Archive for Thursday, June 26, 2003

A True American

Former immigrant finds success, happiness in United States

June 26, 2003

Although he's embraced America in all her glory, tears still well in the eyes of Mike Bilyk, a Basehor resident and native son of the Ukraine, when asked about his ridnyj kraj, or his home country.

"It's still tough," Bilyk said, fighting back tears. "There's not much work and people don't get much pay. It's better now, but people are still poor. They have no money and they don't have much to eat.

"I care just as much for America but also for the Ukraine because I was born there," he added.

As the Fourth of July approaches and Americans everywhere celebrate this country's birth, Bilyk, perhaps more than others, is able to appreciate freedoms sometimes taken for granted.

Freedoms and privileges are not afforded to everyone in the world, he said.

The odyssey that brought Bilyk to the United States is merged with tales of grief, slavery, hardship and at times, romanticism and joy.

He never envisioned becoming an American -- as a Ukranian teen-ager he was studying to become back, perhaps his citizenship was fate, he said.

His pilgrimage began when Hitler's Nazi army occupied the Ukraine, and Bilyk, then 18 years old, was sent to work as slave labor in the farm fields of a village 75 miles northwest of Stuttgart, Germany.

Labor was in short supply ,and the Germans were taking as many able-bodied men as they could find, Bilyk said.

"We worked all the time," he said. "Seven days a week, 16 hours a day with no pay. They needed men because everyone was in the army. Life was tough. I guess we had it a little better being on the farm because we always had something to eat.

"People in the factories had it rough, they didn't have anything to eat," he added.

But, as the common thread that binds his life, Bilyk overcame the hardship: he would find his future wife in those German farm fields and later, his American liberators.

The courtship of his future wife, Hildegard Schmitt, the daughter of a nearby German farmer, was one of secrecy.

"You couldn't date a German girl," Bilyk said. "If you dated a German girl, you got hung."

Later, in 1945, American forces battled back Hitler's Army and took control of Germany. Bilyk was free and a year later, he and Hildegard wed.

Grateful to his Yankee liberators, Bilyk more or less joined the American army. Although foreigners were prohibited from becoming soldiers, Bilyk served as kitchen help for the red, white and blue.

"Those three months were the best of my life," he said. "I couldn't become a soldier, but I had a uniform just like a soldier."

His loyalty to the Americans ran deep enough that Bilyk tried to leave with the Army, which was heading to fight the Japanese. Prohibited from joining the soldiers, Bilyk remained behind in a refugee camp, where displaced persons celebrated America's Fourth of July by singing "The Star Spangled Banner."

His bond with America forged, Bilyk and his wife set sail for the United States and arrived in Kansas City, Kan., in 1951. Knowing very little English, the Bilyks quickly acclimated themselves with the new country.

Bilyk found work as a bricklayer and later became an unofficial foreman.

"A lot of guys said 'we don't want that foreigner as our foreman," he said. "I wasn't the foreman, but I got foreman's wages."

Four years later, in rags to riches fashion, Bilyk began his own company, Bilyk Construction, which he owned and operated for 40 years.

"And a lot of those same guys came to work for me," he said.

He and his wife have three children; two children share a birthday with Abraham Lincoln, and a third child was born on the anniversary of the Bilyks arrival in the United States.

After retiring from the construction business, Bilyk became a building codes administrator for the city of Basehor and now, at 79, Bilyk is a greeter at Wal-Mart in Bonner Springs.

Only in America could a non-English speaking immigrant enjoy the success Bilyk has, he said.

His tale, an immigrant making good, is more blind luck than fate, he says modestly, and although he's embraced this country, he still bleeds for his fellow Ukranians.

The Ukraine, liberated from the control of the Soviet Union in 1991, still has many problems, many of which stem from a downtrodden economy. Bilyk tries to help people back home as much as possible.

He still exhibits hero, or patriotism to his native land, and is quick to scorn worrohs, or enemies of his people.

Previously, relatives sent homemade crafts to Bilyk, and he would sell them and send the money back home. The venture provided much needed income for family members in the Ukraine, he said.

Next month, Bilyk will sponsor a Ukranian woman's immigration to the United States. The woman works three jobs in the Ukraine -- chemical engineer, professor and librarian -- and makes $70 a week.

She's looking for a better life in this country, and Bilyk is happy to help her find the same happiness and prosperity he has in America.

"This country has been great to me," he said. "I appreciate it very much. There's no better place in the world."

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