Had you ever wondered what the difference is between an immigrant and a refugee, and why the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border stirs up such extreme reactions in society? These and other questions are answered in our short conversation with Kalina Czwarnóg, member of the board of the Survivor Foundation. Please feel free to read on!
What is the Survivor Foundation's main focus?
The Survivor Foundation has been supporting people with migration experience to build a new life in Poland for more than 20 years. During most of that time, our activities have focused on integrating people who are already here. By providing legal and psychological assistance, we help people find a job, an apartment, find a school for children, teach Polish, support children in school and run a charity store. Sadly, in the summer of 2021, the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border forced us to become a humanitarian organization. We had never intended to do so before, but when people suffer and die at our doorstep, we see it as our duty to help them.
Our help is free of charge and for anyone - regardless of whether or what their residency status is in Poland.
What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
The term 'refugee' is derived from international law. The refugee status is granted to a specific person who proves before the relevant state institution that they fled their country for fear of persecution. We have very few such individuals in Poland, our country definitely lowers the European and world average when it comes to how many people obtain such status here every year.
Few know that most of the people who came to Poland after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine are, according to the law, not refugees at all. They didn't even ask for such status. However, we feel that calling them refugees in the colloquial sense of the word is not wrong. Thus, we have many more de facto refugees in Poland than de iure refugees. And they come from many other countries than just Ukraine.
An immigrant is a person who voluntarily changes his or her country of residence. Immigrants come, for example, for employment, for family or educational reasons. They can visit the country of origin at any time without worrying about their lives or the lives of their loved ones.
Clearly, in many cases, the line between immigrant and refugee is becoming increasingly fluid and blurred in today's world. Does a person who is starving in his home country, which the local regime has led to, make the decision to leave the country voluntarily or, the other way round, under pressure?
Why is it important to assimilate people with refugee backgrounds?
Actually, assimilation implies a complete severance of ties with one's native culture and the adoption of the culture of the new country. We do not support such an acculturation strategy. Integration is definitely safer and less stressful, a situation in which a person continues to possess and cultivate those elements of the culture of the country of origin that they want, while at the same time learning the codes, language, culture of the new country. This makes one feel safe and able to find one's way in both contexts. Forcing people to choose whether they are Georgian or Polish, for example, is quite violent and shows unrealistic demands on those who come to us. For those who change their country of origin in adulthood, assimilation is almost impossible to achieve. It is only the second or third generation that can accomplish this.
There's another important thing that is often forgotten when talking about integrating people with migration experience into Polish society: our role in the process. We too must make an effort in welcoming and showing our new guests around the house. One should show patience if they don't learn everything at once. If we show at every step that they are unwanted, that they are nothing but a burden and a problem for us and, besides, discriminate those not speaking Polish yet - our life together here will not be easy. Both for them and for us. And yet, if we show some mutual patience and warmth, we might all be better off here.
Why does the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border stir up such extreme reactions in society?
After years of being threatened by people on the road by Polish politicians and politicians, I think many people have experienced cognitive dissonance. For one thing, they had heard in the media for years that they should be afraid of people from the Middle East, and then they saw a girl from Michalov hugging a Polish teddy bear and learned that representatives of their country had taken that child behind the wires. Cognitive dissonance is a very unpleasant feeling, and we more or less consciously react in different ways to cope with it somehow. So for some people, it was easier to believe the populist narrative that the activists were lying and that they were undercover soldiers of the Wagner Group. Others decided to cook soups and send it to the Podlasie region.
The migration is one of the most polarizing subjects in all of Europe, our rulers have worked for years on it, and I am not surprised by the reaction of a large part of Polish people to what is happening at our border. I don't like it, but it doesn't surprise me either.
How do you think the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border could be properly resolved? Is it at all possible?
The most important thing is to prevent people from dying on our border. This we can achieve very quickly: by observing the law. All the regulations that are currently in force are within reach. All we need is the political will to obey them. Our legal team has actually prepared instructions for the new government on how to quickly eliminate pushbacks from our reality, step by step. The question is, will anyone want to follow them?
How to support the Survivor Foundation and refugees wisely? What should we do and what should we not do?
People with refugee backgrounds are usually very strong, determined, driven individuals - either you are like that or you are not here. They wield a whole host of resources that can help them to live in a new country, if only they get the right dose of wise support. And wise support is not doing things for someone, but accompanying and gently helping them if the person can't handle something on their own. So let's not impose ourselves with our help, let's not take over. We may think we know better, but we can't take away anyone's ability to decide for themselves. Mistakes are also educational, and we don't need to be afraid of making them.
You can support the Survivor Foundation in many ways, including buying a beautiful scarf or socks at KABAK ;) However, what is most valuable to us is regular support. We highly encourage you to set up a standing transfer order or set up a regular donation through our simple form on the website. In Warsaw and Łódź we are regularly looking for people willing to volunteer, you can read more about it here. In and around Warsaw, we are constantly looking for people who would like to host a person with refugee background in their home for a few months for a modest remuneration as part of the Refugees Welcome Poland program.