The tales of immigrants coming to this country to enjoy freedom and to make a better life for themselves and their families are all true.
What is often overlooked is that these immigrants are often the best and brightest from their homelands, with much to contribute to their new country.
I am a first-generation American. I am also an attorney and the current president of the Advocates Society, the association of Polish-American attorneys. In 2013, I discovered my grandmother, a Polish immigrant, was a war hero.
My parents immigrated to the United States from communist Poland in the mid-1970s. They came here with nothing but their education (at the risk of not being permitted to leave, one could not leave communist Poland with all of one’s possessions).
Before that, my grandmother immigrated to the United States, and at that time left behind my father in Poland to finish his studies. My grandmother was a stern, tough woman who worked long hours cleaning offices and working in a novelty toy factory, which was kind of odd for someone so austere.
She did not drive, but walked and took the bus. I’m not entirely sure she always used oven mitts.
As a testament to her strength and resolve, she was once hit by a car while walking in a crosswalk, and when the police officer asked her if she was OK, she got up on her knees and with the greatest amount of sarcasm she could muster, she told him “I’m fine.” She had several broken bones.
One day in early 2013, my wife and I were spending time with my grandmother and she began to tell a story I had never heard before. She explained when she was a teenager during World War II, she worked for a German company and had papers allowing her to freely travel in occupied Poland.
She was approached by one of her brother’s friends who had asked her to transport a package on behalf of the resistance movement. The package was heavy, and although she was not told of the contents, she was told the task could be dangerous.
She agreed and transported the package, later to find out it contained grenades. When asked if she was willing to transport packages in the future, she agreed and continued to transport items for the resistance.
After telling us this story, something dawned on my grandmother, and she began to look for something — she had the letter. A short time later, she pulled a yellowed paper from a shoe box, dated June 23, 1972.
The letter indicated she would be awarded the Polish Cross of Valor, a military decoration awarded to a person who “has demonstrated deeds of valor and courage on the battlefield” and is one of the highest military awards offered to a civilian.
In typical bureaucratic fashion, the letter indicated it would be followed with another letter.
Sadly, my grandmother had never received the award before leaving Polan and just took the letter and buried it in a box.
I took a photograph of the letter and sent it to the Polish consulate, which forwarded on the correspondence.
The legitimacy of the letter was verified, and gratefully my grandmother was awarded the Cross of Valor, presented to her on her 90th birthday. I had never seen her cry until that day. She was a war hero who fought for freedom, but never boasted of her exploits.
People like my grandmother are the ones immigrating to this country. People who may have done great things and just want to pave the way for a better future for themselves and their family. People who want to enjoy the freedoms that we regard as essential.
People like my parents, who came to this country with a desire for greater opportunity to pursue and succeed at attaining the American Dream. My father spent his career as a mechanical engineer, with over 50 patents to his name. My mother worked as a registered nurse, caring for cancer patients and working on research studies.
I reflect on the great things my family has done and how that has allowed me to have a better future. These things have also contributed to the greatness of this country. With exception of the grenades, my family’s story is not unique but a common one among immigrant families.
Immigrants often risk everything to come to this country, and they may be thousands of miles from their homeland to which they may never be able to return; they may have left behind loved ones; they may have come here with close to nothing. But universally, they want a better future for themselves and their posterity.
They want the freedoms that we all enjoy, and in exchange, contribute to our rich tapestry.