“Integration, assimilation, interaction” – Emic Foundation on the challenges of including the Ukrainian community

When we look at contemporary inclusion strategies towards groups from other countries appearing in Polish society, we can divide them into those that aim to abolish otherness (all assimilation measures: with or against consent) or to accept it as part of a larger whole (various integration strategies). In the latter category, however, we may still make the mistake of the tourist or wanderer, who treats otherness as an exotic that they want to get to know in a superficial way, just to define themselves in distinction from it, rather than to resonate in a common melody. How we define otherness will not only have a significant impact on the means used, but also on the constitution of the fact of functioning well in a new reality, the discomfort of this situation and the definition of the success of our actions.

Direct and close contact with otherness allows to expand curiosity, attentiveness, sensitivity and to face one’s limitations. It can be, as in Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy of dialogue, a call to the face of the other, an ethical relationship. The encounter with otherness often enriches. Sometimes it shows its dark side. Positive and negative emotions depend very much on the purpose of the encounter. Otherness positions the tourist because they can afford to part with their place of residence in order to visit other countries, to feel their superiority or to reinforce in themselves and in their new surroundings the conviction that their culture is somehow unique in relation to others. The wanderer travels aimlessly. They are guided by the overriding principle to be on the move, not to settle anywhere permanently, not to put down roots in a different community. Otherness simultaneously attracts and repels them, drives them, stops them and motivates them to move on. For people migrating forcibly or voluntarily, contact with otherness is not a goal but a means by which they realise an overriding value: their own psychological and physical safety and the safety of those close to them.

Poland on the threshold of inclusion challenges. Increasing dynamics of change after 24 February 2022

Poland has not historically been an exceptionally popular tourist destination or a place of widespread migration. As a result of international tensions, it is a country that is only just beginning to recognise the necessity of taking measures for inclusion, which is already an everyday reality for many European countries. Strategies developed over decades and years of experience – good and bad – allow European countries to learn from their mistakes. Poles lived for a long time under communist rule in a relatively isolated bubble. Finding themselves in the Schengen area, the post-pandemic global and European economic slowdown, inflation, the political crisis in Belarus or the war in Ukraine are events that have profoundly changed the dynamics of change in Polish society. They have caused the phenomenon of inclusion to grow significantly over the past decade or so, with institutional measures often failing to keep up with the current challenges and needs of increasingly numerous and diverse national groups.

Polish society is facing challenges that for many may bear the hallmarks of a revolution. The multiculturalism of society in our country (including a large proportion of national minorities, especially from the East, from countries outside the Schengen Area) is now a fact that cannot be disputed. It is estimated that even before the escalation of the war, there were more than 1.2 million Ukrainian citizens and nationals in Poland (MIAA data). After 24 February 2022, i.e. after Russia’s full-scale attack on our eastern neighbour, more than 15 million refugees crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border, of which Poland became a second home for some time for 1.4 million (at its peak) and currently almost one million Ukrainians. Before 2022, they were overwhelmingly men. They found work in Poland, often also opportunities for education or development. More than a year ago, the demographics and gender of those arriving in our country definitely changed. Percentage-wise, women and children are now the largest group, which poses completely different challenges for Poland as a host society, if only for the simple reason of institutional arrangements in the sphere of education of Ukrainian children and youth.

Grassroots initiatives, Polish cultural institutions, top-down regulations on inclusion. Trial and error method

On the day the war escalated, many people from various professions, from drivers to journalists or community workers, set off in their own cars to the border crossing to transport people fleeing the war into the country. The first months of the escalating war were a universal test of Polish society’s hospitality, selfless help and spontaneous charity. Most people passed it in an exemplary manner. Doors to private houses and flats and unused premises opened wide. Aid for the people in need – whether in the form of food, clothing, first aid, medicines or financial drops – flowed in a wide stream.

Karolina found out that Ukrainian refugee Anastasia and her daughter Yeva were seeking refuge on one of the aid groups on the social network. She and her partner did not think long. They immediately responded to the appeal. Although they had recently exchanged their small flat in a block of flats in Bydgoszcz for a house just outside the city to finally have more peace and quiet, they agreed that they were able to give up an entire floor for the use of the Ukrainian guests. For how long? No one knew at the time. The situation at the front was dynamic and, for the mother and eight-year-old daughter, tragic. On top of the dramatic experience of the war and the anxiety for loved ones who remained in Ukraine, there was the hassle of the language barrier, the fear of an unknown future and the longing for what they had unexpectedly lost. Karolina and her partner understood this situation. Karolina recalls:

At the beginning, the girls didn’t need any contact with us at all; in fact, they wanted peace and quiet to sort things out and get used to the situation. Therefore, the separate floor made things a lot easier. We were able to help with a few things – arranging for Yeva to get into school and helping to translate Anastasia’s CV into Polish. But this was only upon explicit request. We didn’t try to impose ourselves either with help or with our own habits or lifestyle. The moment when Anastastia joined us at a weekend karaoke was a turning point. We showed each other then what we listen to, which Ukrainian and Polish songs we are most ashamed of. Such was our guilty pleasure. And that broke the ice.

This story has a good ending. Anastastia found a job in Poland, and after 10 months of living with Karolina, she returned to Ukraine with her daughter. The girls have kept in touch until now. Karolina hopes that one day she will be able to respond positively to an invitation and visit Ukraine. Not all of their friends who found themselves in a similar situation managed to communicate expectations clearly. Here is another statement from a Ukrainian woman who has lived in Poland for several years and who has had contact with refugee women coming from her home town:

Such people were first welcomed as guests, even as family. They felt that they were not expected to contribute to rent, bills or food, it would even be rude. As the situation became prolonged, people got on their nerves. Instead of being straightforward about the situation and discussing financial matters, they imposed yet another set of rules to which the Ukrainian guests had to adhere. It was as if the hosts assumed that it worked according to the principle: you eat and sleep for free, but my house is my rules. And it was enough to talk through the difficult money issues quickly – maybe not in the first few days, but weeks. Many people were able to take a share of the fees or offer to help with the housekeeping, garden, animal care or other activities they did in the Ukraine, if only this topic had been raised.

Grassroots efforts were followed, in a somewhat slower pace, by institutional assistance. City authorities ordered the provision of public places, schools and cultural institutions for refugees. This had the effect of bringing together in one place many people in need of assistance. On the one hand, this solved growing problems that ordinary citizens could not cope with. On the other hand, it generated difficulties in meeting the need for intimacy, silence, personal comfort and rest. For this reason, large communities became places of temporary refuge and stay until refugees found some sort of separate flat or house. Gradually, the first top-down managed ways of multicultural activities also began to emerge.

The effects of the unacknowledged needs of refugees could also be seen in cultural institutions, which began to race with ideas for involving the Ukrainian community and including it in their activities. The result was the organisation of events that today can be euphemistically called unnecessary, or more emphatically: wasting the potential and energy of human teams. This called into question their effectiveness (if only because of the lack of interest in them or the inability to reach minority groups with information). Rather than demonstrating the readiness of institutions to engage in relief activities, these actions exposed their deficiencies in terms of diagnosing the needs of refugees and the bureaucracy inspired by the desire to demonstrate as much as possible of the activities carried out by local governments.

Sylwia, who works in one of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian cultural institutions, recalls this time as a moment of forced competition and dazzling the environment with ideas for organising activities:

We were to introduce classes and workshops for people from Ukraine as soon as possible, although none of us had any experience of migrants or refugees until then, nor did we have the right instruments to initiate such events. There was no one in our team who spoke Ukrainian. Two people of about retirement age were able to speak Russian, but we were afraid that this might not be read well at the time – as it turns out, wrongly. On our own, using a Polish-Ukrainian phrasebook, we started to learn simple phrases and this was a great success, as we were able to establish a dialogue in everyday situations. I still remember how, on my way home from work, I met a frightened teenage girl who had obviously got off at the wrong stop and was lost on her way home from school. Trying to speak to her in Polish or English was of no use, she was so stressed. It was only by asking her name in Ukrainian – remembered from phrasebooks – that the girl calmed down enough to explain what had happened. We were strongly helped by gestures and Google translator. Surprisingly for both of us, it turned out that we, speaking Polish, and Yuliia in Ukrainian could understand each other. We escorted the girl to the hotel where her older sister worked. It was then that we realised that being open to help is not about spectacular behaviour or organising grand events, but about small everyday gestures.

When asked what she considers a success and what she considers a failure, Sylwia states:

Some of our ideas were quite misplaced, as could be seen from the turnout. Despite our efforts and attempts to reach out to those in need, we unsuccessfully expected people to turn up to watch films and cartoons with Ukrainian subtitles – because Netflix had been offering such for a long time, without having to leave home. The idea of taking children to a day care centre didn’t work, as they already attended Polish schools and wanted to spend time with parents and carers speaking their native language after school. Activities carried out in cooperation with foundations specialising in the integration of people with migrant or refugee experience proved to be the most effective. Joint concerts by musicians from Poland and Ukraine combined with collections for the benefit of people in need, collections of clothing and dressing materials, demand-driven activities (rather than randomly organised), joint sewing of camouflage nets and auctions of works of art by Ukrainian artists were all successful activities.

Months of presence of Ukrainian citizens in Poland have resulted in the identification of their needs and in the fine-tuning of the offer of cultural institutions to the needs of the audience. In their most mature form, these bear the hallmarks of “activities with” in opposition to “activities for”. In addition to the important activities such as collections and financial support, completely new forms of inclusive activities emerged that fostered the integration of different communities in a real way. On the basis of the Ukrainian experience, projects involving other, numerically less representative social groups (such as the Belarussians living in Poland) also began to emerge more and more often, although sometimes timidly.

There are about 70,000 non-governmental organisations (more than 100,000 registered) active in Poland, several dozen of them dealing with migrants and refugees as part of their statutory tasks. Many of them were carrying out their activities long before 2022. It is worth taking advantage of the many years of experience acquired, the knowledge of specialists and the methods they have developed. Polish language courses, the involvement of Ukrainian-speaking people in activities for refugees, events that start with getting to know a given culture in all its complexity without trying to relate or resemble Polish ones, highlighting the specificity and uniqueness of other nationality groups – these are just some examples of successful activities undertaken by foundations and NGOs.

Places such as the Emic Foundation in the Kujawsko-Pomorskie Voivodeship can provide a platform for understanding and communication, as well as a training base for employees of cultural institutions, teachers and those responsible for commissioning integrative activities in offices.

Polish women and men proudly declare their hospitality to other nations in surveys. The examples cited above show that hospitality does not always have only positive implications. The very designation of visitors as guests predetermines the duration of this relationship (short or at least defined) and its inequality (it is the host or hostess who is higher in the hierarchy and who decides to what extent and for what period of time he or she wants to host the person). Having this knowledge would perhaps have prevented the awkward situations that occurred in the first weeks of the Russian-Ukrainian war. However, the motivation to host refugees was so strong at the time that many people did not give sufficient thought to the offer of their help, as they were driven primarily by a reflex of the heart.

Krzysztof, who had taken in a family of three (all women), was convinced that it would be a few weeks, maybe a month, of living together. When it became clear that this was not a temporary accommodation, everyone was at a stalemate. Neither party felt at ease. Everyday life became problematic for everyone. Krzysztof describes the situation with sadness:

Although I am away from home quite a lot and we tried to arrange it somehow, four people, including an adult woman and two teenage daughters, were unable to stay out of each other’s way in 56 square metres. I was extremely sorry and ashamed to inform Ms Sofia that I was no longer able to offer them a room. To my surprise, the woman was relieved, as they, in turn, found it hard to admit that they simply did not have enough room with me. The host and guest arrangement did both parties more trouble than good. I helped Ms Sofia’s family with the formalities of finding new accommodation and did not encounter any unpleasantness from her side. But among Polish acquaintances I was pointed at for being inconsistent. Those who were sceptical about the problem, in turn, criticised me for what I had to do, why I had to decide in the first place. This situation taught me to measure my strengths against my intentions and to adapt my help to my own abilities. I don’t regret that month of living together. I learned then to live much more modestly and with respect for the needs of others. I now know that it is better to help in other ways, even by participating financially in collections. I don’t have time to do more for now, because I work a lot, but during that month I learnt a bit of Ukrainian and I would love to get involved one day as a native speaker and Polish language teacher for the kids.

Certainly, a clear and promptly introduced state policy, especially in the context of financial support and housing security for people arriving from abroad, would have helped to regulate such situations. Some of the measures carried out in the name of hospitality and aimed exclusively at refugees have also provided fodder for groups with a nationalist orientation. There have been cases of commenting on assistance and facilitation for non-Polish nationals as depriving Polish citizens of their rights to equal treatment. This shows that, firstly, the transparency of projects is important and, secondly, it is necessary when planning integration-oriented activities to draw on the knowledge of experts and to conduct them in co-participation and cooperation, with respect for the integrity of each partner in this relationship. This minimises the risk of the pendulum swinging back from ‘hospitality’ towards ‘hostility’. It is equally important to respond quickly to online hate speech. It is about stopping the dangerous dynamics of groups that rely on people’s emotions and promote the false message that refugees, or more broadly any group with a non-Polish nationality, enjoy greater rights, disproportionate to their actual needs.

Conclusions and ideas for implementation

Source: Emic Foundation

The current situation offers hope for optimistic scenarios for the realisation of purposeful actions. They aim at interplay, building a balance according to the triad: know, accept, co-create. The strategy of ‘how beautifully different we are’ can be presented to the audience in an attractive, accessible and metaphorical way, such as in the story ‘Melody of the Future’. Here, the notes arriving on a different stave are first encouraged to become more like those who have lived there longer (assimilation), then begin to play chaotically, without respect for their difference (chaotic integration), and finally resound not perfectly, but with respect for diversity (inclusive, coordinated action, focused on equality while maintaining integrity). This simple message of interplay, without domination by either side, could become a guiding motto and, at the same time, a test for checking whether the proposed bottom-up, institutional or official measures – fit into the equality model of integration.

A huge role in the activation and education of Polish society in the field of inclusive actions is certainly played by NGOs working with people with migrant and refugee experience. Without the awareness that their knowledge and methods developed can be used, practically this sphere will remain just theory. To ensure that this does not happen, it is important to reach out to decision-makers, cultural and educational managers, and community leaders. Thanks to the mutual exchange of experience and information, the reservoir of ideas will not remain an echo of the past. It will cease to live only in theory. As a valuable instrument in the hands of committed community men and women, it will work for the benefit of the whole diverse community.

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Monika Dejnecka

EMIC Foundation