IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was A Baby Refugee in 1983

If states like Alabama and New Jersey want to give up a chance to welcome refugees, that is their loss.
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Rose Symotiuk
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If states like Alabama and New Jersey want to give up a chance to welcome refugees, that is their loss.

In 1981, the puppet government installed by the Soviet Union in Poland declared martial law on its people. Tanks rolled through city streets and residential neighborhoods. Members of the pro-democracy movement, Solidarity, were jailed.

One of those people was my father. To make matters worse, my mother was pregnant. 

At first she couldn’t find him. Then she would walk days through thick forest, several months pregnant, to reach his prison, until they moved him again. She was an editor and he was a reporter. All they wanted was to be a free country, to experience simple luxuries like steady electricity and food on the market shelves. 

More than anything, they wanted a better life for their unborn child.

Me as a chubby-faced baby

Me as a chubby-faced baby

It was during this time that I was born on April 28th, 1982 in Lublin, Poland. A few years ago, we went back to visit the friend’s apartment where my mother raised me the first few months. 

It was cramped, one identical apartment in a mass of identical block housing left over from the Soviet era. The friend still kept flour in the large round tube from my baby formula.

In the bleakest situation, a most amazing thing happened. The American government arranged for the release of some of the political prisoners in Poland, and my mother and father and I made the list. It was unthinkable!

My passport photo, eight months old

My passport photo, eight months old

At first they were sent to Frankfurt, Germany, where they both wondered if we would become German. Neither of them had ever been abroad. I can never really imagine what it must have been like to give up everything they ever knew in one day, to realize they may never see their families again. To have no idea what was coming the next day.

A few weeks later, they got shocking news. The Lutheran church in Minnesota was sponsoring them to be refugees in America. 

The St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote an article about us soon after arriving.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote an article about us soon after arriving.

On the one hand, they’d grown up listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones on Radio Free Europe and saw America as an impossible land of hope and dreams. On the other hand, it was so far away, and neither of them spoke English.

The shock hit pretty fast. My mother was in her 30s and had never flown in an airplane. To make things worse, I was sick. She was terrified and chain-smoked the 12 hours of flying to Chicago. 

On the flight to Minnesota, she handed me over to a bemused flight attendant, and fainted right in the entryway to the plane. When she came to, someone demanded in Czech that she sign a paper to certify that she was OK, or they couldn’t fly. She signed with a shaking hand, knowing she needed to get me to a doctor as soon as possible.

Despite the kindness of the Lutherans, life wasn’t easy for my parents. My father started to fall apart. The shock of imprisonment and the move had been too much for him to handle. My mother didn’t have that luxury. She had to raise me and navigate a country where she couldn’t speak the language.

She told me that she was depressed during this time, but I don’t remember. One of my first memories was of her telling me I could walk down the block to the kindergarten. Years later, she told me she would follow me and hide behind the bushes if I looked back.

Another one of my memories was of teaching her how to drive. I grew up speaking Polish and English with equal fluency, so there was a period of a few years where my English was much better than hers. I sat in the back of the car translating as she got driving lessons, then I would yell “Clutch!” at her in Polish from our apartment window.

A birthday in full Polish dress

A birthday in full Polish dress

My parents divorced and my father eventually returned to Poland, which had finally become free. My mother got her first job at a Kmart, turning up everyday until they broke down and hired her. She learned English and sat for the civil service exam. We finally went from poor to lower middle class when she got a job at the post office.

I knew she hated it — getting up at 5am, getting terrible bruises from falling on the ice in winter. But after a few years, she earned enough to buy a house in the Twin Cities suburbs and we were finally doing OK.

In 2009, my mom found out she had ovarian cancer. This was barely two months before my wedding, so in between all the crying and begging god, we worried that she would be ready to get on the plane. 

We were going back to Poland to get married in the village where my grandmother and two uncles lived. She had to use a wheelchair to get on the flight, but we had an amazing wedding thanks to her.

My wedding

My wedding

Now, seeing the photos of the refugees from Syria, every one with a baby reminds me of my family. Unlike charities and foreign aid, helping refugees is so unique because it is literally scooping up a life and changing it in a single day. More often than not, those refugees will go from photos on the news to our neighbors, the lady at Kmart, the lady who delivers your mail.

My mom seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time this summer

My mom seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time this summer

It is 2015. It’s been six years, and we’ve been so lucky not to have any signs of the cancer since then. My mom is retired and living comfortably in the US. 

As for the Syrian crisis, our home state of Minnesota has a proud tradition of accepting refugees—it has the largest Hmong population in the US—and we have overwhelmingly benefited from it. 

If states like Alabama and New Jersey want to give up a chance to welcome refugees, that is their loss. Maybe they don't care about the Polish lady who delivered their mail for almost 20 years, but she is great, and she has made this country proud.