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December 14, 2010 > American Stories

American Stories

By Suzanne Ortt

Do you remember this ditty from your elementary school days: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?" From that time on, all comers to this new land were immigrants. And people around the world are still coming here to find better lives.

Five people featured in this series came here came in the 20th century. Their countries of origin were Greece, Germany, Mexico, and India. Each wanted a better life and was willing to work to achieve it.

Komotini, Greece, was the locale of Nick, born there in the mid-1930s. His father had a small farm, but when Nick was 12, his father died; the family - his mother, another brother, and two sisters - continued working the farm.

Nick's schooling was sporadic due to World War II. Two years after war ended, the Greek Civil War began. The government commandeered the school that Nick attended to house refugees fleeing the Communists. All students moved to another school a mile away; walking was the common mode of transportation.

During these years, the family struggled financially. Pencils were so scarce his mother divided one into several pieces for the siblings to share.

At age 15, Nick left school and began work as an electrician's helper, earning 25 cents per day. Gradually his wages progressed to $1 per day. Seven years passed and he joined the Greek Army. Due to his profession, the army made him an electrician. Soon he became an instructor.

Once honorably discharged, Nick qualified for a journeyman license and, with on-the-job training he earned an electrical contractor license. In addition to contractor work, he added selling propane for British Petroleum. His salary increased to $500 per month, good money in the 1950s.

When the country formed a national electric company, all homes in Komotini needed wiring; jobs were plentiful. By then Nick had his own business and kept very busy.

Fate intervened; one of his sisters married a Greek national and moved to the United States. After she had her first child, she returned to Greece to visit and convinced Nick to emigrate to the U.S. He gave his business to his brother and left Greece in 1965.

Nick moved to San Francisco, attended school to learn English, and found work as an electrician, earning $3 per hour. He left his job to begin working for the Emporium Department store, at union wages.

Shift focus to Germany.

Doris was born in Hamburg, Germany, at the end of WWII. Hamburg had been leveled by bombs. Her parents moved the family to a small cabin at their weekend vegetable garden property for safety. Space was limited; the parents had a cot and the children bedded on the floor. The enterprising father scavenged materials from bombed out buildings to enlarge the cabin.

In the beginning, the house had no running water or electricity. Doris remembers the front door had a sign, "goat barn," on it. Eventually the home was expanded to accommodate the family with more modern touches.

When Doris was 19 she came to the United States to work as an au pair for a family in Massachusetts. Her goal was to learn English and return to Germany to study journalism. She hitchhiked to San Francisco in 1965 with a German friend.

Then fate intervened. Nick and Doris met. Doris says she met her "Greek god." In 1971, the two married and Doris' plans to return to journalism school in Germany just "went out of the window."

After one year, the newlyweds had settled into married life. Both worked hard and soon saved enough to buy a house in Union City. Here they had their daughter Natasha. Doris became a stay-at-home-mom; they bought a laundromat to add to their income. This was a practical move, as Nick could handle the maintenance and repairs.

In the 1980s, Nick and Doris took the oath to become United States citizens. Eventually Doris returned to fulltime employment; their daughter completed college, married and moved to Indiana where her husband is studying for his PhD. Now Doris and Nick are relaxing in the retirement years, working in their vegetable garden and traveling.

Nick stated, "When you are uprooted from your own country, you feel like you do not have a country." Citizenship restored the feeling that they both had a country again.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of three articles profiling stories of individuals who immigrated to the Bay Area from different parts of the world,

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