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Elżbieta Potrykus

Elżbieta Potrykus with her son, Wojtek

“There will be people waiting for you at the New York airport”, assured us a representative of the American consulate who was saying goodbye to us in Frankfurt am Main… That was uplifting after our unfortunate experience on the day we arrived to Frankfurt, where no one came for us to the airport, because Maria from the refugee centre confused the dates…

We were now about to be taken over by someone from the US Immigration Office. There was a large group of us, we were a special transport of refugees from Eastern Europe. There were mainly Poles who came to the centre in Bad Soden, Bavaria, from the co-called “camps” located all over free Europe. That was where they went to after obtaining a permit to immigrate to the USA. There were several families such as ours (political refugees with immigration visas) in this “transport”. Immigration representatives were to wait in New York for us, the “political” refugees, to hand us in to appropriate resettlement organisations.

A lonely terminal

The arrivals hall at the JFK airport in New York was very upsetting – at that time it was under renovation. Before I looked around, Wojtek was assuring a man that we were the persons whose name was written on the piece of cardboard he was holding. After the initial Hi!, we got some labels with our surname and some digits (at that time the word “code” said nothing to me), and we were guided to the waiting room, where we were to wait for our plane to Syracuse.

Some of our fellow travellers were greeted by their families (they threw themselves into each other’s arms), and others read out their names loud from the pieces of cardboard kept by persons waiting behind the barrier … And we were waiting, knowing no idea what was happening around us. I have never been to such a terminal before… Since the introduction of the martial law, I have not been to any airport. I have also stopped imagining what international airports were like since during one of the interrogations a Secret Service officer told me that because I refused to leave Poland, he advised me to forget even of going to Czechoslovakia or shopping in the GDR.

Already in the Frankfurt airport, Wojtek got almost dizzy seeing stands with toys and sweets, and when he was allowed to hold a box of Lego bricks, he may have thought that we were going to Disneyland, rather than emigrating. He was busy walking among the colourful shop windows, he was gazing through the windows, watching taxis arriving, he was riding up and down the escalators and, although he did not sleep for almost 24 hours, he just did not want to sit doing nothing.

Many people’s names were read out through megaphones, but no one came for us yet. We were getting uneasy, thinking that perhaps our surname had been announced but we failed to recognise it, as was the case with one of our fellow travellers, who did not understand that the name “Meiziwskai” as we heard it announced through the megaphone meant “Maszewski”. Mr Maszewski was sitting calmly next to us all that time, until someone turned his attention to a girl who kept walking among passengers for quite a time, holding a piece of cardboard with his name…

On the road to Deveraux Street

After several hours of waiting, we were guided to a plane flying to Syracuse, New York. It was not our last changing point yet. In Syracuse, we were asked to wait for another plane… We were already very tired. We had not slept since the previous day.

When we finally landed at the small Oneida County airport, Wojtek was happy that his little backpack had not been lost. During the entire journey from Syracuse, until we got our luggage, he was afraid that it might have been left behind (he was asked to give it to the stewardess when boarding the plane). Two suitcases and the little backpack – that was all we had… And there were 42 dollars in the backpack which Wojtek saved from our pocket money we got during our monthly stay in Bad Soden. He would use them to buy a bike, or Lego bricks, or a radio-operated car, or…

We arrived at Utica (a town in the centre of New York state – midway between its capital city Albany, and Syracuse), which was indicated as the resettlement place in our documents, late at night. A young boy called Sinat (a refugee from Cambodia, representing Mohawk Valley Refugee Center) and Krzysiek (working as a translator, who came here through a camp on Vienna and stayed in the Utica refugee centre for a month as their service user), collected us from the airport. Wojtek fell asleep in his armchair, keeping his backpack in his hands. We could hear loud music and laughter downstairs. It was another morning in Poland, and I was already missing sunrise in my country...

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When I sometimes hear top politicians talking about opposition activists who “escaped abroad and settled down there comfortably”, I think that they would never want to feel what I felt then, in May 1987, in a dark room above a night bar at Deveraux Street or that lump in my throat when, keeping the passport allowing me to cross Polish border once only, I was looking at the spacious old armchairs (each of them was different) and at my little Wojtek sleeping in one of them...

The following day we were starting our life anew… – in a strange country, where no one was waiting for us, unable to speak the local language and without a job that would be attractive here (neither the knowledge of the Polish law or Polish studies would come very handy here to a woman in preretirement age). We were going to conquer the world … We had Wojtek’s saved 42 dollars and 10 dollars per person Sinat left to us for our first expenses. We also had a carton of milk in our fridge, a dozen eggs and two packages of hot dogs. But we were not afraid that a loud sound of a doorbell would wake us up at six o’clock in the morning the following day…

I felt ashamed when after waking up Wojtek noticed that I was crying. The reason behind my tears which I made up fast (“There is no wardrobe for our clothes!”) made us both laugh. But only when Wojtek uttered the following words of wisdom: “You have not given up to the communist system, and you’re crying because of a wardrobe!” made me burst out with a healthy laughter… We were laughing for a long time before we went out to the streets of the town which was to be our town since… We felt hopeful and curious!

A sociological study in miniature

The first months of immigration were not easy. There were moments of doubt and sadness, but there was also hope for the better. There were events and situations which were uplifting, irritating, or funny. We were astonished and surprised by reactions of ordinary people, routines and behaviour of officials, policemen, priests… For obvious reasons I will limit myself to quoting only a few of such events and situations, which despite the lapse of time, I still remember and which make my immigration memories.

Because I was used to rubbish bins on the streets in Poland, I would not even think of throwing ice cream packaging on the pavement. I decided to keep it in my hand until I see a bin. When I finally saw a dark blue “rubbish bin” and opened the lid to throw the paper into it, the horrified Wojtek stopped my hand. He explained that throwing rubbish to post boxes is considered federal crime (that was what they said during training!). But how could I know that that was a post box? It looked like a waste container…

Since we did not know the notion of a sales tax, we could not understand why we needed to pay for a chocolate bar which was to be free, as was announced on the promotional voucher I had in my hand. We did not have 8 cents the cashier demanded, so Wojtek decided to leave the bar on the counter by the cash register. An old lady queuing to pay for her goods asked Wojtek to take the bar, she would pay the tax for it…

Wojtek was immensely surprised by the reaction of a policeman who smiled and waved at him, when my boy shouted at him from the pavement: “Hi, policeman!”. After all, it was such a brief time ago when he was hiding from militiamen so that they would not take him to an emergency youth centre.

It was also here that my 11-year-old businessman encountered competition rules for the first time. When one day he entered the square by a public building to collect tins (worth 5 cents each), he learnt that the area was reserved for another “entrepreneur” with “pre-emption” right. Wojtek was disappointed, but he accepted the competition rules with dignity.
There were also situations when we could not understand what the local people said when answering our questions. We knew that a dollar was the currency in the States, but when the cashier replied to our “how much?” “a buck!”, we had no idea that it meant one dollar. We also could not get to Lincoln street (although we were standing by it), as Wojtek used his school-taught English, and the man answering our question pronounced “Lincoln Avenue” as if he had a burnt mouth.

It was very early on that we faced a racial and social problem. In September, Wojtek started to go to a public school – a catholic school by the Polish church was payable, whereas the level of English taught at the school for emigrants was rather poor. When one day in late autumn Wojtek returned from school in one shoe, I got slightly anxious. It turned out that some black boys through his other shoe out of the window when they were going on the same school bus. Wojtek did not tell it to the driver so as to avoid further harm, but the same day he asked me whether the author of the Murzynek Bambo (“Little Black Boy”) poem had ever met such “little black boys”. I told him that Tuwim wrote about a little black boy living in Africa and that we should respect all the people regardless of their skin colour.
The next day I bought new shoes for Wojtek in a cheap shop, and he returned home saying that his friends said that his mother bought clothes for him from the Salvation Army. And they were quite right. I bought clothes for us in cheap shops, and in a second-hand shop run by the Salvation Army. For me, as a person living on a social benefit, and then working for minimum wages, it was beyond financial capabilities to purchase designer clothes.

Wojtek bought himself a bike and rode to watch anglers fish for carps by the river Mohawk the very same summer. He soon learnt English, graduated and stayed in the States. And me? Well, after twenty years, I returned to Poland, I live in Gdynia… and am longing again. This time, I am longing for Wojtek.

interview excerpts
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Dzisiaj opuszczam Europę i jest mi smutno
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Amerykańska wędzarnia
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Status uchodźcy
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Nauka języka
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Pierwszy rok
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Obserwowanie zmian
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Moja Polska