More Poles seeking access to West, but leaving home is no easy choice


Warsaw, Poland--Danuta and Jurek Jakubowski once wanted to emigrate.

They and their two young daughters lived -- and still live -- in a rented, two-room, 355-square-foot apartment, with only a remote chance of getting a larger place.

They both held jobs but were desperately poor. "If we hadn't had help from my parents we couldn't have lived," said Mrs. Jakubowski, 35, who is educated but tired and scared of change.

But, for the moment, they are sticking around. Their struggle mirrors that of thousands of Eastern Europeans trying to decide whether to become economic refugees and emigrate to the West.

Years ago, as they weighed the choice of a country to adopt, they chose Australia rather than the United States. There was less competition, and the life was more relaxed. "We were willing to work hard if we had an incentive," Mrs. Jakubowski said, "but we thought Australia was less of a race for money."

They collected all the necessary documents. Mr. Jakubowski's profession, electronics engineering, was high on the list of preferred professions. His wife was an economics graduate. Both speak English. At 32, they were in the ideal age range. Their chances of acceptance were good.

But in Poland, love of country is imbibed with mother's milk, emphasized in education and propaganda. "The idea of leaving everybody and everything was just terrible," Mrs. Jakubowski said. "We wanted a better start for our children, but it would've been hard."

An emigrant friend cautioned them that "human relations in the West are not like in Poland. You can't just drop in on people there. It's not so friendly."

They wavered, and then, in mid-1988, the decision was made for them. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa -- then officially "TC non-person, now the president of the Polish republic -- spoke on television for the first time in more than seven years. Within six months, talks between Solidarity and the Communists began. In mid-1989, the Communists were swept from power.

As a result, the Jakubowskis stayed. "We hoped that things would be better here," Mrs. Jakubowski said.

Instead, they got worse.

Prices, including food prices, skyrocketed. Hopes for getting a home, already remote, vanished altogether. "The housing cooperative said maybe five years," Mrs. Jakubowski said. "But it's meaningless. The government is changing, the system is changing, privatization is coming, cooperatives can collapse, and prices per square meter are so high that they are quite out of reach for the average person."

Meanwhile, Warsaw landlords, grabby at the best of times, interpreted the fall of communism as the removal of any limit on rent.

Now, Mrs. Jakubowski's whole salary covers only 80 percent of it. "I don't dream of owning my own home," she said. "All I want is three or four rooms without fear that the landlord will demand a rent we can't pay."

Although the fall of communism scaled down their aspirations, it increased their opportunities.

The slow-spoken Mr. Jakubowski suddenly found ways to cope with poverty. He became a risk-taker. "My husband was forced to be more active," Mrs. Jakubowski said.

He has changed jobs three times this year, moving from a $50-a-month software programmer to a $150-a-month flour salesman who, with commissions, brought in several hundred dollars a month.

At the same time, the couple are starting their own software programming business, taking advantage of special tax breaks. Expertise and energy they have. Capital, they claim, they do not need.

"We'll lease equipment, and if all else fails, we'll sell the car to buy a computer," they said.

Mr. Jakubowski will handle the technical side, his wife the books. They will both keep full-time jobs and run the home front, which still involves standing in line and searching for scarce goods.

They also will raise two young children in a school system that relies on parental teaching, and they will hope that their kitchen-table business does not fail.

The Jakubowskis may be young enough to succeed, but for some it is just too daunting a struggle.

Those who have given up the battle to live in Poland can be seen in the long lines in front of Western embassies, fighting for their places in line, suffering the rudeness and arrogance of low-level embassy employees, getting shoved around by doctors and nurses certifying their medical fitness -- all in the name of a better life in the West.

Their numbers are growing.

"Asking if you wanted to emigrate is like asking if you want to eat breakfast tomorrow," said Adam Wojciechowski, himself a determined stay-at-home.

In 1989, the year of the Solidarity-government talks, the free elec

tions and Solidarity's succession to power, the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw processed 4,382 permanent visas, a consular official said. This year, when change was clearly established, the number of permanent U.S. visas issued jumped to 6,515, practically a 50 percent increase.

The Australian Embassy reported a "definite increase [in visas], and quite a substantial one," since the beginning of last year's talks.

The Australian consulate official attributed the growing number partly to a decrease in the number of Poles fleeing to Western capitals and applying for emigration status from there.

Nevertheless, he verified that interest in emigration has "increased dramatically."

Would-be emigrants were publicity shy.

One family asked about their plans were furious merely that word had gotten out. Another woman, whose husband was already in Canada, begged off an interview. "It's not that I'm afraid," she said uneasily, "but you never know. We might want to come back some day."

It might have been the legacy of 40 years of Communist dictatorship or, perhaps, the fear that not enough has changed.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad