The storybook vision of immigrants coming to America to lead a better life is often not a storybook tale at all, but one filled with personal sacrifice, inordinate strife and the kind of hard times that could, indeed, fill the pages of a novel.
Roman Nowak’s immigrant experience is more than novel worthy, one that includes all of the above uncertainty and drama, as well as the kind of resiliency and ultimate triumph that might make disbelievers out of those who do not know him.
But for those who do know the unassuming Nowak, a 2016 inductee of Connecticut’s Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame, the story is both believable and a source of pride.
It begins in 1945, the year that Nowak was born in war-torn Poland. Life for the family of Catholic farmers in the post-World War II era was hard, with the land the Nowaks loved brutalized by years of war and the country under the thumb of Soviet communist rule. Nowak helped his family of six the best he could, leaving school after seventh grade to work as a laborer in the coal region of Katowice.
Nowak married Halina at age 21 in 1966 and continued scraping together a living as a roofer. Oldest daughter Mariola arrived in 1966 and Dorota in 1968; by the time third daughter Basia was born in 1970, Roman knew that the only way to provide the kind of life he hoped his family could one day lead was to seek a way out of his homeland.
“When Basia was born, I started to look for something better. I had to do something to put food on the table,” Nowak says.
A Warsaw-based construction company was looking for laborers for a project in Mosul, Iraq, and Nowak seized the opportunity despite having to leave his family. He lived in an Iraq labor camp populated by some 700 other Poles, stripped of his passport and light years from home in a foreign land. He often was stopped on the way to work by Saddam Hussein’s Red Brigade. After little more than a year, he became restless, hoping for that singular opportunity that might change his family’s life.
“You begin to think about America,” Nowak says. “But it is not easy to escape that life.”
The opportunity Nowak was looking for soon came in the way of a trip to Kuwait through a contrived scheme to escape communist rule for good. He and another Polish worker risked everything, making their way to the American Consulate to seek political asylum. His seemingly endless journey eventually took him to Lebanon, where he hid in the mountains until the U.S. Embassy could arrange for his proper paperwork.
“We had to sneak in the back door of the embassy because the Polish police were out front,” says Nowak. “Had we been caught, we would have been transported back to Poland and placed in jail. There was risk for me at every turn.”
Nowak arrived in New York in 1973, ultimately making his way to Connecticut where he found employment at Atlantic Machine in Newington through the aid of a cousin. It was years before Halina and their young daughters were allowed to join him; all told the family spent five years apart, relentlessly staying true to their shared dream of a better life.
Nowak worked in a variety of manufacturing jobs for many years before venturing out on his own in 1999. And venture he did – today, he is co-founder and co-owner of Focus Technologies in Berlin, a successful precision manufacturer of parts for the defense industry.
Nowak’s three daughters attended New Britain schools and, thanks to their father’s hard work and daring commitment to finding a better life, went on to Ivy League educations: Mariola has degrees from Yale and George Washington Universities and is a practicing physician in Rhode Island; Dorota has degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University and is a program coordinator for the Russian Federation with the World Bank; and Basia has degrees from Yale and Ohio State Universities and is an editor for H-Net, an online history network for scholars.
“We could tell early on that my father valued education. We don’t really know where that came from, because he himself only finished seventh grade,” says daughter Basia. “But there was never any question about ‘can I pay for my daughters to go to college?’
“This award for my father is so well-deserved. He has led a remarkable life, and has been giving back to his community for years. We are all so very proud and honored.”
Giving back, as Basia says, has been part of Nowak’s life ever since coming to America. Nowak has been an integral force in the burgeoning Polish-American community in New Britain for decades: He is a past member and president of the Polish Falcons Nest 88; a member of the Polish American Business and Professional Association; a member of the Pulaski Democratic Club; and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Polish American Foundation of Connecticut. For the past 21 years, he has been president of the Polish American Council of New Britain Charities, Inc., the organizer of New Britain’s annual Dozynki Festival which this year celebrated its 36th anniversary. He succeeded former Mayor Lucian Pawlak, who credits Nowak with sustaining the Council and ensuring the Dozynki’s continued success.
“I give him credit for keeping it all together,” says Pawlak. “The thing about Roman is, you can always depend on him. He’s one of those guys who gives you his word, and then keeps it.”
Pawlak recalls the first time he worked with Nowak, when Nowak came to him to help the family of a Polish boy who was suffering from a horrible vascular disease. Spearheaded by the two, nearly $100,000 in medical bills were paid over a period of years.
“That was just the start. Over the years Roman has been involved in all sorts of fundraising for those in need, victims of floods – these kinds of things,” says Pawlak. “It is evident to anyone who’s ever gone to him for help that he just does not refuse. He is one of those pillars of the community that people rarely hear about, a quiet hero.”
In building his life in America, Nowak has not forgotten about his homeland. He is a driving force behind “Our Home” in his hometown of Piwniczna, Poland, a home for handicapped children to which he has donated time and thousands of dollars of his own money.
“Despite the fact that we are separated by thousands of kilometers, distance is not an issue for Mr. Nowak,” says Maria Kulig, chair of the Our Home Association for Persons with Acute Disorders and the Handicapped. “He identifies with us and cares about our local problems and has supported our efforts.
“He is a caring person with empathy and understanding for those who have been treated unkindly by fate.”
“I am proud to be from Poland, I am proud to be a United States citizen and I am proud to support my community,” says Nowak. “Life is not about how much money you make, or your car, or how big your house is. It is about helping others if you can.