The Value of Heritage

Kari Konikowski Blackman’s family found its American dream; now she helps others in their search

Published in 2019 Texas Rising Stars Magazine — April 2019

As a child, Kari Konikowski Blackman’s father would instinctively drop to the ground if he heard a plane overhead. The habit stayed with him long after he debarked the SS Ernie Pyle in New York, too young at 4 to understand what “immigrant” meant, but glad to leave the ravages of war behind. Born in a German labor camp, George Jerzy Konikowski also had to leave behind a Polish homeland he didn’t even know. 

Blackman’s dad always kept Poland in his heart, however, and though his daughter’s Texas roots are a source of pride that reach far back on her mother’s side, Blackman’s identity as a first-generation American—and her career as an immigration lawyer—were influenced by her father’s story.

“It’s such a big part of who I am,” says Blackman, a senior attorney in the Houston office of immigration law firm Foster LLP. “Growing up, whenever I had to do a project, it was always Poland. Even my Halloween costumes, I had to be a Polish girl.

“[Dad] always reiterated the value of heritage and being proud of where you come from.”

The third of four brothers, Konikowski was born in 1942 to college-educated parents forced to relinquish everything they owned, then sent to a German labor camp. Not being Jewish, they didn’t face slaughter, but they endured a hard existence—even fending off the Nazis’ attempt to adopt Konikowski because he looked Aryan. Her grandfather had to work in a factory despite his background in pharmaceuticals and chemistry; her grandmother labored on a farm. 

The family lost friends and loved ones—and their sense of security. Till their deaths, they feared the Russians and even believed their phones were being bugged.

“The whole situation just gives me chills,” Blackman says. “I just can’t believe that humankind can do that.”

After World War II ended, with Krakow under Russian communist control, her grandparents received immigration visas to the U.S. Her grandmother cleaned houses; her grandfather dug graves until landing a research job at Brookhaven National Lab, which came with a security clearance that prevented him from contacting anyone in Poland. When he finally learned that one sister was still alive, he also learned his mother had passed away a month before, heartbroken because she believed he was dead. 

Eventually, he was hired by Fordham University to research nuclear medicine treatments for cancer. That led to a job at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. The boys, by then teens, embraced life in Texas. Konikowski started a business supplying hoses and fittings to oil and gas refineries. Until his death last summer, he and his brothers gathered every week at their favorite Polish restaurant to exchange tales and laughter. 

While her dad was still alive, Blackman decided to document her family history to personalize the relevance of immigration law for her colleagues at Foster, where she focuses on employment-based immigration. She notes that brilliant minds who might make important contributions—such as her grandfather’s cancer research—may now face up to 10-year waits just for green cards.

Blackman, a mother of two, also handles cases involving immigrants trying to unite their families, or gain citizenship or naturalization. She also handled a pro bono case representing a child who sought asylum from gang violence in his home country of Guatemala.

Though she supports controlled immigration, Blackman believes the system needs to change.

“There has to be a solution,” she says. “This country was built on being a promised land for people fleeing dangerous conditions, as my family well knows. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that a lot of people have been waiting in line for so long, and doing it the legal way. I think part of the answer is a special visa option for guest workers.” Another part of the solution, she says, is to increase the refugee quota. “The majority of people here just want to support their families back home,” she says. “Or it’s young people that are fleeing really disastrous and harmful gang violence.”

In honor of her grandparents and father, Blackman is seeking dual U.S.-Polish citizenship. Her first trip to Poland was a law school graduation present from her dad, who accompanied her. He was thrilled his daughter had chosen a career that would help others realize their American dreams.

“Valuing our background, remembering our humanity; those are the key things that I love about immigration law,” says Blackman. “I believe that many changes are necessary to ensure an efficient, humane and sensible process.  … We’ve got to care for our fellow humans.” 

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