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Refugee Expert on Refugees - 2003-11-07


Contrary to the image conjured up by the famous Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor -- “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”, the immigrants and refugees who come to the United States tend to be pretty resilient people. Today on New American Voices, we talk with Elzbieta Gozdziak, a refugee who built an academic career for herself in this country -- and now makes refugees the focus of her professional interest.

When Elzbieta Gozdziak determined to flee martial law in communist Poland and seek freedom in the United States, she was a young professor of anthropology at the University of Poznan. Coming to live with a cousin in the state of Maryland, not far from Washington, in 1984, she had to virtually start from scratch.

“I started just like any other immigrant that comes to this country. My very first job was to sell clothes in a children’s department in one of the local malls in Maryland. And then I got a job as an interpreter and a translator with a kind of cross-cultural consulting firm, and then I got to travel with a Polish folk ensemble, as an interpreter for the technical crew.”

Working at whatever jobs she could get, Ms Gozdziak was also adjusting to life in a new society and a new culture.

“Well, I lived in a very American setting, with a very American family, by and large, because although my cousin traces her ancestry partly to Poland and partly to Sicily, she was born here, educated here, lives the normal American dream in suburban Maryland. Although intellectually, as a cultural anthropologist, I thought I was prepared and knew something about American culture, knowing something intellectually and living day in and day out a normal life and trying to reestablish yourself was a very different situation.”

At age 30, Elzbieta Gozdziak had to learn to drive a car, something she says she never needed to do living in a large European city with good public transportation. As for making friends, she found that she didn’t have very much in common with the women with whom she came in contact .

“Women in suburban Maryland that were staying home and caring for their children, whether they had an education or didn’t have an education, were something very different than the women that I knew that were my friends and my professional colleagues. So that was very difficult to wait until I got my first professional job, and could go back to the kind of social circle that I was used to.”

Elzbieta Gozdziak says it was her work as an interpreter that led to her first professional job in America. In the late 1980s, new groups of refugees started flowing into the United States –- Poles, Afghans, Romanians, Ethiopians -- and the U.S. government conducted a study to see how well refugee agencies were equipped to deal with the resettlement of these new arrivals.

“Although initially I was hired to do household interviews with the Polish refugees, the firm that hired me recognized that I had a Ph.D. in social sciences and knew more than just speaking Polish, that I could actually design a social science study. So from then on it was relatively easy to get a non-academic research job.”

Professorial positions were a different story, says Ms Gozdziak -– for two reasons. At the time, universities here did not believe that the higher education received in communist countries could be on a level of that of western universities –- at least, not in the social sciences. And secondly, university administrators were not prepared to undertake the complicated process of sponsoring a refugee for a professorial position here. So Ms Gozdziak continued to work on refugee issues for various government agencies, becoming an advisor on mental health to the refugee resettlement network, and focusing more and more on the problems of refugee women. As an established expert in the field she eventually moved into the academic realm, teaching in the Social Work with Displaced Persons Program at Howard University. Now she is the Director of Research at Georgetown University’s the Institute for the Study of International Migration overseeing research on a broad spectrum of questions relating to the resettlement, integration, and adaptation of immigrant and refugee populations.

Throughout her career Ms Gozdziak has not only studied refugees and migration as an academic subject. She has dealt with the refugees and their families on a practical, human level. She says this has developed in her a great respect for their resourcefulness and ability to adapt to new circumstances.

“I always tell refugee women in particular that the very fact that you are here is your strength. Because you’ve come a long way, and should be tapping into the resiliency, whatever it might be, whether it’s the support and joy that raising a family brings, whether it’s your spiritual beliefs that held you through all these wars and ethnic conflicts and jail and what-not, tap into that, because that is your first strength.”

Ms Gozdziak’s recent research deals with Muslim women refugees in the United States. She says she finds it heartening that growing numbers of these women are participating in refugee women’s networks that speak directly to the needs of women who are resettling in a new country – networks and support groups that were not available when she herself was a refugee twenty years ago.

English Feature #7-39021 Broadcast November 10, 2003

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