From a Lay Leader's Desk

A series of opinion articles from lay leaders in our synod.


An Immigrant – My Story

Jul 08, 2019

By Nancy Tomicic, member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Astoria/LIC

I emigrated from former Yugoslavia, today Croatia, when I was 21 years old.  I took a train to Trieste, a port city on the Italian border.  The refugee camp was in the nearby town of Padriciano.  I spent the day walking back and forth, in front of the police station, trying to gather enough courage to ask for political asylum.  Finally, at 5 p.m., it was getting dark outside, and I realized that I had no place to sleep, and that I have to make a faithful decision.  I approached a young policeman, and I told him that I am seeking political asylum.

He put me in the police car and took me downtown, to their headquarters.  There they told me to sit and wait for somebody to come to talk to me.  I was scared and didn’t know what to expect. Finally, two policemen came with some candy in their hands, and wished me a happy birthday.  Then they took me to a refugee camp, where I was quarantined for the night, so I wouldn’t speak to anyone.  The candies that they gave me – were my dinner.

The next morning, I was taken to the main office, and was processed.  I spent 9 months in a refugee camp, while they were checking my background.  After 15 days, I had to decide where I wanted to emigrate.  Because I didn’t have a sponsor, I had to choose between Australia and the US.  I chose the US, because it was still closer to Croatia, in case I wanted to go visit after I settled down.  The camp Priest prepared us for the interview with Interpol (European FBI), who were going to question us to see if we had a legitimate reason to seek political asylum.  Then they segregated single women and girls, and placed us in an old mansion, owned by the Catholic church.  We all had chores to do; some were cooking, some were cleaning.  They taught us English, mainly vocabulary, and a seamstress came once a week to show us basic sewing skills.

Time was dragging by, as we were anxiously waiting for the departure.  Most of the people had someone waiting for them on the other side, but I had no one. I was sponsored by Catholic Charities, and when I arrived in NY, they picked us up in an old taxi cab and took us to Hotel Walcott, which at that time was a welfare hotel.  I never saw a hotel like that in my life: the curtains and the windows were black from soot.  There was a communal shower room in the hallway.  I went to take a shower, and when I put the light on, a swarm of roaches were running all around me.  I screamed and ran back to my room.

The next day they sent me to get my Social Security card, and then they found a job for me.  I was working the third day I came to NY as a cashier in the supermarket. I didn’t speak English; I didn’t know currency or what is taxable.  It was a lot to learn all at once, and the salary was $48 per week.  I could not buy a decent meal and pay the rent with the money I was making.  Many times I was hungry, and one day I took some cashew nuts from the stand in front of the register.  The owner was hiding behind the pole and watched me.  He deducted $16 from my pay check claiming that I was short.  I quit the job, and moved in with my fellow immigrant in Hotel Walcott.

I wanted to go to school to learn English, but no one knew where the school was.  The Catholic Charities would not help me anymore, because I was over 21. A professor from Croatia, who was packing the vegetables in the supermarket, gave me his old books and I learned English by myself.  I struggles to make ends meet the first ten years, and then I went to Community College. Eventually I got a better paying job, but my vision was getting worse.  At age fifty, I had my first cataract surgery, and then I was diagnosed with Cone Dystrophy (sensitivity to light.)  I had to retire at age 62, because I could not see well enough to work anymore.  

I am grateful to God that I was able to earn my retirement and financial security, and that I am still able to help others.