Dusan Surovy (born Dušan Surový, 1949)
Dusan Surovy was born in Bratislava in 1949. He was raised by his grandmother and says that his upbringing was ‘strict.’ He attended electro-technical school in the Slovak capital and emigrated just days after graduating. In 1967, Dusan spent a couple of months working in Vienna where he stayed with a family friend. He decided to repeat this experience in the summer of 1968, and subsequently claimed political asylum in Canada following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21. Dusan says that at this time many countries were ‘really accommodating’ to the wave of Slovak and Czech refugees in Vienna
Dusan arrived in Toronto on October 4, 1968 and moved to Kitchener, Ontario, four weeks later. He learned English through an intensive, six-month course which the Canadian government organized for refugees and then took a job as an assistant electrician. In 1970, Dusan came to Chicago. He married his first wife and became an American citizen eight years later. As soon as he became a U.S. citizen, Dusan made a visit to Czechoslovakia, which he refers to as a “strange” experience.
In Chicago, Dusan established his own electrical contracting company which then expanded into property management. He says he was not initially extremely involved in the local Slovak community, but did enjoy playing soccer with other Slovaks in Berwyn. Now semi-retired, Dusan and his second wife, Ingrid (also a Slovak émigré), spend their time between Chicago and Florida. They have two children, both of whom ‘are proud’ to speak Slovak.
Dusan decided to spend a summer in Vienna in 1967
“My father was living far away and so I was raised by my grandmother and the relationship wasn’t that great, so I tried to basically – not necessarily for political reasons – get away, and Vienna was the closest city. So I was kind of contemplating going there and working there and saving some money and maybe buying a car. So, that was back in 1967.”
Was it very different in Vienna than it was in Bratislava?
“Looking at it now, I would say yes, because even to a teenage boy, buying a bottle of Coca-Cola was very rewarding. So I guess just living there and seeing all the items which are very, very normal for our kids right now was a big surprise and [I felt] admiration.”
Dusan initially settled in Canada
“I never thought about it originally, but living in Vienna for two months pretty much, from July 2 to August 21 when the occupation took place, a lot of countries opened up their borders to political refugees because then it was obviously a political situation. And all my friends all of a sudden came to Vienna, I mean almost everybody did, and they had all these ideas to go to different countries, so we just pretty much went to different embassies and tried to figure out where is going to be the most, I guess, feasible place for us, or for me, to go.
“Surprisingly, maybe you don’t know about it but, I went to the American Embassy first, but you had to commit to the draft – not at the Embassy, but once they gave you the entry paper to the United States, you would have to sign up for the draft here. I, as an 18 year old, got scared. So, the next trip was, I believe, to the Swiss Embassy, where we also obtained a visa. Pretty much all the countries, including South Africa, were really accommodating all these political refugees. For whatever reason, we went to the Canadian Embassy where they, you know, gave us the visa and they also paid for the airline ticket which we had to return the money. So that was… We decided to go to Canada. I mean, I’m talking we – me and my friends – and I believe on October 4 we landed in Toronto.”
Today, Dusan says he feels more American than Slovak
“I think that I feel a little more American because I am 62 – I spent here pretty much 42 years, and I only spent in Slovakia 18. And being exposed to the business community here, I just somehow think that we are a little bit more American. I never will forget the Slovak roots or anything, and we are proud to go back there. We still, you know, my wife is Slovak, we speak Slovak at home but somehow I think that I am a little more American.”
Dusan recalls how he learned English
“We were very fortunate, I really have to give credit to the Canadian government that, when we landed there in ’68, they pretty much almost advised us not to look and seek work. There were schools – the government, first of all, I guess it released millions and millions of dollars for all of these political refugees, and we were all sent to school, whatever you were, 18 years old or 50 years old. And the school was very intense, it was a daily school, as I said, six to seven hours a day, five days a week. And, after six months, if you felt that you need a little more education, like some people went back to the Province of Quebec, and they said they want to learn French. So, it was like a prescription, then the government just gave you another six months of schooling. And we were compensated for this, this is not [a situation where] you had to go to work. It wasn’t much money, if I remember correctly, it was maybe 40, 50 dollars a week. But keep in mind also that we paid for room and board maybe 15 bucks a week someplace where we stayed in somebody’s apartment or something – it wasn’t an apartment per se, but let’s say two, three guys stayed.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History