I first came to Poland in the autumn of 2005. Whenever I stepped out in Warsaw - to go to the cinema, to the mall, the symphony or just to stroll through the Old Town, I felt as if something was missing. I looked around and studied the people and listened to the language without being able to pinpoint what caused this feeling of discordance, the sensation that something was not placed quite as it should be. Two weeks later, as my friend and I were grocery-shopping in a large supermarket, I turned to him. “Where are the blacks?” I asked. I had been 16 days in Poland and I still had not seen a black person. As my friend explained, there are some blacks here. Not too many, given that for close to fifty years the country was under the yoke of communism, and as thus, unappealing to blacks, who at the time were under the boot of one war lord or another. If truth might be told, during its communist years Poland wasn’t appealing to anybody else, for that matter.
Most of us know that the Iron Curtain was finally toppled in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizing the fall of communism in Europe. What the majority of foreigners ignore is that it was in effect a workers’ strike that got the seed of dissidence firmly planted in Gdansk and Szczecin in the 1970’s. Poland’s economic crisis worsened in 1976 and the government started rationing sugar. After a wave of countrywide strikes, communist authorities signed an agreement with the strikers and Solidarność was established. Regrettably, nothing truly changed for the people after this and the strikes resumed.
In an effort to stifle this new wave of rebellion, martial law was imposed in 1981, with the military ordering curfews and terrorizing citizens for two years. Brutality, however, could not kill the people’s spirit nor douse their desire to be rid of communism. First in Poland after the Round Table Talks, then in the Czech Republic in what has come to be known as The Velvet Revolution because not a single shot was fired, then on a domino effect in the rest of Eastern Europe, communism collapsed, opening the door for capitalist opportunism. The former Communist Block, as expected, was caught unawares. Gastronomical offenders soon had their golden arches in these Western-hungry countries with little added benefit besides the widening of waistbands.
At the same time that countries like Poland were opening themselves to the Western invasion, Libya was put under diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions all through the 90’s because of Muammar al-Gadafi’s refusal to allow the extradition of the two Libyans accused of planting the bomb that downed Pan-Am flight 103 in 1988. Because the death toll included 189 Americans (the deadliest terrorist attack against the US until September 2001), the United States pressured European countries to close their borders to Libyan immigrants.
In Poland, where people are catholic by decree, this policy, even though not written into law, basically encompassed Muslims, Jews, and whomever was deemed a “sectarian,” such as Jehovah’s Witnesses —Poland’s church is particularly phobic about sects and the possibility of foreign companies controlling the economy. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, some blacks managed to trickle down to Poland, but they were the exception, not the rule.
Well into the first decade of the 21st century, Arabs were still finding it hard to immigrate to Poland because of fear of terrorism —as in American Pressure. Because xenophobia is all encompassing, the church doesn’t want Muslims in Poland as much as it doesn’t want Jews, therefore the pious sector, known as Mohair Berets, doesn’t want them either.
To a large extent the church has its claws deeply wedged in the treacherous heart of politics. The majority of Poles, but most especially the old brigade, those who cover their heads with mohair berets, bow their heads and do as they are told by Father Rydzyk, who immediately after the last election tried to plant his fundamental views into the highest sectors of the government and demanded a decree to officially make Poland 100% catholic. Fortunately, the young generation just laughs and dismisses this man’s ideas while hoping that not too many foreigners find out about him or his mad preaching.
Ever since it joined the European Community in May 2004, Poland has taken gigantic steps towards becoming integral part of the Union, even as it struggles against the reactionary tendencies of its very vociferous conservative sector. Despite some detractors, unification has been embraced wholeheartedly by the upwardly mobile and the young. As one of the young members of the European Community, Poland is viewed by its neighbors both as a new, expanding economy, and as a sound investment. Thanks to its inclusion in Schengen, the country’s borders are now open, which has brought a new influx of immigrants because globalization is the main methodology that drives our age. In a first come, first served economy, competition has become fierce.
Not less than two hundred black males come to Poland every year to enroll at the universities. About one fourth end up staying in the country. So far the ratio is approximately eight to ten black males for every black woman, as it is the males who leave their villages in pursuit of better opportunities while the females are left behind to take care of their elders. Others come as political refugees or in search of better opportunities.
I talked to a Nigerian who came to Poland eight years ago to establish his own company because at the time “Poland was a new market, exploding with opportunities.” Here he married a Polish woman. Three years ago, when they went on holiday to Africa, this man refused to take his wife to his village. When I asked him why, he merely shrugged and said nothing. This couple have a child together, which leads me to believe the marriage survived despite the slight. Were I in the mood to make conjectures, I could say that discrimination goes both ways: ten years ago blacks were harassed on the streets of Warsaw, but this changed because Poles are too busy making money now. More recently, a black man refused to take his white wife to the village where he was born. Quid pro quo.
Another Nigerian, soccer player Emmanuel Olisadebe, was granted Polish citizenship by the president, as was Brazilian Roger Guerreiro. Both athletes have played brilliantly for the Polish soccer team, with Olisadebe being declared Best European Player six years ago. Despite this new trend for assimilating outstanding players into Polish sports—half the table tennis team is Chinese—or the magnanimous way in which the government grants temporary student visas to youngsters, the immigration process is still a nightmare for the regular foreigner, with the wall of bureaucracy working as a shield against people like me, a more or less inoffensive woman who came here to follow her heart, then decided to stay because her heart likes it here.
In an interesting paradox, since it joined the European Union, Poland has seen the largest exodus of able workers in modern history. The intelligent and the able are emigrating in droves to the UK and Ireland, to Sweden and the Netherlands, in the hopes of finding better work opportunities there. Not less than two million Poles have left the country so far, most of them permanently.
Because books are not enough to know a culture, people are taking advantage of cheaper air travel and the all too reviled globalization to truly become citizens of the world despite the ranting of religious autocrats and xenophobic state figures, retrogrades who fail to see what a wonderful thing diversity is. Thankfully, this is not the problem of the younger generation. Poles are adventurous travelers, and they have taken to roaming the world now that the collapse of borders and a still healthy economy allow for the kind of freedom their parents only dreamt about.
And when they return from these travels, they begin to dream about their next adventure. By accepting differences and embracing diversity, it is they who act as counterpart to the xenophobia of the ultra conservative and the elderly. It is they who are shaping this jewel of a country, with its juxtaposition of breathtaking landscapes and monstrous architecture, into the fascinating melting pot of cultures that it is becoming.
America L. Martin