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Integration starts at home

“We, the female and male inhabitants of Gdańsk, call with an urgent request …” begins an appeal to the City Council of Gdańsk to resettle families and orphaned children from the city of Aleppo in Syria. “Idly watching the fate of these people is unbearable and inhumane. Fortunately, we have an independent, local government of the free and proud city of Gdańsk. We are counting on you.”

June 20, 2017 - Anna Fedas - Articles and Commentary

The launch of the Immigrants council Gdańsk 19.09.2016 fot. Katarzyna Granacka ECS Archive

“Increasing migratory flows are a fact. So far, Poland has hardly faced any problems concerning the integration of immigrants. It is likely, though, that in the near future local governments will need to address the challenges connected with the influx of people from different parts of the world who speak different languages, have different values, and possibly worship a different God.” This is how the document introducing the Immigrant Integration Model for the city of Gdańsk begins. It is the first cross-sectoral interdisciplinary task force which was elaborated in Gdańsk in May 2015 and officially accepted by the City Council in June 2016.

Grassroots approach

The fact that the Polish government has refused to take part in the refugee resettlement programme, and to open a humanitarian corridor for Aleppo, does not mean that all Polish cities and all citizens share this attitude. Two grassroots initiatives from the Tri-city area of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot show that there is an alternative to Poland’s anti-immigrant discourse. The first is characterised by the changes in the system as represented by the Immigrant Integration Model (IIM). The second is the initiative taken up by the inhabitants of the Tri-city, together with local immigrants and refugees.

The dominant discourse on the recent rapid influx of migrants into the EU, known as the refugee crisis, in Poland does not help to understand the actual situation of migrants and refugees in the country. In fact, foreigners have been living in Poland for many years, although mostly in big cities. According to the Office for Foreigners in Gdańsk, on January 1st 2016, there were 211,869 foreigners (82 with refugee status, including 21 Syrians) registered in Poland, a country with a population of 40 million. Most of the registered migrants (65,866 in total) are from Ukraine. At the beginning of 2016 there were 9,134 foreigners registered in Gdańsk alone (including 2,693 from Ukraine) and the numbers nearly double when we also take into account foreign students (over 2,000), Polish visa holders (1,000), and those with refugee status (up to 15).

“We have over 20 visitors and about 40 phone calls a day asking for assistance with documents needed for temporary/permanent residence permits as well as procedures on how to set up a business in Poland,” explains Yulia Szavlovkaya from the Immigrants Support Centre (Centrum Wsparcia Imigrantów i Imigrantek w Trójmieście), an NGO providing assistance to migrants in the Tri-city area. They support the newcomers in various ways: show how to apply for temporary residence and work permit using the electronic system, what documents companies should prepare to employ non-EU citizens, what to do when an employer does not pay wages, and who to refer to in case of discrimination.

The latter in particular has been a growing problem. The number of reported hate crime incidents and the level of hate speech have been on the uptick. According to police statistics the number of proceedings initiated for hate crime incidents against people of different race, ethnicity or religion has increased from 678 in 2014 to 954 in 2015. The most common victims are Jews (154 cases), Muslims (140 cases) and Roma (123 cases).

The spirit of solidarity

Gdańsk is known worldwide for the role it has played in history: the place where the Second World War broke out and the birthplace of Poland’s Solidarity movement. Are these new immigrant initiatives evidence that the spirit of solidarity lives on today? Do historical references help the inhabitants of Gdańsk maintain this spirit? Or maybe it is due to the size of the city and the number of NGOs which enable a relatively greater success of such projects than in other cities like Warsaw? Zygmunt Bauman, the famous sociologist who passed away in January this year, understood solidarity as one of the three foundations of society, together with trust and responsibility. According to Bauman’s diagnosis, published in Gazeta Wyborcza in April 2012, Polish society still lacks these three values. Without these foundations, Poles will never find peace as a society.

“Following the current situation in Poland, one may ask, ‘What happened with Polish solidarity?’” says Basil Kerski, the director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk. “Is it because most Poles have never deeply understood Christian values, which seem to be the basis of their identity? Or maybe the reason is that the Polish elite have not matured enough to face the challenges of today’s world? Most have matured enough to lead the transition process, but seemed to have failed when they had to face the current issues and show solidarity with the countries of Western and Southern Europe. The encouraging news is that civil activists may be ahead of the elite and that is why grassroots initiatives are to become role models for innovative policy.” he concludes.

However, among professional politicians there are also people who have the courage to work on less popular topics. When it comes to immigration policy, Paweł Adamowicz, the Gdańsk city Mayor, has emerged as one of the brave voices. But the local government is not the only one helping out. In 2016, after reading an article about a refugee camps for children in Italy, Zosia – an artist, trainer, university lecturer, mother of four children and president of the Educational Foundation ODiTK – decided to do something to help the children in need. She assumed that while Poles might be afraid of refugees, they cannot be afraid of children. “My family democratically decided to invite a refugee orphan or orphan siblings from Syria” Zosia said. She did some research among her friends and created a Facebook group dedicated to refugee child adoption and foster care called “Refugee children – adoption/creating foster families” (pol. Dzieci uchodźcze – adopcja/tworzenie dla nich rodzin zastępczych). With the help of Zosia’s friend, Katarzyna Kifner, a representative of a large company to financial institutions, the group was soon joined by enthusiasts who support the initiative, including migrants, trauma experts who work with children in camps in Berlin and the Middle East, lawyers, psychologists, non-governmental organisations, and many others.

Although there are still no international rules regulating the scope and form of adoption and foster care for refugee children – orphans and unaccompanied minors, victims of war – there is a hope that such provisions will soon be in place. The EU has recently announced an international competition to create a model of support for unaccompanied immigrant minors. Zosia and Katarzyna do not lose hope and enthusiasm. They are seeking aid from other European organisations which might join or support their efforts to help children and victims of war. Zosia dreams of a scholarship system and Katarzyna has begun to learn Arabic and is planning to join a volunteer team helping children in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios during her holiday break this year. Meanwhile, both Katarzyna and Zosia are organising, together with a local informal group of enthusiasts, several events including concerts, “Gdańsk Aleppo Fair”, Valentines Day “Heart for Syria”, workshops etc. to collect money for the residents of Aleppo and to raise awareness of the situation on the ground among Gdansk citizens. Through such actions they also want to organise a better support for Syrian migrants already living in Poland.

Policy framework

Yet, this is not the only charity initiative in the Tri-city area. After the midnight mass on the Christmas night in St. John’s Cathedral in Gdańsk, nearly 2,000 euros were collected and transferred to the Polish Humanitarian Action. Caritas Gdańsk has also gathered money during the Epiphany. On December 26th a Polish woman living in Berlin organised a march in solidarity with Aleppo, which was joined by volunteers from all over Europe. They aim to march into the war-torn city.

The grassroots charity and humanitarian initiatives, however, do not relieve us of the obligation to help immigrants and refugees already living in our communities. “I appreciate the charity work but I also see the need to work at the local policy level. The lack of procedures and integration law in Poland is not only an issue for immigrants and refugees,” says Marta Siciarek from the local Immigrants Support Centre. “No matter what politicians say at the central level, there is also the local level where we all have been suffering from the lack of procedures and integration law. That is why we had such a motivation to develop the model,” she added.

Lilyana Dulinova, a Ukrainian student of Chinese at the University of Gdańsk, quickly became the co-creator of the model. “I was lobbying for an information and support programme for foreign students,” Dulinova explains. “Personally, I lost a lot of nerve having to deal with all the procedures, including gaps in the health care system for foreign students. I hope that those who come in the future won’t have to deal with such issues anymore,” she continued.

At the same time, the lack of procedures is not only a matter of the higher education system. “In schools in Gdańsk there are more than 200 foreign children. One may think that the schools and teachers have been already prepared to host a child with a migrant background,” explains Nina Markiewicz-Sobieraj, the headmaster at primary school number 16 in Gdańsk, who is also responsible for the educational part of the city’s model. “But the truth is that at the beginning we had no time to prepare our teachers and other pupils. The lack of Polish language competency, culturally motivated misunderstandings with parents, special menu for students who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, teachers without intercultural competences, a lack of Polish personal identity numbers (which are needed for exams), all these challenges were arriving with the children,” Markiewicz-Sobieraj explained. “Our goal was to provide for the children’s welfare and their integration (not assimilation), and eventually my teachers and I became role models for other schools in Gdańsk,” she added.

“There should be extra lessons during which new kids could integrate with the class,” says a ten year-old Nazar who moved from Ukraine to Gdańsk two years ago. “I came from another country, other kids knew almost nothing about it. I also couldn’t answer to all of the questions because of the language.” Nazar now speaks fluent Polish and attends the fourth grade of one of the public primary schools in Gdańsk. He has got a lot of friends, good grades and attends football classes. “Nazar is a very talkative and sociable child. Thanks to that, he has integrated very quickly but not every child is able to fit in so smoothly,” the child’s mother, Natasha Kovalyshyna, explained. “That’s why the school system should be prepared for every type of child’s disposition and temperament,” she added.

Places and main actors of integration

Schools are not the only places where integration can take place. Cultural institutions and organisations can also take on this role. “Everyone knows that culture is one of the best tools for integration. It is a space for dialogue and understanding,” says Patrycja Medowska, the deputy director of the European Solidarity Centre and the leader of the cultural part of the model. “If it is so obvious, why so few institutions offer programmed facilitating real integration between immigrants and the host society? And why so few institutions of culture ask themselves if their offer is available for immigrants (not just because of economic reasons) and if their staff have the proper skills to start a dialogue with immigrants. One of our proposals in the model is to encourage many cultural organisations to work towards the integration of Poles and foreigners – without stigmatisation, and one-sided and superficial presentation of each culture. It is not easy, but there are a lot of ideas on how this can be implemented,” Medowska explained.

Moreover, immigrants themselves can be the main actors of the integration process. A newly launched Council of Immigrants in Gdańsk helps newcomers to influence the process and become agents of change. “I would like the immigrants to finally feel represented by the Council: by us, who are people like them,” says one of the Chairmen of the Immigrants Council, Karol Liliana Lopez, who came to Gdańsk from Colombia. “My personal ambition is to encourage immigrant women to participate in the public life. I would like them to realise that beyond the legalisation of their residence and the incorporation into the labour market, we – the women of Gdansk – can be free, strong, innovative, capable, resilient and we can continue with our social and personal development,” Lopez said.

“I engaged with the city of Gdansk in 2015 when they started the process of writing the immigrant integration model and I was happy to help them benefit from the experience of the Eurocities network on this topic,” says Thomas Jezequel, a policy advisor on social inclusion from the Eurocities Network in Brussels. “The work accomplished since has been tremendous and should be an example for all cities in Central and Eastern Europe willing to improve the way they deal with migration and diversity. In a hostile context, marked by increasingly populist and xenophobic attitudes, the role of cities like Gdańsk is fundamental to defend the values of European solidarity, openness and inclusiveness.”

Can we treat Gdańsk’s initiatives fostering the integration of immigrants and refugees as a new form of the solidarity spirit from the 1980s? Will this spirit set Polish society free in line with Bauman’s conception of three values? The “new solidarity” has the potential to help Central and Eastern Europe, and maybe the whole Europe, to embrace diversity and inclusion of the “other”. For both integration and solidarity begin at home.

Anna Fedas is a senior specialist on civic education at the European Solidarity Centre based in Gdańsk. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Wrocław University.

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