Migrant Lives

Polish Immigrants Come Home For Christmas, If Only In Their Dreams

Poles in the United States, Brazil and Britain recount how they've tried to adapt to the season in their new homelands. It can be bittersweet, as Polish traditions for them still hold sway.

Christmas reflections in Krakow
Christmas reflections in Krakow
Jerzy Ziemacki

CHICAGO — In Poland, the highlight of this season is Christmas Eve, when families gather to have an abundant 12-course meal. Agnieszka even has two. Ever since emigrating to Chicago 28 years ago, she awakes on Dec. 24 and immediately begins preparing for the big dinner. After putting on an evening dress, she makes a video call to Poland, where her aunts and uncles are already sitting at a sumptuous table, next to a real Christmas tree.

Agnieszka still recalls the days when she recorded her Christmas greetings on a VHS tape and sent it to her loved ones by mail. Now her happy face appears in her family via digital screen, as 19th century portraits of her ancestors hang on the walls back home.

Of course, it's still not the same as being there.

Agnieszka isn't alone in Chicago, though. She's married to an American and lives in the same building as her parents, who came with her to the United States. Like many other Polish immigrants fleeing communism in the 1980s, they came to the U.S. poor and lonely, knowing that there was no turning back.

Christmas far away from home was a difficult time, so Agnieszka's family initiated a Chistmas Eve tradition in which they hosted new friends among the Polish diaspora. "We invited all friends we knew who would otherwise spend this evening alone," Agnieszka says. People from different areas of the country brough traditional dishes from their regions, and the overall atmosphere was very festive.

"We didn't serve any strong alcohol, but we did have wine and liquor, which helped with the integration," Agnieszka says. "I am a very tolerant person, so if somebody wanted to smoke grass, I had nothing against it."

But 2001 was the last Christmas Eve that Agnieszka and her family celebrated with other Polish immigrants. The group crumbled as many of its members spread out all over the United States, others returned to Poland, and still others assimilated into American society.

"With time, as you feel more and more at home in the new country, your links with your countrymen loosen," Agnieszka says.

Christmas on the beach

Anna, 30, left Poland five years ago for South America. "In a Brazilian family, everybody wishes Merry Christmas to each other at midnight and then heads towards the beach to meet up with friends and have a beer," she says. Even though the temperature is very hot there in December, Santa strolls through the shopping centers, and fake snow decorates artificial Christmas trees in Brazilian houses.

Christmas in Sao Paulo. Photo: Ricardo Castro

Anna doesn't miss a white Christmas. All the fever of preparation before the few days of celebration seemed too stressful. The easygoing Brazilian attitude, on the other hand, hit just the right note for her. In her new home, her friends sit at the Christmas table in flip-flops and shorts.

Boxing day in London

After growing up in the Polish mining region of Silesia, Kasia left home at 18, fed up with the "angry and grey faces" around her, and headed for England. She came in July hoping for the best, but the reality turned out to be difficult.

She spent the first six months working back-breaking jobs all day long, only realizing that Christmas was upon her a few days before Dec. 25. "I was shocked because nothing around me announced the upcoming celebrations," she says. Back in Poland everything and everybody changed as the end of December approached. "People become nicer to each other, warmer," she says. "You can feel the Christmas in the air."

Kasia says her first Christmas Eve in Britain was a disaster. Although she and her friends tried to organize a celebration in the Polish way, the Christmas spirit they felt in their homeland just wasn't there. Even the meals they bought in one of the many Polish stores didn't have the flavor they knew from back home. The key ingredient, the spiritual dimension, was missing, Kasia says.

"The most significant thing the English people do is shopping."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!