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Polish Immigrant Between Two Worlds - 2002-04-17

English Feature #7-33487 Broadcast April 17, 2000

New American Voices is a weekly program in which we talk with immigrants to the United States about their life and experiences in this country.

People often have compelling reasons for wanting to emigrate to the United States. This was not the case with Joanna Jurewicz of Poland, however. She came to the U.S. twice, once as a teenager and then again at age 20, just to visit her mother, who was living in the southern state of Tennessee.

The second time, she stayed for a couple of years "to experience life in America", as she said, always firmly intending to go back to Poland. But when she finally did, she discovered that she no longer belonged there, that she had actually put down roots in the United States. Was it the people or the country itself that somehow ensnared her?

"It was both. It was the people, and it was the country. The entire time I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, but I moved around. I moved from the suburbs to a different part of Nashville, to a very beautiful old part of the city, and I loved it. I found people I could relate to, I found places I identified with. You know, a Polish writer who lived as an immigrant in South America, Witold Gombrowicz, said in his diaries that living in a foreign place expands your consciousness, in a sense. There was a quote of his which very well described my experience of immigration. That to some immigration is very destructive, but to others it is enriching, and it consolidates and strengthens their character and crystallizes their individuality. And that was my experience. And I've got to tell you that I didn't have a rosy life. All my life I worked for a minimum wage. I never had health insurance, I've always lived by U.S. standards below the poverty line. I mean I made the best of it, but I always lived below the poverty line. But it was still what I had in front of me. This is what kept me here."

Ten years have passed since Joanna decided to stay in the U.S. In the beginning she worked in a series of low-paying jobs while learning English. Eventually she was able to attend college, financing her education with a combination of loans and grants. She graduated just this summer, and has now found a job working for an organization that puts on the annual Polish Film Festival in Chicago.

Like many immigrants, Joanna struggles to find a balance between her native background and heritage and the American aspects of her life.

"To what extent you are Polish and American - they're not physical entities that you can sort of choose, I'll take this one and I'll leave that one. You are both. You are neither and you are both. And they just coexist together. I know that when I am in the United States I am perceived as 'yes, she's one of us, but she's Polish'. I mean there's something about me, how I respond, about the things I say that emphasizes that I wasn't born here, and people notice that - to my benefit. But when I'm in Poland people call me "here's our American, our amerykanka", you know, even though I'm in not in any way different, really, not dramatically different."

O.D.: So what is it that distinguishes you as an amerykanka in Poland? How can people tell?

"I think I seem to make less problems of small things. I'm much more, sort of, resourceful."

Resourcefulness is a characteristic of many of the immigrants who leave behind their familiar world and seek to make a new life for themselves in America. Take Andres Arias. When he came to the United States, fleeing the civil war in El Salvador, he had no skills and knew no English. Today he owns two successful restaurants and is a leader in the large Salvadorean community of the Washington area. Mr. Arias talks about his first steps in this country.

"It was very hard because first of all I didn't know the English, I didn't know anything about American culture. So when I came here I started washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms. And my job was to be there at the restaurant at 5 in the morning. So it was cold, it was January, and in my country the weather is, you know, 80, 90 degrees all the time. So I used to cry like a baby. It was very hard."

In next week's program Andres Arias will talk about how he managed to overcome these and other hardships and realize his dream of owning a restaurant.