Poles apart: Gdansk divided as city grapples with immigration and identity

5 months, 17 days ago

Refuge cities In a country where xenophobia is increasingly rife, Polands longest-serving mayor is intent on house a safe haven for his city invisible immigrants. After all, he says, integration is in the towns DNA

Judging by the behaviour of some of its football fans, Gdask might not be expected to extend a warm welcome to any refugees arriving in this port city on Polands Baltic coast.

One infamous banner unfurled at a Lechia Gdask match presented a black man kneeling in front of a garbed Ku Klux Klan character; another displayed a picture of Hitlers deputy, Rudolf Hess. In February, the citys Jewish cemetery was desecrated.

So it is difficult to say which is more startling: Gdasks record of racism, or the city mayor Pawe Adamowiczs career gamble in setting out to reversal it. I am a European so my nature is to be open, says Adamowicz. Gdask is a port and must always be a refuge from the sea.

Former Solidarity leader Lech Wasa at the Gdask shipyard, 1983. Wasa has said he is not convinced by the current mayors outlook on refugees. Photo: Jacques Langevin/ AP

His sentiments are somewhat out of step with the wider mood in Poland. According to Jarosaw Kaczyski, leader of the countrys ruling Law and Justice party, migrants bring all sorts of parasites and protozoa. In March, in the eastern city of Biaystok, protesters burnt an effigy of the German chancellor Angela Merkel in response to her migrant-friendly outlook.

The populist Kukiz1 5 party an ultra-nationalist coalition whose pop superstar leader Pawe Kukiz finished third in the 2015 presidential election is currently circulating a petition is targeted at reversing Polands guaranteed to take 7,600 Syrian refugees under the EU volunteer resettlement plan. More moderate voices are calling for Poland to select only Christian Syrians( Poland is the one country in Europe still constructing new Catholic churches ).

When people say that welcoming refugees is like opening our city to Muslim terrorists, I tell them not to worry, Adamowicz says wryly. The terrorists are far more interested in the big European capitals than in little Gdask.

It is important influential people stand up for positive European values, says Pawe Adamowicz

Hedi Alieva, a Chechen-born Muslim, is on the frontline of Adamowiczs efforts to set his city through a crash course in multiculturalism. Polish people understand Chechens because we are all against communism, says the former statistics clerk from Grozny, who has been in Gdask for three and a half years. Also, Gdask is special because it dedicated the world Lech Wasa.

During a recent interview with the Guardian, however, Wasa leader of Polands Solidarity movement in the 1980 s and the countrys president for five years from 1990 said he was not persuaded by the mayors open-arms policy towards refugees. Poland is poor; it lacks housing and jobs. Many people cant make ends meet. When I meet the mayor, Ill ask him if he has really thought this policy through.

The key to Adamowiczs move to build the city more refugee-friendly has been to get people talking. His main ally is the Migrants Support Centre, where Alieva is a volunteer. The centre was put up four years ago to act as a bridge between migrants arriving in Gdask and the municipal and social services they may not be aware they are entitled to, including housing.

The city halls department of social development organises regular networking sessions between the supporting centre, the local Muslim League, the police and several private landlords( although not yet Lechia Gdask football club ). The mayor wants them to develop an integration model for the whole city. To sweeten the initiative, people in the network have been sent on survey visits to Bremen in Germany and the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

Alieva, 45, regularly addresses city-sponsored seminars and public debates on girls, feminism and dress in Islam. When a group of young men ripped off her headscarf and screamed Allah is a bomber !, she responded peacefully. The only solution is to smile; thats how I handle it. But when her 16 -year-old daughter was told she was as a gypsy, Alieva advised her to stop wearing her headscarf to school.

Gdask has a population of about 460,000, up to 15,000 of whom is a possibility non-Polish-born, according to informal city hall estimations. Most have come in the past 25 years from the east Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Belarus. Immigrant communities here are still having conversations about whether it is best to fit in with local customs or to assert their own identities.

It is hardest of all for African humen; they have real difficulty getting jobs, says Karol Liliana Lopez, a 36 -year-old Columbian social worker who moved to Gdask seven years ago. If they do not speak the language and come from an exuberant, outgoing culture, they are often misunderstand. Lopez is employed by the subsistence centre, which receives both city and EU funding and has just opened its first office near the railway station. About 70 people attend its Polish speech courses, and as many again come every month for legal advice.

There used to be no one to guidebook immigrants; the latter are left to sort out their problems alone, says the migrant centres founder, Marta Siciarek. She does not buy the oft-used debate that Polands homogeneity is an obstacle to it accepting refugees from faraway places: People say as few as 2% of the population are immigrants but there are 38 million people in Poland, so that means we are still talking about tens of thousands of people.

Activists in Gdask last year, demonstrating their support of the citys welcome policy towards refugees. Photograph: Gallo Images/ Getty Images

The reality in Poland is that immigrants are invisible, and so are all the more exposed to peril and abuse. It is our responsibility as Polish people to build a safe environment for them; it is not the immigrants undertaking. And the best place to do that is at the grassroots, in the cities not through central government.

There are obligating statistical debates for Poland to accept refugees, including the countrys yawning death/ birth gap. The government last week stimulated the first payments of a promised new child grant, worth 500 zoty ( 85) per month. But experts say it is unlikely to reverse the demographic deficit.

Meanwhile, the prevailing position among conservatives in government and the influential church seems to be that integration and multiculturalism are a step on the road to sprawling ghettos and Islamic terrorism. Such initiatives are sometimes bundled in with abortion their entitlements and lesbian matrimony as indicators that Poland is being contaminated by west European moral decay.

The Law and Justice party has not explicitly told the EU it will go back on the previous governments pledge to take 7,600 refugees but it would clearly like to. In January, “ministers ” Beata Szydo said Poland would take only 400 people( out of the 7,600) this year. After the 22 March attacks in Brussels, she told Radio Superstacja: The previous government agreed that several thousand[ refugees] could come to Poland. I dont see the possibility of migrants coming to Poland at this time.

In Gdask, many people blame Adamowiczs Civic Platform party for the demise of the citys formerly huge shipyard, which has shed all but 1,000 of the 17,000 jobs it are available in 1980, when Wasa co-founded the Solidarity trades union there.

Adamowicz is the longest-serving mayor of a major Polish city. He was first opted as head of the municipal council in 1990 and has been re-elected ever since mayoral elections were introduced in 1998. But in December 2014, he had to fight a run-off for the first time: It was not exactly pleasant. It induced me believe people are looking for a fresh face.

Despite the countrys persisting mood of xenophobia, Adamowicz has established an alliance with the like-minded mayors of two southern Polish cities, Wrocaw and Wabrzych. In November 2015, after the governmental forces failed to condemn neo-Nazis who burnt the effigy of an Orthodox Jew at an anti-immigration rally in Wrocaw, the three mayors signed a four-point declaration of co-operation on openness and intercultural dialogue.

Adamowicz is aware that his pro-migration moves may expense him his undertaking, because of stupid, frightened people. But so be it, he says. Right now I feel like my citizens require me. I have two-and-a-half years left as mayor and that is enough time to change positions. It is important that influential people stand up for positive European values. We should take refugees. Poland is poor, but it is not as poor as Bulgaria or Romania.

Beyond arguing that the seaport of Gdask has had openness thrust upon it by geography, the 50 -year-old mayor asserts history has left the city naturally pluralistic.

We have a special DNA. Before 1945, everyone here spoke German. Gdask was Danzig, a Protestant outpost. Then those people were removed and replaced by others. My family received from Lithuania.

Gdask is used to upheaval and manages it well. Protest movements were born here in 1968, 1970 and 1976. In the spirit of freedom and liberty, Solidarity was born here in the 1980 s because a group of special people workers and intellectuals met and trusted each other. We have a problem with trust today.

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