Integration comes later. An immigrant in Gdańsk
Interview with Yuliya Shavlovskaya from the Gdańsk Support Center for Immigrants. Interviewer: Paulina Siegień
PAULINA SIEGIEŃ: What made you leave Belarus for Poland?
YULIYA SHAVLOVSKAYA: Actually, not for Poland. That was really my second emigration. The first was in 2010, when there were large protests after the presidential elections. Those elections were freer, inspiring hope for change among many Belarusians. But this didn’t work out. Even before the results were announced, most candidates were in prison. At the time we decided to go to Ukraine with the family. It seemed to us that Ukraine had chosen a different path. A democratic and European direction with better chances of succeeding.
What did you do in Ukraine?
I finished my studies and managed a small restaurant serving Belarusian food. It was like a Belarusian centre in Kyiv. We would organise meetings, support Belarusians that arrived to Ukraine. We would also teach Belarusian and keep a library. It was integration through the kitchen. Additionally, we ran support campaigns for political prisoners. That is when the Maidan started, the situation became very uncertain and I was forced to leave. My activity probably caught someone’s attention, as I suddenly felt endangered, receiving threats with my car set on fire. That is when I left for Poland hoping I could wait through this difficult time and return. My sister, who studied here in in Gdańsk at the Academy of Fine Arts as a part of the Kalinowski scholarship program, invited me here so I could find some rest.
Do you remember the trip?
I came to Warsaw by bus. I spent a few days among my friends from the Belarusian House. After that I hopped onto a train and went to Gdańsk. I lived here for two months alone in my sister’s apartment. I didn’t talk to anyone, the weather was beautiful, it was a different world to me. Over there, in Ukraine, there was war and revolution. Here it was quiet, peace, sun, sea, families with kids, waffles (laughs). It was like being revitalised after what I had been through. Back then, I still wasn’t sure if I was going to stay. The Maidan was filled with hope and some of my friends got into the Ukrainian parliament. There were great expectations of change. But soon Ukraine was engulfed in war and an economic crisis. I also had a legal reason to leave as there is no such thing as a residency card in Ukraine.
So this is the second time you are coming to Gdańsk. This time it is serious. What are the first steps of a migrant from the East here on site?
I believe this is a very common story. First you look for any kind of work. One job, two jobs. You want to stay afloat. After I got that sorted, I went to the Support Center for Immigrants for a Polish language course. I found this course on the internet. Google is the greatest friend an immigrant has.
Today you work in the Support Center for Immigrants yourself.
Yes, after a while they proposed I could be a volunteer. During that whole time I learnt a lot. I participated in many courses, learning the legal aspects of the migration situation and the residency laws. I joke that I actually started learning Polish through laws. A very different type of Polish. In 2016, I became a permanent consultant.
Who are the people who come to the Support Center for Immigrants?
First of all it is important to note that in the last few years the Center has experienced a large growth in the number of clients. The best example is my Polish language course. When I signed up for it in 2015, there were three groups with 7-8 people. 300 people signed up this year! It is similar when it comes to people that come for help and assistance. We beat the record in August 2019, receiving 142 new clients. When I started working for the Center as a volunteer, there were 1-2 people daily and mostly from Ukraine. The majority was made up of men who came to work. Now it has changed with women and whole families.
What problems do people come to you with?
I always say that this works like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. First of all there are basic issues such as: work, finding a place to live and legalising the stay. When this is settled they can proceed. After a few years they look for work that better suits their qualifications gained in the country they came from. As a consultant, I assist in creating a well written CV in Polish and how to find professional courses. What follows depends on their character, needs and personality. Usually they begin a process of integration through a phase of socialisation. When entire families arrive the first issue is how to enroll the child into school. As the number of clients in our Center rose, the amount of foreign kids in Gdańsk’s schools did too.
We also have some more serious cases and interventions. A while ago some Ukrainians were assaulted and one is still in serious condition. We deal with such things as well, as this unfortunately happens. Then there are unfair employers, landlords, etc. It helps solving these issues.
I recall we once discussed an absurd situation on a pleasure boat in the Tricity. The manager of the boat accused a Belarusian family of destroying a model ship and demanded a larger sum of money from them. He threatened them that he wouldn’t release them unless they paid. The police arrived, but instead of assisting them and point to how they could resolve it legally, they frightened the family even more. You told me then that immigrants have very different experiences with police and state services from their own countries. Polish authorities tend to forget or simply don’t know about this. Generally speaking, immigrants will always be worse off in such situations, even in an insignificant argument.
It is correct that most aspects of life look like this. There is a framework for equal treatment in Gdańsk. It is in place because of discrimination on the basis of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc. Imagine that you add the situation of being an immigrant to each of those categories. It is always an additional burden, impediment. If a person with disabilities faces discrimination in Poland, an immigrant with disabilities has it even harder. It is very difficult to get a certificate of disability if you are a foreigner in Poland. Migrants who don’t have a residency permit are outside of the social benefit system. It is an obstacle course at every stage.
Poland needs immigrants. There are more and more of them, which can be seen in the statistics you presented yourself. Have you noticed any attempts to resolve any obstacles they face?
There are a lot of discussions about this in Gdańsk. There is also action. A framework for integrating immigrants was created and there is a special council working with the mayor’s office. This is all great as it functions. Still, I cannot say that it has improved as the situation of migrants is less dependent on local governance than it is on statewide solutions. As the number of people who come to Poland to work increases, the cases of abuse, discrimination and illegal employment also increases. We even deal with human trafficking. The legal solutions and sanctions are disproportionate to the offense. An employee who works illegally in Poland will get fined and sent out of the country with a ban on entering the Schengen area for a few years. A dishonest employer or employment agency which brought this person to Poland will only get a fine. The work permit black market and corruption with residency permits is growing. This is because Polish offices are inefficient. The office of the Pomeranian voivodship deals with some 16,000 residency permit applications at the moment. It has happened that people wait three years for a decision. Our stats show that a one year wait for a decision is the shortest right now. Just a few years ago that was just a few months. Legally this office has 30 days to decide! This shows the scale of the problem and how it is not improving. A city like Gdańsk, can influence integration, but as I mentioned earlier the situation of immigrants is dependent on this Maslow-like hierarchy. As long as a person has no place to stay, no income and no legal residency status they are less interested in integrating. An immigrant will not be sure of remaining in Poland until they have a residency permit. These people don’t even sign up for Polish language courses, as they don’t want to invest time and energy in something uncertain. The integration, which Gdańsk supports, starts only when the other issues are resolved.
Gdańsk and especially the late Mayor Paweł Adamowicz have done a lot to improve the situation of immigrants on location. Many Polish cities can’t even dream of such solutions. This is why our Center often receives calls from immigrants in other Polish cities. Because places such as this are still not common even in larger Polish cities, so people call us for help with their issues. Considering the current influx of foreigners, no systemic changes and no changes in Polish law, their situation will only get worse.
Yuliya Shavlovskaya is a Belarusian born market specialist with an MA from the Kyiv National University of Trade and Economics. Since 2016 she has worked at the Gdańsk Support Center for Immigrants. In 2017 she was appointed to the Council of Immigrants with the Mayor’s office in Gdańsk.
Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.