on staying in U.S. for good. Go back to the country with sealed borders? What do I DO?
At that point President Reagan issued an amnesty for Polish people in U.S. They could now stay legally here, even work. Scared out of my wits, I took a bus downtown Chicago and entered the Immigration and Naturalization (INS) building to ask for a permit to work and stay. My destiny was sealed.
Martial Law in Poland (Being an Immigrant)
That’s the end of the PR part of my history. The following not many know. At the Immigration office, a huge guy behind the desk looked at me, examined my passport and tore out my U.S. visa stapled to the page and kept it. This was my only evidence that I entered the country legally. He said to expect a letter and 10 days later, it came – an Order of Deportation, due immediately.

Even now, I don’t understand what happened that day in INS. Maybe the guy didn’t read the memo about the amnesty. Maybe he did not like immigrants, after all. If I had a lawyer or better English, I could have argued. But I didn’t have that. I could not go back home, I could not stay.  I did what many do – changed my address, stuck to the minor jobs. Eventually, I got married and became a legal American citizen. Now we own few businesses, we serve people, we employ people, we pay a lot of taxes. We have two brilliant boys – one in
Eventually, I got married and became a legal American citizen. Now we own few businesses, we serve people, we employ people, we pay a lot of taxes. We have two brilliant boys – one in top of his class in well-known college. One a talented musician. We contribute.
Being an Immigrant
WHY, 2017
I was surprised to find myself in tears over the recent immigration events. I don’t like that subject. I despise my immigrant story. Even now, it feels degrading and humiliating to leave everything behind, travel with $29 and reach out to complete strangers. Hoping that they are friendly. It breaks my heart to see this country turning people like me away. People who escaped much worse plots than mine – injustice, killings and bombings. People escape our enemies because they don’t agree with hatred there and we turn them right back.
I used to dismiss my NYC bench experience of braving the new world as “young and stupid” bravery. But now, I am starting slowly to understand other forces at play. There was a reason. And there was a guidance, even though I thought I was alone all the way.
Our true real human nature is of peace and harmony. We crave love, tolerance and understanding. The war, power plays and control is intolerable to us. One can face threats, hunger or pain -- to seek the opportunity for peace. Or even just a chance for peace.
If not for us, then for our children. Because only peace and justice has any future.
There is a real tribe that we belong to – people of good will. We need to keep making it stronger. There are so many friends, even families divided now. We can move past that. We are all seeking solutions, even though in different ways. This is our time for clarity, not hatred. Time to listen and to reach deep, past the labels, to find the exact qualities that make us same. Qualities of good will, unity and solidarity. The compassion and caring for our fellows. Our strength.
Tribe of Good Will - Being an Immigrant
with all the love       
Alina at Natural Clothing Company

2 Responses

Vicki B.

Vicki B.

February 12, 2017

Thank you for sharing your story, Alina. I was very touched by it, and also very inspired.

Anne Lawrie

Anne Lawrie

February 11, 2017

Such bravery! My heart bleeds for all caught in the current political state. Thank you for sharing your story.

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