Last month, 16-year-old Lithuanian exchange student Goda Karinauskaite arrived in Denver, Colorado, to attend American high school alongside a 16-year-old American girl, Joy Johnson. Despite their Colorado home, Joy and her older brothers Jake, Luke, and Jack have a strong connection to “Lithuanians in Springfield.” That’s because the Johnson kids are directly descended from immigrants Walter and Stephanie Abramikas, who found lifelong refuge in Springfield after fleeing the World War II Soviet invasion of Lithuania.
Host mother Lisa (Abad) Johnson is the granddaughter of war refugees Walter and Stephanie. Lisa’s own mother, Violeta, was born in Lithuania before Walter and Stephanie fled. A forester in Lithuania, Walter ended up working at construction machinery factory Allis Chalmers (with my own father, Vince). To bring in extra money, Walter also dug graves at night at Oak Ridge and Calvary cemeteries here.
A Family Comes Full Circle
The Abramikas immigrant family attended Springfield’s St. Vincent de Paul (Lithuanian) Catholic Church, where daughter Violeta sang in the choir. Their other daughter Regina served our Springfield Lithuanian-American Club in several officer positions. Both Abramikas daughters made sure their own sons and daughters, including Lisa, attended Lithuanian youth summer Camp Dainava in Manchester, Mich., to stay connected with their heritage. Lisa’s children have attended Dainava, as well.
And now with the arrival of an exchange student from Lithuania, this fourth-generation Lithuanian-American family comes full circle from their Lithuanian immigrant / refugee roots.
The family met young Goda at the Denver airport at the end of her exhausting, three-day trek through Vilnius, Lithuania; Frankfurt, Germany; and Washington, D.C. A member of the Future Leaders Exchange Program or FLEX, Goda is a U.S. State Department scholarship winner from the Šiauliai area. Her junior and senior years in high school will include an international baccalaureate program that promotes cross-cultural understanding.
Seeing the Rockies for the First Time
According to host mother Lisa, Goda’s first days in Denver were a kind of “Rocky Mountain high.” The Johnsons took her by car to Vail, then to Ft. Collins. “We drove all along the foothills, with the plains to the east and the mountains soaring in the west. Goda said she never saw anything so beautiful in her life.”
Clothes shopping, a haircut, and a health check-up to qualify for her new high school’s cross-country team also were part of Goda’s first weeks with the Johnsons.
“Her English is very strong…she’s very well-spoken,” Lisa reports. “One of her history assignments is to ask her host parents how our families all came to the U.S.” Then, in the true spirit of exchange, Lisa said, “Goda also shared some things about her family. Both of her parents live and work in England. Goda lived with her grandparents until five years ago, and now she lives with an aunt and uncle.”
A Common History of Emigration
Such family separations are characteristic of Lithuania’s third massive out-migration in 100 years. Unlike the “second wave” driven by World War II and the Soviet conquest of Lithuania, the current, so-called “third wave” of emigration is driven by economics. And it is similar in size to the “first-wave” migration from 1880 to 1920, from which most Lithuanian-Americans today descend.
Since the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1991 and then EU membership in 2004, 500,000 Lithuanians (out of a population of just 3 million) have emigrated to EU countries with more jobs and higher pay. “Goda sees many of the young people of Lithuania who have college degrees leaving their country and going to live in other countries where they don’t use their education, but instead get jobs as Uber drivers,” Lisa says. “She thinks it’s sad they’re not using their degrees.” (Lithuanians are not alone in this out-migration from weaker to stronger EU economies.)
Host mother Lisa is pleased that all the Johnson children quickly showed a strong interest in learning about Goda and her country. Cross-cultural learning is the big-picture reason why Lisa and her husband Jim, who manages Wells Fargo Advisors’ Rocky Mountain Complex, chose to host.
“First, by our enabling Goda to have this exchange experience, we can change her world, our perspective, and the people in our community she reaches out to,” Lisa explained. “Second, I want to learn how my life would have differed had my grandparents not had the courage to flee Lithuania at the end of World War II. We can learn this by listening to Goda’s stories of her family’s life and experiences.
“Lastly,” Lisa said, “we want to share with Goda how leaving their country, for our relatives who fled, was a difficult choice to make, and that life in America was not as easy as it may have appeared.”
Making Memories for a Lifetime
Goda’s State Department exchange program requires her to return to Lithuania for at least two years after her year at an American high school to share her U.S. experiences with people back home. “Ultimately,” Lisa said, “with the kids it chooses to bring to the U.S., the hope is that they will one day be in leadership positions where their American insights and experiences will be a positive influence, and they can share with their entire country what they have learned here.”
As for the Johnson family, Lisa said, “One of the most important things we hope we can impart is that we are all normal people just like her—that we have our daily struggles, just like her.” On the fun side, the Johnsons plan to take Goda to the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo and drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park to “sled” down the sand dunes. On their return trip, they will “swing by” the Royal Gorge near Canon City to walk across a mile-high bridge that connects two mountains over the Arkansas River.
Editor’s Note: Goda’s exchange student scholarship is being managed by U.S. State Department contractor American Councils for International Education. Two summers ago, after American Councils’ representative in Troy, Ill., James Kerr, asked for my help in placing two Lithuanian students, I reached out to what seemed like hundreds of people. One of those people was my old family friend Violeta (Abramikas) Abad, who contacted her daughter Lisa (Abad) Johnson in Denver. I am so excited that my outreach has borne fruit! Though Lithuanians are spread far and wide, it turns out to be a small world when we remember and keep up our contacts.