Polish immigrant recounts her journey to Chicago

July 28, 2011

Karolina Stepek Faraci

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Author Karolina Stepek Faraci shares her story as an immigrant. Stepek immigrated to the U.S. from Poland.

Regardless of actual status, many immigrants share a common goal – they moved to make a better life for themselves and their families. Writer Karolina Stepek Faraci knew all too well the joy and the pain of starting over. Stepek, now a Chicago resident, shared her story with Eight Forty-Eight.

In the early ‘90s our family lived in coastal Poland, in an old house with no bathroom; only cold water running. We’d use a large electric heater submerged in a bucket to heat up the water. We washed ourselves in an aluminum bowl that stood on a wooden stand in the kitchen. Every Saturday we would bathe in a blue plastic tub that my mom would bring down from the attic.


We peed and pooped in another bucket – this one with a lid that was hidden under the sink, opposite the small kitchen. I dreamt of a real toilet; not typical for a fifteen year old.


My friends’ fathers, they all worked in the West: Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich. Illegal construction work for the most part, but they also sold vodka, silver and amber out on the streets. But the luckiest ones had families in the States who could send out invitations for them to get visas; a golden key to the Eden on Earth: America.  Living in damp basements, they ate nothing and saved everything. And it didn’t matter that their pride was all damaged; they were post-communist, Eastern Block peasants; half humans, half-creations of the former system of terror and dictatorship, now made to serve the capitalists. It didn’t matter because the deutche marks and American dollars tasted sweater than strawberries picked at dawn.
There was nothing in Poland: no jobs, no money, no prospects. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which ended the Communist era in Europe, had brought the wealth of the West a little closer but it was far from peachy-keen. There were Snickers and Marlboro cigarettes in stores now, but no one had money to buy it. It was like licking a lollipop through a Plexiglas.


The money my father brought home as a fisherman didn’t get us far. But he was too proud to serve the capitalists, as he’d say, “I thought he was either too lazy or too drunk” because he was always against the communists.


He would say, “I’m never going to work for capitalists! Never!” And then he would pick the remote control and turn the volume up, as this was the end of discussion. My mother, who every night sat at the chair across from him, would bark, “You dumbass! You alcoholic!” and then she’d light up a cigarette and walk away to the kitchen where she’d toss pots and pans, making noise.


I dreamt of nothing but to escape this place. Escape to the almighty, colorful, neon-lit, well-fed America, where people are happy, have jingle bell-like laughs, and strong, white teeth and smell like fabric softener. I dreamt I’d leave the coastal hole behind me with the stench of half-digested alcohol on my father’s breath; leave behind my nerve-wracked, chain-smoking mother, who no longer remembered how to speak calmly to anyone; my little sister who would still wet her bed, traumatized from the night my father beat my mother with a leather belt in front of us.


I dreamt of it all, not knowing that eight years from then I would be waving goodbye to my mom, my aunt and my uncle from an ascending escalator at the Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw to take my very first flight ever—flight to America. They looked up at me and I looked down at them, and this was the picture my memory preserved until six years later when I got the ultimate golden ticket – the Green Card – and saw them again on the Polish soil.


I live in Chicago now; torn between the place where I no longer belong and a place where I never will. But every time I speak to my grandmother on the phone, she says, “Stay, dziecko; stay. It is just easier to live there.” And I stay.  Because she’s right: Where else in the world would I be able to purchase a plain ticket overseas with two-weeks worth of babysitting? Even now my father says working for capitalists isn’t that bad.