Keesler nurse escaped Communist-ruled Poland

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By Steve Pivnick
81st Medical Group Public Affairs 

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. - Maj. Alina Khalife truly cherishes being an American. She has first-hand experience of the alternative. 

Major Khalife, commander of the 81st Inpatient Operations Squadron Surgical Inpatient Flight and a native of Poland, spent more than two decades in Communist-ruled Poland before she was able to escape the then-oppressive and paranoid nation to freedom in the West, and ultimately to the United States. 

The major, from a small town not far from Warsaw, had completed college, majoring in both biology and chemistry, and decided to become a teacher. 

"I finished college in 1969 and taught until 1977," she recounted. "That's when I got into trouble, teaching history. After about eight years of teaching biology and chemistry, I substituted as a history teacher. A student asked me about an event that happened shortly after World War II had ended." 

To put what transpired into perspective, Major Khalife explained that not long after the Soviets took control of Poland, Russian soldiers went to the town of Katyn and removed most of the educated Polish military officers - about 300. That was the last anyone saw of them until a mass grave was discovered years later. The Polish soldiers had been executed. 

She said one day a student asked her about Katyn. She took him aside and told him the truth about the event. Apparently, another student overheard her. (While neither Major Khalife nor her family were members of the Communist Party, many of her students and school staff were Party members. She is certain one of them must have reported her to officials.) 

"The next day when I arrived at school, a government investigator was there. He gave me a piece of paper telling me to report to the police station. I went and was interrogated for almost eight hours. They wanted to know how I knew about Katyn. I told them I had read about it in a book. They asked who I got it from and I lied because my brother had provided it to me. From that time, I could not do anything without being scrutinized." 

The major continued, "I began to think about what I could do with the rest of my life. The Polish people had to stand in line to buy necessities, such as meat, bread and sugar. Meanwhile, everything was going to the Soviet Union. I developed a hatred for them. I was still very young at the time and very outspoken; I said what I thought. The school director, who was a Communist Party member, encouraged me to join the Party. I told him I did not feel I needed to do that to teach." 

Shortly afterwards, Major Khalife met the man she would soon marry, "Michel" (who is Lebanese), she said. "Not long afterwards, he went to Austria to live. I applied for a visa to go to Rome and visit the Vatican as part of a group. We married in Vienna in 1979. I stayed there two months and then I returned to Poland while my husband stayed in Austria. 

And that's when the problems really began. Now married to a foreigner, she came under increased scrutiny. 

"Time and time again the government refused to give me permission to leave Poland and join my husband in Austria. The government also refused to give my husband a visa to come to Poland." 

After a week, she was asked to report to the police station and was queried about where she went and who she spoke to. She had had her first child, daughter Ewa (Eva). She continued working as a teacher while her husband was living in Austria. 

"I tried to figure out how to leave Poland. I couldn't get a visa. Finally, I went to a friend who had been a teacher but was now working at the police station. I asked him for help in getting visas and passports for Ewa and me. I knew if I left without her, I'd never be able to bring her out later. He told me I'd need money to get my daughter a visa so I gave him my engagement ring (which had cost the equivalent to a year's salary). The next day I went back. He asked me to promise him my daughter and I both would return to Poland. Of course I told him we would." 

She couldn't bring herself to tell her parents about her plans to leave the country and not return, which posed a problem, since Ewa was with them. Major Khalife did tell her brother, though, and asked him to bring Ewa to the airport. 

At the airport, there were no problems when officials reviewed the major's visa. However, they told her Ewa's name was not in the system. She explained she had a valid passport and had obtained a visa for the child. Ultimately, they let them leave.
"It seemed like the longest time, although it really wasn't. I was terrified that at the last minute someone would come up and stop us from leaving." 

Fortunately, the major and her daughter were able to fly out without further delays and joined her husband in Vienna. Michel arranged for a lawyer to accompany them to a local police station where Major Khalife requested political asylum, which was granted in June 1980. 

"It was based on the fact that Poland was a Communist country, which prevented me from teaching freely and provide factual information to my students." 

Although now in a free country, the major discovered life was not what she envisioned. 

"We wound up in a refugee camp. It wasn't a bad place. There was nice housing and everything was provided. There were many people there from Poland. It was a temporary situation; we stayed there for about a year."
In the meantime, Major Khalife learned that after they had left Poland the police visited her parents and brother's homes "almost daily" trying to obtain her address. Her Austrian lawyer advised her not to contact anyone back in Poland. The Polish government apparently did not look favorably on their citizens "defecting" and took some drastic steps to "encourage" them to return. 

Major Khalife recounted a story of a Polish family living outside the refugee camp. They had two children. 

"Their 5-year-old little boy was kidnapped by the Communists and taken to Poland. The parents were forced to return there as a result." 

Fearing something similar could happen to her and her daughter, they went to Austrian government officials and asked if they could leave the country. They were told they could and were given the option to emigrate to either Australia, Canada or the U.S. 

"Growing up, I had watched movies about America," the major said. "I loved the U.S."
They obtained a visa through an organization that assisted emigrants and in December 1982 arrived in New York City. The organization told them they were going to Buffalo, N.Y. After three nights in New York they moved to the northern New York location where they were settled into a small apartment in a Polish-German community. 

"Although we didn't know anyone and I was sad that I wouldn't be able to see my family in Poland until I had my U.S. citizenship, I felt this was a dream come true. I truly believe you can do anything in the U.S." 

Major Khalife became a citizen in June 1987 but still was uneasy about visiting Poland. Even though the country had undergone significant political changes, she still had concerns about returning there. However, in May 1988, she renounced her Polish citizenship and later that year finally returned to visit her family. 

"As soon as we arrived, we went to the U.S. embassy - as we had been advised before leaving - to tell them we were visiting my parents and exactly where we would be. Embassy officials gave me a telephone number there to call if I needed help. But, fortunately, everything went fine for me, my husband and daughter during the visit." 

Although fluent in Polish, Italian and German, Major Khalife spoke no English when she arrived in the U.S. She said she learned English from her daughter, who was in first grade, as well as by watching television. 

After working in a day care center and then as a substitute teacher, the major decided to attend nursing school; she graduated cum laude from the State University of New York at Buffalo. About nine months after she began work at a Buffalo hospital, military recruiters visited the facility. She joined a number of friends who decided to join the military and entered the Air Force in 1989. 

"I wanted to give something back to this country; it had given me and my family such a wonderful opportunity," she explained. 

She began her Air Force career at Lackland AFB's Wilford Hall Medical Center, followed by assignments to Wiesbaden and Bitburg Air Bases in Germany, Tinker AFB Okla., Pope AFB, N.C., Andrews AFB, Md., and finally NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany, before coming to Keesler AFB in November 2007. 

A strong advocate for education, Major Khalife encouraged her daughters to be well educated and to be multi-lingual. She also urges the young Airmen and nurses she supervises to continue their studies. 

"I'm so grateful to this country for the opportunities it has provided. I truly believe I'm repaying it every single day!" 

She and husband Michel reside in Ocean Springs. Ewa, now 32, is in San Antonio working for USAA and younger daughter Caroline, 25, is an Air Force staff sergeant-select working as diagnostic imaging Phase II instructor at Travis AFB, Calif.