Event 1: Lublin Poland

Stories of exile and choice

Opowieści o wygnaniu

Alon’s story

Alon lives in Lublin and is married to a Polish wife whom he met in Jerusalem, because Alon is Israeli.

He comes from a long line of Jewish men who have always left one place for another. He is the sixth generation of men in his family to have moved.

His father was born in Romania, his grandfather in Hungary, his great grandfather in Baku, his great great great grandfather in Moscow.

Their reasons for leaving: persecution of the Jews, love, dissatisfaction. He shows us the handkerchief featuring his great grandfather’s profile embroidered by his wife. She waited two years for him. Alon’s reason for leaving Israel was also love.

“Am I an immigrant? A European? Do I fit in the Arabic world? Am I Jewish or Israeli?

I am an immigrant by choice but it doesn’t mean I am welcome here or I belong in Polish society, in spite of my wife and her family.

I hope am I not wholly defined by where I come from. And yet why I did I pretend to be a New Zealander when I first arrived? Accent and all! It’s funny but that’s how much I was afraid to say I was Israeli. In Israel, most of my friends were not Jewish but it sounds defensive to say this here.

Is Poland prepared for welcoming immigrants? I can’t say a confident yes. There is a certain amount of hatred for “the other”. You can see it on the streets. My friends in education here, they are non political. Social and political questions are not their concern. It’s a hard task to get them talking about issues that matter. They probably know more about English politics than their own.

If it doesn’t affect them directly, they shrug their shoulders and don’t care. People don’t feel they are able to make any changes. The future is dependent on those in power and money.

I personally believe that shared histories matter and that kind of knowledge is relevant across the world. Identity should be able to be expressed and accepted. For myself I would welcome fascination with my identity rather than anti-semitism. I can be critical of Israel and still be Israeli.”

Szymon tells us a story about the yard he is working in as an artist. It is in the old Jewish quarter. He had a conversation with a guy about the yard and there was a reference to a mother and daughter who were tailors and worked in a building adjacent to Szymons studio. Szymon asked “Were they Jewish?” The reply was “No, I don’t think so. I guess they were normal.”

Alon responds: I guess we all suffer from “othering.”

Nahida’s story

Nahida is from Dagestan, Chechnya. She was a jewellery maker.

Chechnya fought for independence from Russia in the 1990s. There was also internal fighting too.

“My husband was kidnapped, they took the wrong man.

They mistook him for his brother who was already dead. After a kidnapping, it rarely happens that people come back. We could not stay. My mother-in-law insisted we leave the country.

We left the next day. We left with nothing but the clothes we were wearing and passports.

Atrocities were committed by both sides and many like us were displaced. Independence didn’t quite work out for the Chechens.

Feuding commanders and foreign jihadists, such as the Saudi ruled small districts with their own little armies. Kidnappings for ransom, along with extracting oil, were their main sources of income. It’s always the innocent civilians who suffer.

We travelled by train to Moscow and hoped to make it to Poland but our visas were rejected at the border. We had to formally seek asylum and our fingerprints were taken.

We didn’t plan to stay. We wanted to go to France to join relatives but we were stopped in Germany and I was still separated from my husband who was alive but in a detention centre.

We came back to Lublin and decided to stay. After many procedures and interviews that lasted a year, we were given leave to remain. There was a refugee centre in Lublin that helped people but it was liquidated a few years ago. Some Chechens have tried 70 times to apply for refugee status in Poland.

At first it was really hard here. I was a stranger, a foreigner, but I have been lucky enough to meet good people, to learn and to study. Now I have friends and my children have a future. It is very important to become like people around you so that you are no longer a stranger. I tell my children that.

We celebrate festivals with Polish friends, including the Catholic festivals, even though we are Muslim. Catholicism is the default faith in schools. Any alternative does not work. My daughter was sent to the library to wait for her class during prayers. I do not want that for her. My children understand Chechen but they don’t speak it. They speak Polish. I speak Russian, Chechen and Polish.

I work in a cookie bakery. I feel at home here now. I have good relationships with my neighbours. Everyday I skype my parents. I am always afraid to call but so far everything is ok. The sound of my mother’s voice makes me cry.

My husband wants to join us but he has been refused because the Polish government no longer wants refugees. He lives in a railway station illegally.”

Members of the group discuss the problems arising for refugees since the Polish government's move to refuse applications, especially from Muslim asylum seekers.One person says she is ashamed of her own country’s actions and feels helpless to do anything about it. The UK team say if she joins with others, locally, nationally and internationally, voices can be heard and pressure brought to bear.

Assef’s story

Assef is Syrian and comes from Latakia. He left Syria in 2011 with his Polish wife.

“Syria is caught between many devils; a corrupt national government, Russia, the USA and ISIS. Who supports who – I can’t tell you. It’s next to impossible to know who is best for the country and how it will ever resolve itself.

We think of refugees as Syrians who have left the country but believe me there were refugees in my city. There has been a Palestinian refugee camp on the coast since the 1950s. And displaced people from Aleppo found safety in Latakia. Things got bad in 2011 and those refugees fled the camp when Latakia was under attack. God knows what has happened to them.

I chose to leave so I am not officially a refugee. Since I came here I have done everything I can to help other refugees, running painting, music and language clubs. It doesn’t matter who is who or where they come from: Muslims, Jews, Christians. Human suffering is the same.

I am proud of having received awards for being the best volunteer in Lublin and the best foreign student in Poland.

The task is to get people to see and accept the person you are rather than the stereotype. I am Arab – that is one aspect of my identity. I am also a Polish citizen and I am a musician and teacher. I am also a proud parent of Adam, my young son. Who I meet and where I live forms and changes my identity.

When I first arrived in Poland, well meaning people showing me around a flat asked “Did you have electricity in Syria?” Where do they get this perception from? My wife was a teacher of economics and a pianist. We lived a good life in Latakia until the war started. It is a beautiful coastal resort. Syria was civilised long before other parts of the world. People forget that because all they see now is broken cities and refugees in terrible conditions.

It’s difficult to believe politicians anymore, in Syria and in Poland. We should put our energies into encouraging people to meet face to face and learn about one another. The worst people are the indifferent viewers or watchers. They could be doing so much more, together.

There is a fear of religion, of difference, in this country. I might have 100 crucifixes in my home or countless Islamic texts, but if I do not say hello to my neighbours in the morning, they mean nothing.

I am informed that this is a creative project so I will play something on this Syrian lute to express my identity, my country, my sadness for human suffering and my joy to be with you.”

Later, Assef also played a Polish song to the delight of the group