Poland's Vietnamese: A tough transition but they're surviving

Photo: Juraj Gazovciak, www.klubhanoi.cz

Thousands of Vietnamese, repressed in their home country, often try their luck abroad. For those who settle in Poland it can be a tough transition. They have to work hard simply to survive, and to grasp a difficult language. Estimates vary but most say around forty to fifty thousand Vietnamese currently live in Poland, many of them illegally, and many of them with children. So what is their life like and how do Poles feel about the Vietnames in their midst?

Primary School no 25 in Warsaw is one of those in Poland’s capital that cater to an increasing immigrant community living in this country. It is located at Grzybowska street, in an area with a vast Vietnamese minority. All in all, there are 3500 children with foreign passports in Poland, including 800 in Warsaw. Many of them are Vietnamese who go to Polish schools and try to behave the same way their Polish peers do. Mila is one of them.

"Hello, my name is Trami but teachers and my friends call me Mila. I am 12 years old and I was born in Poland. Why did my parents come to Poland? There is poverty in Vietnam and they had to come to Poland to make money".

The Vietnamese first appeared in Poland in large numbers after WWII. According to rough estimates, there are currently forty to fifty thousand of them living in this country. The majority of the estimated 20 thousand Vietnamese in the capital are illegal aliens. This unregulated status is the reason for the invisible nature of this community. Many, just like Mila's parents work in trade, selling clothes. Others work in bars or restaurants offering Vietnamese cuisine. They speak limited Polish and work hard to make ends meet. Just like the parents of 27-year-old Dang Thu Huong who came here 17 years ago and now have their own stand in Wolka Kosowska, a big shopping center 20 km from Warsaw which is home to a big group of Vietnamese merchants. Dang, now a student of medical school in Warsaw often volunteers as an interpreter at the Emigrants' Center here. She says what draws Vietnamese to this country is an accepting society and freedom to live the way they chose to.

"I think Poles are a very tolerant society because the majority of Vietnamese here haven't got legal status so thanks to Poles we can exist here. For example, we can rent flats and children can go to school. If somebody is ill and needs help in hospital and is not rich doctors will help those people. Vietnam is a communist country and because of this there is poverty and they try to find a country where they can work, they can do something and where they can feel free".

The Vietnamese in Poland are a well organised community, publish a number of newspapers, and have their own few associations. Father Edward Osiecki, a Polish missionary priest runs a centre for the community of Vietnamese Catholics in Warsaw. He has been working with them for many years assisting them in legal matters as well as housing and employment.

"If we think about the group of Vietnamese, a significant number of them do not have documents. Anyhow, they survive in Poland and they function. It means that Polish community supports them. They make very significant steps towards integration not knowing the language. They have houses, they send their children to schools. Generally they manage, even not having documents and after a while I see that they become confident in what they do and bring their contribution to the society very well".

Most of the children from primary school no 25 were born in Poland but many live in split families with some members still in Vietnam awaiting their chance to join the family in Poland. Ewa Perkowska, an English teacher from the school confirms that the Vietnamese are good students.

"There aren't any problems with assimilation, they have Polish names and they play with Polish children. Those Vietnamese students do their homework, they are very willing to answer questions during lessons. They are usually the best in their classes. Maybe they are more disciplined at home, maybe their parents tell them to learn more because they have to be better, they are foreigners in Poland".

Although the majority of Poles are aware of a big Vietnamese community living here in recent years several social campaigns have been launched in order to spread awareness of ethnic minorities. One of them held under the slogan “Poland is diverse” was prepared by ‘Proxenia’ the Association for the Integration and Protection of Refugees in Poland and the Polish Red Cross. Its organizers stress the fact that although now Poland is basically a nation of one race, culture, language and religion, in past decades it was home to various ethnic groups which coexisted successfully.