Global Dialogues

Refugees in Polish Towns

The recent protests at the gated Refugees’ Camps in Poland remind us about the challenges that migration, refugees and multiculturalism bring – and about the inability, the shear clumsiness of our policies that attempt to address these challenges. Poland is not a country that has historically been the destination for refugees. We are having a hard time, though there are some signs of more promising responses.

The question of refugees hit the news October of last year, sparked by a refugee hunger strike at Guarded Centers around the country. Foreigners settled at these centers were demanding their basic rights: the right to decent living conditions, to have access to information, and to have contact with an outside world. Mostly, however, the strike revealed the injustice and cruelty of the system. These centers work, in effect, as prisons. They confine the under-aged (including young children), affecting them, especially those who have recently experienced war, in ways that are hard to imagine. They don’t have full access to education, nor contacts with their peers. Their situation excludes the opportunities for the regular development.

The news of these problems was alive for three weeks until the end of the hunger strike. However, the challenges of immigration, refugees and multiculturalism remain, in a society that has little or no experience with any of this. The challenges must be faced not only by refugees themselves, but also politicians, people working with refugees, and mainly Polish society. Polish towns are unprepared, as they are becoming increasingly multicultural.

In 2009, the information about a beating of two Chechnyan women in Lomza [in north-eastern Poland, actually close to Jedwabne, M.B.] made the news in the Polish media. A young man assaulted the women because they are Muslim and Chechnyan.  Both of them were living in Lomza. Their children attended Lomza school. They had Polish friends. Why, then, were they targets? What was their mistake?

Their first basic “mistake” was in appearing in a place (this town, but in fact Poland as a whole) in which the inhabitants were ill prepared for the emergence of a large group of foreigners, people of different language, culture, and religion. Nobody explained to the local public who the refugees were, why they had appeared specifically in Lomza, where they were coming from, and how long they would stay in town. The inhabitants were not prepared, nor were the employees of the institutions that were to take care of these Muslim refugees from Chechnya.

The Municipal Center of Social Support, the Town Department of Labor [these mainly work with unemployed – collecting information about job postings, organizing trainings etc., MB], and the public schools of Lomza – all these institutions had to work out for themselves the procedures of working with foreigners/refugees who had arrived.

At the beginning things, nonetheless, went smoothly, as the foreigners were present only in a close vicinity of the refugee center. Everybody followed the rule “they live their lives, we live ours.” But issues emerged when the foreigners began to participate in the town’s life: using public transportation, enjoying the right to get help from the Municipal Center of Social Support and the Town Department of Labor, moving to different areas of town. This triggered concern, mainly caused by a lack of knowledge. One of the opponents of the Center for Refugees in Lomza noted: “I don’t know what’s in their heads.”

The refugees began to evoke fear. Many people started associating “the Muslims” with terrorism, which is of no surprise, given that the Polish media present Muslims almost exclusively accompanied with guns or preparing for yet another attack.

These fears should have been addressed in open discussion with the population. Instead, the local MP, a Mr. Kolakowski, decided to solve “the problem” by advocating the closing the Center altogether. In his open letter to the Department of Foreigners  [part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs], Kolakowski supported his request by referring to the high rates of unemployment in town, as well as a rise of crime rates, caused by the presence of the refugees. He likely was attempting to “capitalize” on the fear of the foreigners, looking to increase voter support in upcoming elections.

A group of followers emerged, and we witnessed a true “festival” of hatred vis-à-vis Chechnyans: collecting signatures to support the liquidation of the Center, short clips in internet, comments on internet forums, anti-Chechnyan leaflets etc.

We can see how important it is to counteract the attitudes of this sort, through education about foreigners, their culture, religion and traditions. There is a real danger that if Poles don’t act towards mutual understanding, there will appear ideas and initiatives offering “simple solutions.”

Local authorities in Lomza offered a system of what I call a “seeming tolerance.” Repeated multiple times on various occasions, the term “tolerance” was in fact the keyword disguising ignorance. Both the refugees and the local community were devoid of support; no conditions were officially created to encourage encounter.

More promising have been attempts to build mutual relations through cultural projects: Caucasian Day, the Chechnyan Soiree, and the Day of the Refugee project – all organized by the “Rescue” Foundation in Lomza. In these, long time Lomza inhabitants watch movies about refugees, see the Caucasian traditional dance, try some specialties of the Chechnyan cuisine,  and most importantly, these events provide the opportunity to meet and greet, talk and exchange ideas. Thanks to these projects the Polish inhabitants of Lomza have had a chance to learn that the refugees share with them the same dreams, the same concerns.

This is the way to fight against the negative attitudes that blame the refugees for all the evil in town. It is important, however, to remember not to idealize the refugees. One should discuss any emerging issues – they cannot be silenced or ignored, with an excuse of wrongly understood “political correctness.”

It is clear that more refugees will arrive to Polish towns. By showing the true face of people who found in Poland rescue from wars, cataclysms and oppressions, we can take care not to create conflicts. We should create situations where the foreigners and Poles would be able to meet.

This post was first published in Respublica Nowa and translated for Deliberately Considered by Malgorzata Bakalarz.