"Support for the marginalized among the marginalized" is how an activist in Poland described his engagement with refugees. Our medico work on Ukraine is also about making visible those who receive little or no help. And there are many who are affected by the Russian war and have almost no public attention: LGBTQI people, Roma, BPoC, refugees without Ukrainian passports. For those who do not fit the narrative of the fleeing Ukrainian mother with child, solidarity is very limited.
In many countries in Eastern Europe, Roma faced particular persecution even before the war, including in Ukraine. In 2018 alone, there were six racist pogroms there that also claimed lives. Two years earlier, near Odessa, homes of Roma families were attacked and set on fire by a mob. In December 2021, a judge ruled this to be an expression of "direct democracy" by the residents.
Racist exclusion of Roma also occurs during their flight from war. In Poland, activists told us that the willingness to accommodate Roma people is almost non-existent, and in Germany, too, hardly anyone wants to privately accommodate Roma. In an interview with medico, the academic and Roma activist Dr. Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska reports on the concrete situation of Roma who have fled Ukraine to Poland.
medico: What about the general situation of Roma people in Ukraine?
Joanna Talewicz: Most Roma people who are still in Ukraine are young. They told us that there are more than 400.000 people overall but we think that there are even more than that. Official statistics are always a problem and they barely represent reality.
The situation in Ukraine differs from region to region. We observe that many are waiting to see what the situation is like. Many young Roma women decided to stay behind with their husbands. They try to live normally. But of course, they are scared and hide most of the time because of the Russian attacks.
What is the situation of Roma fleeing the war from Ukraine to Poland?
We observe that in general there are fewer and fewer people fleeing from Ukraine here in Warsaw. But, when it comes to Roma people, we have the impression that there are more people than before. From what we hear, many Roma people had the hope that the war would be over soon. They probably had hope that they could stay in Ukraine and now they realize they can't, so they eventually decided to leave. They feel safer in Ukraine so they were more hesitant to go to another country. For many of them, it is the first time that they leave the Ukraine.
We also have an increase in people with bigger health problems and who suffered bigger traumas. What we also observed is that there are people coming with worse financial conditions. So, the first groups that arrived were better educated, were of better health and had a quite stable financial situation. The people arriving now are generally in a worse situation overall.
What is the situation when they are on their way fleeing? How has the situation at the border developed?
My colleague, a Polish Roma woman, who is based in Krakow, spent a few days at the border in Korczowa to observe the situation. Together with a German Roma organization, she helped to organize buses for Roma people to get them from the border to Germany. She said that the situation is terrible because many people are completely alone. Not only because of xenophobia or racism but because it's so chaotic and there are so many people. That's why, when it comes to volunteers, it's better to have Roma people helping at the border. To create a sense of safety for the Roma people arriving. I’m against segregation but in this situation, not all refugees are equal or have equal access to help. So, we have to base our actions on that situation.
What I can say though, is that Roma people don't necessarily have difficulties crossing the border. However, it would also be wrong to speak of equal treatment. Another colleague of mine, who is a Ukrainian Roma, spoke to polish border guards who told her that unofficially, they are supposed to prioritize helping Ukrainian refugees and after that, minorities would follow. She is a lawyer and told them that what they were doing is racial profiling and discrimination.
10-20 per cent of Ukrainian Roma people don’t have papers. Can they also cross freely?
Most of the people we met in Poland have documents. However, some of them don’t have any stamps on their passports showing that they have crossed the border. This is sometimes also used as an excuse that they cannot enter refugee shelters. According to Polish law, this is not right. According to international protection, there is a new law for refugees coming from Ukraine. Even people who don’t have documents have the right to cross the border.
When they arrive in Poland, how is the accommodation situation?
The situation is worse than before. First, because of the high number of people. Second, it's because of racism. It's not hidden but a very openly racist system. People running shelters freely say, 'We don’t want to have Roma people here'. As an organisation, we know of two or three places in Warsaw that are save for Roma. They are helpful but it's not enough. We have information about tension and aggression towards Roma people. I also had a phone call from volunteers from a shelter who asked me to take the Roma people from the shelter because of the tensions. That’s also why other centres don’t let Roma people in. Meanwhile, the Polish people are so open to help Ukrainians. But the Roma people? They should be assisted by Roma people. Sometimes we see volunteers who want to help but as soon as they realize that they should assist Roma people, they refuse their offer to help. The racism is really getting worse. So yes, Roma people face major problems with accommodation everywhere in Poland.
That is also why I decided to speak to polish media and gave several interviews. We will also prepare an appeal with other organisations to raise more awareness for this issue.
What kind of feedback did you get from your interviews?
Before, I believed that we are able to do something to protect our people and Roma refugees but now we know it's impossible. I received a lot of emails from people who tried to convince me that Roma people are problematic and mentioned all types of racist stereotypes against them. I didn’t get any positive emails where people offered their help.
But generally, we do have a lot of people who are very open to help us. Especially Roma people and organizations from other countries. Last weekend, one Roma man from Sweden visited several refugee shelters. He took three people to Sweden on his way back. We met other Roma people from England who also offered help and organized a fundraising campaign. I also spoke with the Italian media and I received information from Italian organisations. They want to help and try to get people to Italy. But it's not easy to convince people to go outside of Poland because they want to go back to Ukraine soon. They want to go back to their husbands as soon as possible.
We have also heard of a situation where some Roma people were taken from Poland to Germany and left in the middle of the forest. After a few days, they managed to come back to Poland. We tried to investigate the situation but we couldn’t find out for sure what happened and who was responsible. Based on their experience, they now spread the information that it's not safe to go on buses. Many Roma people are scared now and don't want to speak up. They don’t want to come to public spaces because they are scared of forced deportation. We know of some people who have been in the train station for 16 days because they feel safer there. There are also older people with sicknesses and many children. We met one Roma woman in the train station who doesn’t speak so we think she experienced something very traumatizing.
How many Roma people fled from Ukraine?
We will start to do monitoring but it's too early. The situation is very dynamic. It might be more than 20.000 people. They're not only in Warsaw and we don't know everything about groups in other Polish cities.
How has the way you worked changed due to the current situation?
I represent the organisation Towards Dialogue and before the war, we were focused on education and building awareness of our culture and history in collaboration with institutions. We want to promote the knowledge about us and spread it among non-Roma people. That's why we cooperate with organisations of the Polish Jews because they have a big audience already. We work with politicians, police and judges and cooperate with schools and teachers. Together with an organisation from Heidelberg, we did a lot of education concerning the situation of Roma people during the Holocaust and developed educational materials for teachers.
Now, we're fully focused on the situation of Roma refugees. Our first goal is to help people find accommodation and provide transport and medical services. We also have cooperation with Roma organizations from Sweden and Germany.
Our second goal now is how to help Roma people who have now arrived in Poland to integrate into Polish society. What will happen to the children? They need to go to school. How can we help them? Even before the war, it was almost a miracle to find a job as a Roma in Poland. And now we have almost 3 million people who have so far come as refugees. I'm sure that the fleeing Roma people will be the last ones to get opportunities to make their life more stable.
The Interview was conducted by Kerem Schamberger and Karoline Schaefer.
Transcript: Anna Pagel
* Dr. Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska received her PhD in anthropology from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow in 2011 on the influence of EU funding programs on the living situation of Roma in Poland. She is an assistant professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology University of Warsaw and used to work as an educational consultant for the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Joanna is president of the civil society organization Towards Dialogue, which advocates for the right of Roma people in Poland and the rememberance of the Porjamos (Roma Holocaust).