WorldPoles who choose not to look the other way: “Immigrants drink water...

Poles who choose not to look the other way: “Immigrants drink water like it’s the end of the world”


Joanna Lapinska was practically run over by reality. On the outskirts of Bialowieza, the Polish town where she lives, four kilometers from the Belarus border, residents have started to see more and more people hungry, thirsty and chilled after arriving from the neighboring country since last month. She joined dozens of others and formed a parallel local network to bring food, water and blankets to refugees and migrants, in coordination with Grupa Granica (Frontier Group, in Polish), a network of 14 NGOs that manages alerts. of relief.

“One day, I was shopping in a nearby village and suddenly I got a message [do Grupa Granica, com o qual já tinha contato] saying that there was a group of migrants waiting for water. I said ‘Ok, give me a few minutes’. I bought water and we just went there,” recalls this 42-year-old product manager on a bench by one of the entrances to the pristine forest of Bialowieza, in northeastern Poland. “There were nine Iraqis and Turks, and they were very grateful. One of them was barefoot, and someone brought him some boots,” he recalls.

Thus began an activity that became frantic as the migration crisis grew. The network receives requests for help through the telephone numbers of Grupa Granica, which circulate among the refugees. Once they manage to penetrate Poland, they write through some messaging app and send their location by cell phone. “We ask them how many there are, what they need, and we take things from a system of storage houses that we maintain. We drive there, try to avoid anyone following us, park in a place that is not visible, go into the woods and look for people. Sometimes we don’t find it, because they changed places. But in others we find them, and they are in a deplorable state,” says another member of the network, Kasia Wappa, at her home in Hajnowka, 30 kilometers from the border. It’s a routine that Lapinska doesn’t get used to, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it. “It’s very upsetting to give them water and see them drink like it’s the end of the world. You give them food, which they haven’t seen in five days, and they vomit because their stomachs are sick, from drinking water from the rivers,” he says.

Kasia Wappa, at her home in Hajnowka. Photo: Gianluca Battista

The local help network legally moves into a gray area. The exact hue depends in part on one’s courage or legal interpretation. For example, feeding or harboring refugees is not a crime in Poland, although, Lapinska fears, some judge might consider it complicity with human trafficking mafias. Transporting them by car – even without crossing any borders – or housing them can be a crime, although no one in the network has been detained for it. “It is clear that what we are doing is purely humanitarian, not criminal,” he observes.

The speed with which the network was born has a lot to do with the fact that it, in a way, already existed before. Many of its members had previously coordinated to fight the government’s logging project in the Bialowieza Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lapinska participates in a local aid initiative called Green Signs. It consists of using a light of that color to inform the refugees that they can knock on that door to ask for help. “It is based on goodwill. It is up to each person to help in whatever they can. It also shows others that helping is cool and that they too can do it without fear. People are afraid to help or say they help. It is, in a way, a taboo topic. We live in a region that refugees will not cross, because there are some fences around it, it is not part of the routes etc., so in our case it is another sign that ‘we are ready to help’. Plus the psychological effect”, he explains.

A house lit up in green, a sign that it is a safe haven, in Pogorcelze (Poland), this Saturday.
A house lit up in green, a sign that it is a safe haven, in Pogorcelze (Poland), this Saturday. Gianluca Baptist

In fact, they are no more than a few dozen. Some have put green plastic on the window and keep the light on in this room. Living on the first floor, Lapinska bought a green light online and placed it beside a window. Others, like Marius Kozak, light up the porch of his house in nearby Pogorcelze in this color. “I haven’t had any visitors yet, but the police come to my house every night after ten, lighting the garden with lanterns to see if there’s anyone”, he says.

The initiative’s promoter, lawyer Kamil Zyller, translated the initiative’s announcement into several languages ​​that migrants usually speak, such as Arabic and Turkish, and disseminated it. “But not everyone knows it exists. They are in the middle of the forest, far from everything”, says Lapinska.

another minority

Wappa doesn’t have the green light at home, but he admits that he has taken in several embattled migrants. “My way of fighting this situation is to help. Because once there is a person dying behind my garden, the situation has decided for me. I can’t just say ‘I don’t care’ and go back to bed.”

The family of this English teacher and translator has lived in Hajnowka for generations. It is Polish with a Belarusian culture, a community with a minimal population in the country as a whole, but the majority among the 15,000 inhabitants of this locality – as shown by its high Orthodox Church, the branch of Christianity that this group professes. Wappa believes her minority status brings her closer to those she helps.

“One of the usual questions is: ‘Why do you want to help us? Everyone tried to trick us or hit us. Why do you bring us drinks?’ Or external battery chargers, which is one of the things they ask for most. Because without a cell phone, you’re alone and you don’t know where you’re going,” he says. He cites as an example of this disorientation some Cameroonians who had their cell phones stolen and walked in the opposite direction, back to the Belarus border. An NGO activist recently helped a family who thought they were already in Germany.

Normally, the migrants she meets have not eaten for five days. “The worst situation I’ve found is 15 days,” says Wappa. They bring them canned fish, eggs, sweets, chicken pate smeared on bread… Things that are easy to carry, but that provide energy and do not contain pork, as most of them come from countries with a Muslim majority.

“Sometimes they say they prayed for it to rain: on the one hand, it means getting soaked and cold, but on the other it’s water, so they don’t know if it’s worse to be thirsty or cold. They are very weak, and the forest is very wet. Many have bruises from the blows they took from Belarusian soldiers. And they are afraid”, he says.

Each one lives in a way this new facet of their life. Lapinska does not feel like an activist, but “someone who lives here and can’t do much”. “It’s not that the whole village starts to welcome refugees into their homes. What we do is just a drop in an ocean of needs”, he justifies. For Wappa, it’s more of a way of “learning how to help” with a view to the future, unlike activists from other parts of the country, who went to help in an emergency. “People come and go, but we are always here”, he reflects. “And I think the problem will stay here for a long time.”

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