Posted on: November 19, 2021 Posted by: Marta Kwiecien Comments: 0

By Marta Kwiecien, COM 101 Student

Every four years, when it’s time to renew his driver’s license, Robert Nowak* becomes a bit anxious.

“I wonder if they will ask me for a green card or citizenship,” he explains, though during his 20 years of living in the States, no one in the DMV facility has asked about his status yet “and I hope they won’t ask next time either.”

There are around 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and Nowak is one of them. He came to the U.S. through Mexico in his early twenties, four months before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He had to borrow money from family and friends to pay the smugglers to help him come to the States. The journey took two weeks from the time he left his homeland to the time he set foot in Chicago.

“I came here with practically nothing, a backpack with a few personal stuffs, with no English, $200 in my pocket and $10,000 debt to be paid,” he said.

As part of a course themed around empathy, students in Lisa Couch’s COM 101 write profiles allowing readers to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

He left almost all his belongings in the desert through which he walked all day, and describes himself as a lucky man, because not everyone managed to get through it.

“I heard that there were people who died there,” he says.

The beginning was not easy; he had to find a place to live and a job quickly. A Polish newspaper came to the rescue with information leading to both. He moved within five days and had a job after a week.

“The worst thing was with the transport,” he said. “I couldn’t afford a car; first I had to pay the debt.”

He lived on the south side of the city, but his job was on the north side.

“At first I took the bus, but it took too long, so after three weeks I bought a bike from my landlord, and so for about half a year I went to work that way.” Laughing, he adds, “My record was 38 minutes!”

Nowak was born and raised in a small Polish village near the Slovak border, and was the only one of 10 siblings to emigrate to the States. He does not have fond memories of his childhood. His father was always drunk and rowdy, and he beat the mother as well as Nowak and his siblings.

“Sometimes, when he got furious, we had to run away from home,” Nowak said. They slept at grandma’s house.

“I hated him–him and onions!” And with teary eyes Nowak says he hates onions to this day because his father would force him to eat one, and if he didn’t want to, he was beaten again. He doesn’t remember the last time he spoke to his father, but he is sure it has been more than two decades.

A few times a year, he calls his mom and his siblings using Messenger; he likes this app because they can see each other. He misses them and says that sometimes it’s hard, especially when the holidays come or one of the siblings gets married.

“I would love to be with them on such an important day for them,” he says.

But he does not leave to celebrate with them, because if he left, he would not be able to come back, and here, he has his own family, a wife with whom he has been married for 17 years and two teenage daughters.

“I love them very much!” he said. “Without my family, I would be nothing!”

He says they give him strength every day, and everything he does, he does for his wife and daughters.

I came here with practically nothing, a backpack with a few personal stuffs, with no English, $200 in my pocket and $10,000 debt to be paid.”

Robert Nowak

“My children were born here in the U.S., but my wife also has no papers,” he said. “She came on a tourist visa and stayed. In 2014, my father-in-law filed papers and sponsored us for a green card, but it is such a long process.”

People born here often do not realize how long the waiting process is, he says. It depends on which visa category you are in, and which country you came from. For the category Nowak and his wife are in, the waiting time for a green card is about 13 years.

“In our case, the only plus is that, even though we are here illegally, we have a social security card and driving license,” he says. “Before 9/11 you could get social security, which is without permission to work, to make a driver’s license. So, I think we are lucky, because we don’t have to worry if police stop us, and we can apply for a credit card, get a loan and pay our taxes.”

Nowak pays personal and business taxes. He has been running a small construction company for more than 10 years, and he has been working in the construction industry since he came to the United States.

“I love my work!” he says, smiling. “I mean, sometimes it pisses me off, and sometimes I don’t want to get up in the morning, but it gives me great satisfaction when I see the results of my work!” He shows his large, rough hands, “that these hands did it!” And by looking at his hands, you can tell that he is a hard-working man. His friends also describe him as hardworking and willing to help. Many of them are waiting to complete a renovation until Robert will have time to do it.

“I didn’t want anyone other than Robert to remodel my house!” says John, Robert’s friend. “I waited almost two years until he had time, but it was worth it, because no matter where he does his work, he always does it as if he were doing it in his own home!”

Now 40, Nowak, like every human being, has dreams, some bigger and some smaller. He hopes he and his relatives will be healthy, that they will always have something to eat, and that once a year they can go on vacation and finally get a permanent status.

“I wish I could go to Poland and see my mother before she dies,” he says. “I know, it doesn’t sound nice, but we all get older, and we don’t know the place or time when we’re going to leave this world. I hope I’ll be able to surprise her.

“If I get a green card, I will take a month of vacation. I will go to my family house, go inside and shout, ‘Mom, I’m home!’”


*Editors’ note: Robert Nowak is not his real name.