First Person Immigrant Stories
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Joanna Pepera

Joanna Papera, Polish, American

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Every year the government would issue visa lotteries and that was pretty much the only legal way to leave from behind the Iron Curtain. And my mom was a winner of one of the visa lotteries. So, by proxy my immediate family was allowed to immigrate to the US.
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It was like we made it, like we didn’t think we would, but we made it.
— on landing in America
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Joanna:  I’m Joanna Papera.

Interviewer: When did you or your family come to America?

Joanna: My family first moved here from Poland in 1989 right before the fall of the wall.

Interviewer: How did they decide to come to America?

Joanna: So, you weren't allowed to leave the country. It was illegal to leave any kind of Soviet country, but every year the government would issue visa lotteries and that was pretty much the only legal way to leave from behind the Iron Curtain. And my mom was a winner of one of the visa lotteries. So, by proxy my immediate family was allowed to immigrate to the US.

Interviewer: So they would say what country you would like to go to with those lotteries or did they get to choose?

Joanna: We got to choose yeah.

Interviewer: So you guys chose America.

Joanna: mm-hmm.

Interviewer: Why did your family choose America?

Joanna: It was always that elusive concept of opportunity and we never been to America before but we always knew that there was that hope for a better life there. And we grew up watching American illegal American television and James Bond movies, Indiana Jones and it was this like it was almost like anything you want it to be you could be in America. And that was the driving force that made my family decide to move here.

Interviewer: Where did you move to in the United States?

Joanna: We first moved to Brooklyn, Coney Island.

Interviewer: Where do you live now?

Joanna: In New Jersey.

Interviewer: Does your family still lives in the US?

Joanna: Yes family still lives in the US. My father lives in Texas and my brother lives in Seattle.

Interviewer: How would you define the word American?

Joanna: To me American always meant opportunity. And it's really the only country where you have such unlimited freedoms and so much potential and it's just the hope of always having that ability to have a better life.

Interviewer: Do you feel you have had a better life here?

Joanna: I think so. I will never know my parents struggle. I don't think I'll ever be living in an oppressive government now, but I feel like I will never be able to have that experience that my parents had. I can only imagine their struggle. Now if I move to a different country it's going to be for reasons like I found a great job or I'm moving for something positive it wasn't escaping something negative. So, I feel like I appreciate my parents sacrifice and how they had to uproot everything they knew just to come here.

Interviewer: Is there a specific memory you have when you first really felt like you were American.

Joanna: So, I think like my first memory of actually physically coming to this country warded like an old Soviet you're a jetliner like it was only Aleutian something it was called and they were notorious for crashing. So, the entire way here I was like please don't crash the way to America. And then finally when we landed like  seeing my dad - because he came here a few months earlier before my mom and my brother and I - and just seeing him when you're still allowed to go past security in the airports - and seeing him right there and it was just amazing,  it was like we made it, like we didn't think we would, but we made it.

Interviewer: How do you define the word immigrant?

Joanna: To me “immigrant” is such a nostalgic word because I remember I was old enough to remember how I was coming to this country and not knowing the language and just kind of feeling out of place, but now like I feel so like this is my element, like this is my home, and that kind of adaptation and going through the stages of the unknown to finally finding home.

Interviewer: Is there one thing that your family brought with you a trade of some sort that you feel makes you and your community around you better?

Joanna: Definitely the work ethic like just knowing to struggle and appreciating the little things and just kind of not sweating the small stuff -  knowing that things could always be worse and you know and you can make your life what you want it to be.