Divine Word Missionaries open new center for migrants and refugees in Warsaw

Poland has for decades been a land of emigrants - with Poles migrating to all corners of the world. But now it finds migrants and asylum seekers are choosing to settle on Poland's shores - and that's causing some problems. But efforts are being made to help integrate these newcomers. Among those efforts is a new centre in Warsaw opened by the group "Missionaries of the Divine Word". Radio Polonia visited the center:

Simon Mol, a Cameroon native came to Poland six years ago. After being expelled from his native country and detained in Ghana he sought refuge in Poland. Simon was lucky as he found help first with the Polish Humanitarian Action and then with the missionaries of the divine word. Now he is the editor-in-chief of a bilingual and bimonthly magazine "Voice of the Exile" and the head of the Association of Exiles in Poland. When asked about his past experiences in Poland he stresses the issue of migrants is a difficult one in Poland for many reasons.

"I have been attacked here twice by a group of skinheads. You find a lot of problems here - difficulties, but you have to also attribute this to the general economic and political situation, as far as the historical experience of this country. On the other hand, you also realize that the issue of migrants and refugees is not a priority in the policy of the Polish government. We have a lot of problems - unemployment, so migrants and refugees is not a priority. You don't find people like the commissions or the parliament debate on this thing with much zeal.

On the other hand, most of the workers, the social workers, who are supposed to work with the refugees, they don't have the experience. So that is also a very, very serious problem which usually creates a lot of misunderstanding, because about 80 percent of social workers, they don't know the rights of the refugees. They don't know, for instance, that if you get a refugee status you have the same rights as a Pole."

The center is located in the attic of a three-storey building of the divine word missionaries in the southern Warsaw district called Praga. It occupies roughly 200 m‚² and is able to host about 40 people at once. Father Edward Osiecki is the driving force behind its creation. He says he got first-hand experience in feeling like a refugee while working for many years in Papua New Guinea. He now works with Vietnamese Catholic Community and Refugees Community in Warsaw. He explains the character of the center in the following way:

"What we intend to do with this place? It is, as I said, a place as a home. Everyone can come and share his or her difficulties, problems and drink a cup of tea. Probably not all the problems we would be able to solve, all because the problems are much bigger then we. But at least we can listen to the problems and we can discuss how to help solve administrative and medical problems. It depends on the nature of the problem. At least we would be able to show and accompany the foreigner in his or her struggle with the problem."

Warsaw's missionaries of the divine word did not want to limit its activities to one category of people only hence the name of the center is migrants' not refugees. Father Osiecki also stresses that Poles have often negative attitude towards refugees because they are still struggling with nationalist and Stalinist vision of single-ethnic country.

"Let us remember the fact that Stalin was the first one in the whole one thousand year history of Poland who managed to block Polish people into an ethnic state, and we had a 'Polish ghetto' within the communist bloc. And 50 years is long enough to make some changes in the mentality. And those who today defend Poland for the Poles, and Catholic for Catholics and all this talk, it is like living the heritage of Stalin. Poland has to be accustomed to the fact that a Polish person could be black-skinned or yellow-skinned and they would be as good a Pole as anyone else."

Although there are no official statistics available it is estimated that each year about 35 thousand people migrate to Poland - mostly from Vietnam and Africa. Last year 8 thousand migrants applied for a refugee status with only 315 persons receiving it. Since 2000, 446 Vietnamese applied for it while only one received it.