In Poland, after criticism of the treatment of asylum seekers, the government has responded with some very practical training for those who come face-to-face with immigrants every day.
KRUSZYNIANY - They don’t have their uniforms or badges but don’t be misled: there are only big guns in the bus.
Spirits are high as the group of chiefs of detention and deportation centers, from the Polish Border Guard Headquarters, is heading for the exotic Podlasie region, in the northeast of Poland. They are participating in an anti-discrimination workshop held in Kruszyniany, a village with Tatar roots, where the Muslim minority is still well present in the cultural landscape.
They are greeted by an unexpected sight: a sign with the name of a fictitious country – Schengenistan – a foreign flag fluttering in the wind and a border control. The local guards throw around commands in a mix of Russian and Georgian: “stop,” “wait,” “next.”
Fingerprints are taken, passports are stamped – it is like a real border control. For the next few days the workshop participants will find themselves on the other side of the fence. From guards they will become refugees.
The Schengen Area is a group of 26 European countries that have abolished internal border controls, including 22 of the EU member-states and four European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states. While internal borders have been abolished, external borders have had their security tightened.
On the next day, things do not get easier for our Polish guards – they have to learn the Georgian alphabet. Everyone must be able to write their own name in Georgian. The program of the day also includes a simulation of an interview for refugee status in Schengenistan. The questions were supposed to be in Russian but in reality it sounds like Hungarian.
The aim of this exercise is to show what immigrants entering the Schengen Area through its eastern borders are confronted with. Polish border guards often think they speak Russian... but what the refugees are hearing is gibberish.
On the third day, there is a visit to the local mosque. For some participants it is their first time in a Muslim mosque. They take off their shoes; women cover their hair with shawls. Everybody sits on the carpeted floor, and listens to the guide, Dzemil Gembicki, who explains the history and tradition of Polish Tatars, who have been living in the region since the 17th century.
The Tatars are an ethnic group present in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. They are a nomadic group, and mostly practice Sunni Islam, although some are Russian Orthodox.
After a tour of the Old Mizar – a Tatar cemetery from the 17th century – the participants head to the local Orthodox church and walk the Ecumenical Trail – a picturesque pathway dotted with sculptures and information boards with facts about the three religions cohabiting in the region: Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.
It’s dinnertime and that means cooking lessons. To eat, you have to cook first. No one gets out of it. The participants learn how to prepare chinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful, with Tatar music and Georgian dancers.
The Shengenistan guests try their hand the traditional Georgian dance. They’re enjoying it while it lasts – they already know that in the morning their visas will be refused, and they will have just two hours to leave this unique place.
What was all this show for? Do these role-reversal workshops make a difference?
“These workshops complete the previous trainings that were carried out mostly in form of lectures. We believe these practical exercises are important. They serve to awaken the participants’ empathy,” explains Dorota Przymies, the founder of the Salvation Foundation, the organization that organizes the Shengenistan workshops. The Salvation Foundation (Fundacja Ocalenie), is an NGO that supports refugees and repatriates in Poland and promotes intercultural dialogue.
She says working with the Polish border guards has yielded nothing but positive experiences. The aim of the workshop is to change attitudes and build a dialogue between cultures and religions, she adds.
There is no doubt that a change of attitudes is needed in Poland, in particular in regard to detention centers for unauthorized immigrants. Last fall, a scandal over detention center conditions made headlines; and asylum seekers across the country went on a mass hunger strike with a series of demands: the right to information in a language they understand, the right to contact the outside world, the right to proper healthcare and psychological care, education for minors, respect for children’s rights, improvement in cultural conditions within detention centers, an end to abuse and excessive violence and an end to criminalizing detainees.
The government has heard the protesters, and things are slowly beginning to change.