Immigration Stories:  Karolina Newcombe

by George Hough, WashCo Dems Communications Committee Member

Photo of woman with cherry trees, and a caption reading Immigration Stories: Karolina Newcombe with an image of the Statue of Liberty

Karolina Newcombe presents an immigration story that is classically fraught with peril, uncertainty, and instability, as well as ultimate triumph over adverse odds. Though Karolina and her family are now securely settled in the Portland area, their journey has been a long and arduous one. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and grew up with her parents on her grandparents’ farm, near the city of Pultusk in the northeastern part of the country.

In the early 1980s, her parents engaged in the Polish Trade Union (Solidarity) movement, which was a broad anti-authoritarian social movement which used civil disobedience against the Communist government to advance the cause of workers’ rights. Their involvement in the movement was very risky and they lived in constant fear of betrayal and arrest. So perilous were these political activities, that her parents had taken the precaution of having an adoption plan with friends for their child. If they were sent to prison or simply ‘disappeared,’ their child would not be orphaned.

Karolina described that her parents’ worst fears came true. In December of 1981, the Polish government declared martial law, and that winter the police stormed their home for a search in the middle of the night. They were looking for smuggled audio recordings made of political prisoners who had been interrogated while in custody. Fortunately, the police search turned up empty as her parents had cleverly hidden the recordings between the floorboards of their house. Her mother had also burned her political activism diaries and notes in the fireplace a few days before the police arrived. Later, the authorities pressured her mother to sign a statement renouncing her activism within the movement. Nevertheless, though aware of the consequences of not signing, her mother refused to sign. Her parents were then blacklisted and not allowed to work anywhere in the country. Without a livelihood, the family quickly fell into challenging times. As the local political underground had been compromised and was crumbling around them, her parents realized they no longer had hope for a future in Poland.

In 1986, when Karolina was age 11, her parents sought political asylum in Holland, where the family lived in the city of Groningen, in the northern Netherlands. For the next five years the family lived under the auspices of the Dutch asylum system. In this system, her parents were still not allowed to legally work, and the family was forced to live on the public support system. As asylum seekers, the family lived in a kind of legal limbo, never being sure if or when they might be granted permanent Dutch residency or worse, be ordered to go back to Poland. Under these precarious conditions, unable to work and subject to the whims of the asylum system, it was impossible to truly integrate into the Dutch society. Karolina attended school and became fluent in the Dutch language, yet remained an outsider among her neighbors and schoolmates.

Three years later, in 1989, radical change swept through Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the end of the Iron Curtain. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was to follow within the next couple of years. The Soviet’s iron grip on Polish society began to loosen.  Considering such vast social change, the Dutch authorities told her family they no longer needed asylum in Holland. Rather, they were directed to pack up and return to Poland. However, Karolina’s parents knew that a return was impossible for them. Her parents considered appealing their case to the Dutch authorities.  Karolina’s teachers could attest that she was a good student with high marks and never in trouble. None of this evidence mattered. They had to go.

Fortunately, Karolina’s father had a sister in New York City who agreed to sponsor the family ‘s move to the United States. To facilitate the immigration process, the family was interviewed at the American Embassy in Brussels. Under the American immigration system, they were no longer resigned to an indeterminate and indefinite status; rather, they were allowed to legally work and obtain residency. This decision came as welcome news. They landed in Queens, New York, where the family rented a couple of small rooms from a Polish landlady. Within the same household, other Polish immigrants lived in the other rooms. During her six months in Queens, Karolina recalls that the undocumented Polish workers who lived in their house would every morning get onto a bus that would take them to a sweat shop in the Bronx. They worked long hours and came home exhausted. Karolina knew little English at the time and did not attend school while there. Reflecting upon her family’s move to the United States, Karolina noted that: “My parents had spines of steel. They were over 40 years old when they came to the United States and knew that starting to rebuild their lives once again would be a formidable challenge.”

Upon leaving Queens the family next moved to Boise, Idaho, where they had relatives who encouraged them to settle there. These distant relatives were helpful to the family, but Karolina noted that her family never felt comfortable in Boise. She recalls the culture shock she experienced upon settling in Boise, as she had never experienced extremist Christian fundamentalism before, nor the hard right wing political attitudes she observed while there. Karolina went on to graduate from high school in Boise and completed her first two years of university at Boise State University. Her father was able to initially secure work painting houses to help support the family. He was then able to transition into the electronics industry as he already had skills in the field. Her mother kept the household running and continued to work as an artist.

After five years in Boise, Karolina’s family decided that they were ready to leave. They decided to drive to the Portland area to see if this is where they would make their next home. They had agreed that if Portland was not a good fit, then they would investigate the Seattle area. The family liked the Portland area, and her father was able to get an excellent job in the electronics industry. Karolina went on to finish her baccalaureate degree in English Literature at Lewis and Clark University in Portland. She enjoyed the curriculum there and continues to be an avid reader and student of literature. The family maintains regular contact with relatives in Poland and they have been back multiple times to visit. Karolina is currently the Communications Chair of the Washington County Democratic Party and works full time at a local insurance firm where she has been recently promoted.

In closing, as we discussed major “lessons learned” from her own immigration experience to the United States, Karolina elaborated upon her concerns about the current Russian aggression in Ukraine and the very real threat this war poses to the rest of Europe. She is aware of the geography of Poland, and the fact that invading armies have crisscrossed across Poland over the centuries. It has always been the Polish people who have suffered most. Within her family’s living memory, they can recall the German military invasion in 1939 and then the incorporation of Poland into the Eastern Bloc of the Soviet Union after World War II. Karolina emphasized that having grown up under the shadow of the Russians, she is very aware of what life can be like under a totalitarian regime. Democracy is fragile, she noted, even in the United States. It would be naive to believe that our democracy could not be undermined by Trump or others who would place their short-term interests above the good of the nation.