They left just before dawn with only $200 in their pockets. The streets of Wroclaw, Poland, were deserted when Jozef Fercz loaded a few belongings into a Fiat, while his wife, who was about two months pregnant, comforted their two small children.
On Nov. 23, three weeks before martial law was imposed in Poland, Jozef and Grazyna Fercz fled their home, driving 300 miles to the safety of Austria. Like thousands before them, they found asylum in a crowded refugee camp near Vienna. For days they slept in a cramped room with 50 other people before moving to a pension 160 miles south of Vienna.
Another Wroclaw family, fearful of mounting tensions, left the same industrial city of 590,000 just three days after the Ferczes. Carrying four bags and only $400, Janusz and Violette Goralski boarded the Chopin Express, southbound for Vienna. In Austria, a haven favored by expatriate Poles because of its liberal asylum policy, sympathetic authorities found room for the Goralskis in a refugee camp near Salzburg. They remained there about five months, awaiting passage to the West.
Both the Ferczes and the Goralskis emigrated legally, joining the largest exodus of Poles since the Communist takeover at the end of World War II. By April, 41,000 Poles had sought asylum outside their homeland, the majority in Austria and West Germany.
The Ferczes now live in Annandale and the Goralskis in Mount Vernon, only 20 miles apart, yet they have never met. They are among an estimated dozen Polish refugees in Northern Virginia--the first trickle of an immigration wave expected to hit the United States within the next six months, according to those familiar with the refugee situation. When the wave does come, officials dealing with the situation say, about 1,000 Poles a month are expected in the U.S.
Although 2,400 Polish refugees were admitted to this country between November and April, the majority have settled in Chicago, New York and Detroit, where there are large Polish communities, local refugee counselors say. Another 4,695 Poles were seeking refuge in the United States as of January, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But in Northern Virginia, the Polish refugee population is so invisible that Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria refugee workers say they have yet to counsel a Pole.
Yet case workers like Irma Ortiz of the U.S. Catholic Charities diocesan office in Arlington hope that the picture will change. Catholic Charities, Ortiz says, has made a commitment to find U.S. sponsors for 1,000 Polish refugees by the end of July.
"I feel very hopeless," Ortiz says. "I have all these refugees waiting in Austria for sponsors and I can't even find homes for 10 or 15 of them."
At the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, Pastor Donald Piper, director of the regional office in Washington, says he has arranged sponsors for 21 Poles who are expected to arrive in Northern Virginia by the end of the year. Piper agrees with Ortiz, however, that it is increasingly difficult to find sponsors.
"It's what someone called compassion fatigue," he said. "Maybe people are simply exhausted. . . . You can only operate on a crisis level with refugees for a certain period of time.
"There are a lot of factors: the downturn of the economy, the number of people in our congregations who have gone to work and don't have the time, the unemployment level going up and the general misconception that maybe refugees are getting certain advantages that other poor people don't get at a time when housing and jobs are limited."
Under pressure from Polish-American leaders, the Reagan administration agreed to raise the immigration quota for Eastern Europe from 6,000 to 9,000 a year starting in October 1981. Poles entering under that quota must be here for one year before applying for permanent residence, and must live here an additional five years before seeking U.S. citizenship.
However, Poles who are here on temporary visas face a more complicated process before being allowed to remain in the U.S. permanently.
"Poles who entered the United States either before or after martial law under some visa are in a fearful situation now," said Linda Gray, director of the Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance at Georgetown University. "Applying for political asylum is against Polish law. There is an alternative under American law called voluntary departure status where someone on a visa can temporarily remain here until at least Dec. 31 , but it is difficult for them to find work."
Currently, 250,000 Poles live outside Poland; only about 16 percent--or 40,000--have sought asylum elsewhere, according to United Nations figures gathered in February.
Between October and March, 3,843 Poles on temporary visas in the U.S. sought political asylum. So far, only 106 cases have been processed by the Immigration Service, with 37 requests granted and 69 denied, said Janet Graham, an INS information specialist. The major reason for the slow pace, Graham said, is that the Immigration Service is "overwhelmed" with 107,000 requests for asylum.
Among many Poles here on temporary visas, and even among Polish refugees willing to talk openly about their plight, there is widespread fear that the current Polish regime will retaliate against their families still in Poland if they speak out. They say passage out of the country is limited (only about 200 visas a month are being issued by the Polish government), letters are censored, food and clothing are in short supply. They hesitate to speak of the Solidarity movement and their dreams of reforming it under the communist system.
"I cannot give my name or I might not be able to stay," said an elderly Polish man, who is living in Arlington on a temporary visa while working on a research project at an area university. "Theoretically, I should go back to Poland. There are many who deeply disagree with the system and have made up their minds to stay in Poland and oppose the system . Leaving is like taking blood from a body. I care about my work, not my material condition, so I cannot say I will not go back."
Jozef Fercz remembers precisely when he realized he was never going home. He was stretched out on a bunk bed in an Austrian refugee camp, resting after the all-day trip from Poland. He recalls looking around the crowded room and thinking, "I am so happy. I know I'm in a free country and nobody make me go back."
Because Fercz was active in the Solidarity movement, he felt his family would be safer outside Poland.
"We knew we had to leave Poland because there was danger for those active in Solidarity. We did not want to take the fight; we knew there was no chance . . . not now."
On their way to Austria, the Ferczes were forced by Czech border guards to pull everything out of their car. The Ferczes waited nervously, standing in the November cold as a breeze scattered their belongings. Fercz chased after his family's few possessions while guards continued the search. Finally, the guards waved the family on its way.
"We drove away and knew we were clear, but they had to make trouble," said the 39-year-old Fercz.
The Ferczes found their passport to the West in an Austrian pension. The owner of the pension, Maria Tu-Sekine, knew what it was like to live as a refugee: her family had been forced to flee China many years before. She took a liking to the Ferczes and called her daughter and son-in-law, Renate and Alex Kucherov, who live in Arlington, asking them to help the Ferczes.
"She told us they were a wonderful family with a baby on the way," said Alex Kucherov, an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report, who is cosponsoring the family along with two Arlington Kiwanis clubs.
"I understood how they felt," Kucherov said. "I was born in Germany of Russian parents who left and came to this country in 1942 as refugees. I would have been a handful of ashes in Auschwitz if a family hadn't helped us. I am Jewish. The only way I can ever repay this is by helping another family."
After five months in Austria Fercz, his 33-year-old wife Grazyna and their two children, Tomasz, 4, and Marzena, 3, arrived in Northern Virginia early in May. They are living in Annandale with Kenneth Sheets, a senior editor at U.S. News, and caring for his children while Jozef looks for work as a mechanical engineer. Grazyna Fercz, also an engineer, plans to wait a few years before looking for work.
Grazyna turned to Jozef at 2 a.m. June 16 and whispered to him in Polish, "The time has come for the child."
They rushed to Arlington Hospital, and at 10:20 a.m. that day a 9-pound boy arrived. They named him Alexander, "after Alex Kucherov, our friend, and because it such an international name. . . . He is an American citizen," Jozef said.
In the weeks before the baby arrived Jozef thought about the family's decision to leave Poland. He reflected: "If somebody had told me two years ago I would leave Poland, I would say he was mad. I never regret it. I knew this was our only chance to live quietly; . . . it was best for our family."
Although the Poles now arriving here generally are well-educated and sophisticated, according to Georgetown's Gray, some sponsors say the refugees have suffered an initial cultural shock, especially if their English is limited.
After Janusz and Violette Goralski arrived in Northern Virginia in late April, they began wrestling with the language barrier.
"Janusz was under stress and strain trying to make himself understood. It was difficult, with my ears being stupid, for him to teach me Polish or for me to teach him English," said Ellen Robinson, who temporarily opened her Fort Belvoir home to the Goralskis and their 8-year-old son. "He spoke 100 words or so of English, and Violette couldn't speak any English. We carried around the fattest dictionary in the East everywhere. The first time I really heard them laugh was when I tried to say hot dog (paruwka) in Polish."
Despite their language difficulties, the Goralskis are making a new life with warm support from their sponsors, the Nativity Lutheran Church in Mount Vernon. The small congregation of 100 families has raised money for a two-bedroom apartment for the Goralskis, has found household furnishings and restored a 1968 Plymouth.
Every weekday morning, 8-year-old Patryk goes to language classes at Springfield Estates Elementary School, while his parents attend an English class at Groveton High School.
Janusz, 33, an accomplished pianist, and Violette, 27, a legal secretary, are determined to learn English while looking for full-time jobs.
"I want to settle my family, get along with my life," Janusz, a Solidarity supporter, said through an interpreter. "I want to play a benefit concert for Polish musicians. Concerts in Poland are being canceled because people are standing in lines all day for food. There is no money. Musicians are grabbing whatever job they can find."
When Janusz sits down at a piano, the music takes him away from his worries, friends say. Last month, he crossed the language barrier easily when he played for his son's eighth birthday party at the Nativity Church.
He filled the church with Scott Joplin music and moved on to a few choruses of "Happy Birthday."
But he ended with the music of Frederic Chopin, a Polish exile who fled to France 140 years ago.