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Discovering a family of refugees

Posted on March 6, 2016 at 6:25 pm

By Nicole Rauner

Most of my ancestors were refugees in the U.S., having fled their home countries to avoid war in search of peace and to avoid persecution in search of religious freedoms.

My maternal ancestors, Joseph Condon and Bridget Mochan, fled Ireland before the “Irish Potato Famine” of 1845 and for fear of religious persecution.  Catholics weren’t allowed to openly practice their faith at the time, and Catholic children were even prevented from going to school. Some teachers would secretly educate children out in the fields. The penal laws in Ireland gave the British the right to take land away from those who didn’t become Protestants. To escape, my family members came to the U.S. on what was called a “coffin ship” because so many passengers died en route.

Photo by Beth Hedley

Nicole Rauner learns about her extensive refugee family history. Photo by Beth Hedley

“The whole reason they came over was because of their faith and that faith has remained strong throughout the generations,” said Deb Rauner, my mom. “All my siblings attended Catholic schools.”

Condon and Mochan went through Canada before coming to the U.S. because it was less expensive to immigrate to Canada. Like refugees today, the U.S. isn’t always the first destination when fleeing home.

My other maternal ancestor, Andrew Urbanski, who would become my great-great-grandfather, was born in Germany but came from Poland. He emigrated from Poland to France, then fled to the U.S. to avoid his family joining the German army, which fought over the Alsace-Lorraine area now officially part of France. He landed at a port on the East Coast before settling in Chicago, Illinois.

“My mother talked about growing up in the Polish section of town, and that was common to have neighborhoods based on your nationality,” Deb said.

 Diversity over comfort

But that didn’t stop Wanda Urbanski, my great grandmother, from teaching her kids about diversity.

“My grandmother sent my mom and my uncle to a Catholic school, but in another neighborhood out of the Polish community,” my mom said. “Then, she sent both of them to high school at boarding schools so they would have the opportunity to be with people of different backgrounds.”

This became a tradition that my mom followed by sending me and my brother to public schools in hopes of expanding our horizons by being around people of differing faiths and backgrounds. It also led me to be culturally curious about the world and to develop a true wanderlust that’s led me to be called “the world traveler” of my family.

First-hand history

My paternal ancestor, Francois Rauner, emigrated from France to avoid being drafted during the Franco-Prussian War, which was the first modern war in Europe. His wife-to-be, Elizabeth Pretzl, was from Austria and came to Nebraska, where she and Francois would start a family farm to last multiple generations.

Thomas Rauner, my dad, grew up at the same farmhouse that his immigrant relatives originally bought.  The fact that he was immersed in his own history from such a young age convinced him later in life to track down our family’s heritage. He took our family on a trip to visit Marmoutier, France, where his ancestors originated. The trip led us to Eastern France, right near the border of Germany, and gave us a glimpse into the past. I was astonished to see that the small French town looked much like tiny Gilead, Nebraska, where my relatives settled.

My family endured religious scrutiny and multiple wars but ultimately fought their way to freedom. It was never an easy journey but was a necessary step toward liberty. I come from a family of fighters, dreamers and travelers. I come from a family of refugees.


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