The Koscielniaks: Making Home Away from Home
interview by marie chung
Barbara and Janusz Koscielniak are two polish migrants who arrived in Canada over 20 years ago with their first born child, Victoria. Barbara is a soft spoken and gentle woman, who has been operating Aston Johnston’s weaving machines for over 10 years now. She converses most comfortably in French whilst her partner Janusz speaks English with a deep husk in his chords. Janusz works for the DDO, a borough in Montreal. Barbara and Janusz were refugees in the 1980s and have come a long way since living in communist Poland.
The family and I sit down to Janusz’ proudly prepared dinner and we breathe our first bottle of polish wine specially made by Victoria’s uncle. It wasn’t until after casual jokes exchanged and our stomach’s filled, that Barbara, Janusz and Victoria story unfolded between Polish, French and English across the table.
Why did you and Janusz come to Montreal in the 80s?
Barbara: We didn’t want to come here first actually. In the 1980s, there was the communist regime in Poland. It was very difficult to have a house or even rent a place.
Janusz: I remember my parents gave us their land so that we could build the house, but to do that we needed the permission of to the city. When we applied, they told us that even for the next ten years, we wouldn’t be able to get permission. My father was part of the solidarity movement against the government at the time. Somebody else could get the permit, but not me.
B: Even if we couldn’t get the house, it was also difficult to have living materials. Everything was difficult, that’s why we left. And we wanted children.
J: But I was also young at the time, and I wanted to discover the world!
Was it a hard decision for you to move from Poland?
B: For me, yes. It was hard to leave my family – my mum and my sisters.
J: For me, no.
[Laughter from the whole family]
J: It’s not easy to explain. You know when I don’t see what is in the bag, I want to know what’s inside it. It’s the same when I am discovering the world. Everything was under the control of the government back in Poland. They showed American films sometimes, but it was very restricted. Everything was so filtered.
My older brother left a few years before me so I wanted to do the same. He was proposing to me to go with him but I said, “no”. I was going to wait for her. I had to work hard to convince her to come with me.
How did you guys meet? I love love stories.
Victoria: They were 15 at the time, going to school on a city bus – my mum had very beautiful long hair. My dad, also noticed the beautiful long hair and he thought it would be a good idea to get my mum’s attention. So he tried to make her notice him but because my mum wasn’t reacting enough, he pulled her long hair.
[Laughter exchanges and Barbara smiles at Janusz]
What was your reaction?
V: She poked her tongue.
And then you got married!
V: They got married for a big wedding and three weeks later they moved to Italy.
B: At that time, I didn’t like finding men of the same age because I wanted to marry older men. My husband had to be older than me. But Janusz was always next to me, so I just said “okay”.
J: I worked so hard to show that I was the best for her.
Yes, we need more men like you nowadays! So you married 7 years later and moved to Italy. Why Italy?
J: Because there were two or three places in Europe that received refugees from Eastern Europe. I didn’t want to go to Germany because of Poland’s history with their country. Then there was Greece, Spain or Italy – so we chose Italy and lived there for 3 years.
B: I’ve always wanted to visit Venice.
J: She watched too many movies and it was in her mind that it would be romantic to go to Venice. I said to her, “whatever your wishes, I will make for you”.
Was there a Polish community for you there in Italy?
J: The refugee camp was not only Polish but people from Romania, Russia, Albany, Czech, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and a lot of different groups.
When you applied for the States, your application wasn’t successful?
J: Our interview was at the date of the election of George Bush Senior, 27 years ago. It was the 4th of November. I know the United States today has problems with the economy. And coincidentally, Canada is running perfectly! That’s because of me.
“Our choice to be here today, is not just to be here in Canada, we are not just Polish but we are Canadian too”.
And we want to prove that we fit into that country. Really, if you ask different people, they think that immigrants usually are hard workers who do well in their jobs. We want to prove that we will do anything.
Is that the general perception towards migrants and refugees in Canada?
J: It’s quite positive. Not everyone understands that we have skills to offer, but most people do. We play a big role in the economy. You will find in this area that there are plenty of people who have houses, they are immigrants with 30 years experience. This is not necessarily the case for people born in Canada. They don’t have the same dreams as we have. For them, they may already have a good life so it wouldn’t really be their goal.
I’ve had many jobs. I was a welder, I had my own garage – ‘body shop’ we call it. I was involved in a lot of renovation and construction.
V: He was a self-taught man. He learned everything from the farm.
Barbara, when you came to Montreal, was it hard to get a job?
B: For me it was very easy because I had a friend who worked in a company and she recommended me. The company was called Dora’s Secrets – the company that weaves stocking. I worked in the factory and sowed the stockings.
V: It was a good job for my mum because she is very manual. She studied shoemaking in Poland. She is gifted like that. Mum knows how to fix things.
I really appreciate that you can do those fundamental things because in a society like what we have now, we lose that craft and ability to start from the basics.
Did you learn French in Montreal?
B: I had to learn French, the government provided classes for immigrants for 7 months. It was full time.
V: My parents were sponsored to come here. Their sponsors signed papers to show that they would be responsible for them. Because of that, we had no right to receive welfare or support from the government. If you are supported by the government, you get study grants and all the rest. They couldn’t so dad worked straight away and mum took English classes.
J: After three days, I worked.
V: My dad likes to do things and doesn’t like waiting.
J: Ask my kids! After three days on vacation, I had to look for a job.
B: In Mexico he wanted to wash the dishes!
J: The waiter at a restaurant brought us 2 bottles of wine for $70. I said to him, “you know, I have nothing to do, we have no money, so I can pay for that wine working in the kitchen”.
How did you get a job so quickly in Montreal?
J: I looked at the Italian newspaper and saw the ad. I went for an interview and the first day they trialed me. At the time it was $390/month for the apartment, and I was earning $370/week after taxes. We also had weekly expenses for the baby and spent an additional $60/70 expenses for living.
Victoria was telling me that you came here with nothing. How many dollars did you have?
J: When we left Poland, we had $181 US dollar. I had to leave the guitar in Italy, it was either the guitar or the baby. She was a very expensive girl. I sold a car in Italy to purchase a stroller – a Cadillac stroller.
You’ve worked really hard to get to where you are today. What do you think should change in the general perception towards migrants and refugees in Australia?
J: We make money and we seek to achieve a good standard of living.
“We aren’t wasting that money, we are building something. We aren’t stealing jobs. In the real world, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the right people to do the right job”.
If you know how to do the job, it doesn’t matter what colour or race you are. Show them you can do the job and they should hire you. Even if we do not have enough qualifications, it’s our will that makes us want to do more. That’s the immigrant’s mentality.
“It doesn’t matter what job it is, we do the best we can. If you are a cleaner, do the best job like no other cleaner will. Everybody around will say, “hey that’s a cleaner!” and soon enough, people will even say “Mr. Cleaner”!”
Canada is very multicultural, but sometimes local francophones from here say to me that I am not “pure wool”.
V: That’s an expression that suggests you are not originally from here.
J: Yes. I tell them that your great grand parents were sent here maybe 200 years ago. The only difference with me is that I chose to come here – that’s it. Only if someone from the first nation was to tell me, “oh you are a stranger”, then ofcourse I’m just gonna say “you are completely right! This discussion is over”.
B: Immigrants have a lot to bring – a new perspective, a new culture and things that don’t necessarily have to be material goods…
J: …in any country! I will tell you something, when we came to Canada, I didn’t come to change the country. I came to change myself. We are part of Canada, there is a constitution, norms and culture and we learn to live by them.
Janusz and Barbara’s middle child arrives home, ecstatic over the latest NHL hockey game between the Oilers and Sharks. The tone in the air shifts and we are all smiling and laughing more. After three, four or five bottles of wine empty, Barbara has gone to bed and we have all well and truly overexerted ourselves over political discussions.
Waking up the morning after, the smell of Janusz’s pancakes lingers from the kitchen. Victoria and I devour as many as we can to fatten our bodies against the blistering cold. Janusz and Barbara drive us back to the station in heavy traffic. In the car, Janusz reminisces over Pink Floyd’s live concert playing through the speakers, whilst Barbara throws nostalgic glances in his direction. Barbara and Janusz are far away from home but they have built a new multicultural life with the family and become proud citizens of both Poland and Canada.