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Becoming US citizen hard, but fun work for Polish native
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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Jerry and Agnieszka Bergheger , owners of O'Melia's restaurant, Rock Island, stand in their dining room on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. Agnieszka is a native of Kozuchow, Poland.
For the shortest of moments, there is a break.

Sitting in the middle booth of the bar area of O'Melia's Steak House, the upscale restaurant she owns with her husband, Jerry, Agnieszka Bergheger is throwing gas on a business-related fire.

"I want hardwood and Jerry wants new carpet,'' she said with a smile and a giggle. "It's been quite a debate.''

Rock Island's Agnieszka Bergheger is a wife, mother of two, restaurant hostess, janitor (she wants her restaurant to sparkle at all times) and business partner. As of last November, she added American citizen to the resume.

"The citizenship test was hard; the book very thick, but I am proud to be a citizen,'' The Kozuchow, Poland, native said. "It has been a long journey from that first day when I met Jerry until now. It has been fun, but it has been hard as well. It takes work to be a citizen.''

In late September of 2001, Jerry Bergheger -- a world-class chef -- was training with the great "Valentino'' at his Milan, Italy, eatery. Jerry had taken a six-month leave from his post in New York to get experience in Italy.

Agnieszka was on holiday with friends from Poland when the two met. The chemistry was instant. The chef and the pretty blond hairdresser became an item.

"Sadly, New York was not going to be New York for a few months, which opened the door for me to stay in Italy,'' Jerry said. "I was working as a chef in New York, went to Italy and then Sept. 11 happened. I wasn't going to have a restaurant to go back to for quite some time. My good fortune was that I had just met an amazing girl and had a chance to get to know her.''

The relationship blossomed over the next several months, and the two married in June of 2002 in the Quad-Cities. After the wedding, they went back to New York, where he worked as a chef and she worked as a hairdresser.

Though there was excitement that came with being married and living in a new country's largest city, the experience was not easy for Agnieszka.

"I came to this country knowing only a little English,'' she said. "And I am in New York, a city that does not slow down for anyone. I took a class to learn how to speak the language and Jerry helped, but it was tough, especially when I was working. It wasn't how I saw the American Dream.''

Despite early trials and tribulations, Agnieszka did not back down. She worked on her English and established a solid client base with her work. When their daughter was born, she scaled back at work and concentrated on her.

"I hated the subway with the children,'' she said. "Such a big city. No place for a stroller. But we got through it. America was growing on me.''

When The Abbey Hotel contacted Jerry about its executive chef opening in the Quad-Cities, the Berghegers moved to Rock Island. In addition to his duties at the Abbey, Jerry opened Atlante Trattoria, a sandwich bistro in Rock Island.

Angieszka saw it as a chance to set down roots for her children (their son was born here), assist with the restaurant and take a step toward becoming a citizen.

"Coming here to the Quad-Cities allowed me a chance to work on becoming a citizen,'' she said. "Our children are in good schools and this is a great community. Good for all of us in many ways. Not as exciting as New York, but that's OK. Now we have a new place (O'Melia's) which is a lot more work, but it is fun work. We are lucky to have lots of good fortune.''

Proud to be an American, Agnieszka stays close to her Polish roots, often speaking to her children in her native tongue. She longs for them to visit Poland and welcomes relatives from the old country to America.

"I want my children to know where I came from,'' she said. "They get English and they get Polish. They get American from Jerry and Polish lessons from me. It's a good combination. It helps to have a second language to fall back on. I try to take them to Poland every three years. They need to know customs of both countries.''

Though she is looking for a nice balance to both cultures, Agnieszka says the best place for her kids to have that opportunity is on Main Street, U.S.A.

"It's been good for me and it will be great for them,'' she said. "There is so much to be thankful for.''

Poland
-- Location:Central Europe, east of Germany.

-- Population:38,415,284 (July 2012 estimate). No. 33 in the world.

-- Languages:Polish (official), 97.8 percent; other and unspecified, 2.2 percent (2002 census).

Source: CIA World Factbook.


Local events heading








  Today is Friday, April 18, the 108th day of 2014. There are 257 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: A new steamer, Keithsburg, now is at our levee taking on board the balance of her fixtures preparatory to assuming her position on the daily Rock Island and Keokuk line.
1889 -- 125 years ago: C.W. Hawes was appointed deputy county clerk by county clerk Donaldson.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Mrs. O.E. child, of Moline, was named president of the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church Rock Island District of the Central Illinois conference.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Augustana College is making plans for a drive for funds to erect a field house and make football field improvements.
1964 -- 50 years ago: A expanded election coverage system featuring a 16-foot chalkboard showing up to the minute running totals, attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd to The Argus newsroom last night.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Balloons frame Rock Island attorney Stewart Winstein who was given a surprise party in the rotunda of the Rock Island County Courthouse on Thursday to honor his 50th year of practicing law.




(More History)