Working with Chechen asylum seekers in Poland


Refugees Center II; Linin, Warsaw (Summer 2008), Katerina Stoyanova

My volunteer experience started with a workcamp. I was simply looking for a summer that makes a difference and asked my old friend Google for advice. Google wisely searched throughout thousands of opportunities for a great summer and my attention was attracted by SCI International work camps search engine.  It offered a variety of options (more than 800) and I decided to limit them by filtering the workcamps by topic. The first topic, Antiracism, Antifascism, Refugees and Ethnic Minorities, seemed to be the most appealing to me and that is how I found my first workcamp at Refugee Center II in Linin, near Warsaw, Poland. The website advised that I need to get in touch with the local branch and I found out that this is CVS – Bulgaria. I called and a very nice young lady, later on I found out this is Snezhina, explained what is the procedure to apply. When I was accepted to participate in the work camp I had to pay a fee and a deposit, the last I received back upon my returning back after the project. I was really stressed out because the organization was fairly unknown to me and I did not have an idea what it will be like to be there with strangers for two weeks in a foreign country. I had several conversations with the staff at CVS – Bulgaria as I had to ease my mind and relax before going abroad. The coordinator of the workcamp, a nice girl called Nadzieja, wrote to all approved participants few weeks before the workcamp with some useful information and the actual info sheet. Thus the closer the start date was getting, the more confident I was feeling.  Below is what the work camp looked from distance to me:

  • DATES: July 26, 2008, – August 9
  • TOPIC: Antiracism, antifascism, refugees and ethnic minorities
  • DESCRIPTION: KIDS, EDU There are 19 centers for asylum seekers in Poland and very often new one is opened. Most of the refugees in Poland are Chechens. Linin is a small city and nice city, not far away from Warsaw and it will be the second project in this center. The aim of the workcamp is to bring energy of volunteers and spirit of international solidarity to the center.
  • WORK: Organizing games, art classes, sport events for children and teenagers, English teaching.
  • STUDY: Workshops on refugees in Poland and worldwide.
  • ACOMMODATION : An apartment close to the center
  • QUALIFICATIONS: Knowledge of Russian language
  • EXTRA INFO: Workcamp closed for Russian volunteers due to the rules of the center.

    photo of volunteers

    as a group we worked out any problems together

When I arrived at the venue the work camp started to mean a lot more to me than the info sheet said. The most important of course was the camp coordinator, a polish girl with an extensive experience in working with refugees in Poland as well as abroad.  She was very into the topic and organized a great study part and a meeting with the director of the refugee centre. Right there I learned that a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.  Poland acceded to the Geneva Refugee Convention in the version of the New York Protocol in 1991. Since 2000, Chechnya has become the main region of origin of asylum seekers in Poland. The situation of asylum seekers in Poland changed fundamentally on 1 May 2004, when the country became a Member State of the EU. The Dublin II Regulation stipulates that the EU State first entered by the asylum seeker is responsible for implementation of the asylum process. We were also explained what is the difference between Refugee Status and ‘Tolerated Stay’ Permit.  A person with a ‘tolerated stay’ permit has the right to: Education, Right to stay in Poland, Right to seek employment, Medical insurance , while a refugee has in addition two more rights: Program for Integration assistance, Geneva passport.

the kids enjoyed making handicrafts like this mask

Of course the knowledge I got would be like reading from a book if there was not for the great team I worked with and the warm welcome of the Chechen families and kids. There were 6 of us and the coordinator, girls only from all over the world: Poland, Bulgaria, Italy, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Ireland and Japan. We shared a small apartment, household duties and our free time activities. We had a lot of fun and with some of the girls I remained a friend for life. During the weekends we were travelling and I managed to see Krakow and Warsaw and get more close to polish culture and people.  We had arguments and even a crisis in the group but our leader was able to facilitate a discussion and together we managed to work it out.

However our main aim was the kids. We had brought a lot of materials with us and we organized a full day program for them. The day started with klanza, a favorite game that brought joy and made more open and less scared even the smallest children in the camp. Then we did different handicrafts, puzzles and some English lessons.  Afternoons started with singing and dancing in different languages, as the colorful as the team was.  Then we continued the day with sports competitions, painting and reading.

photo of volunteers

the food was delicious

At the end of the day we were really tired, there were a lot of kids and paying the equal attention to every child was a hard task. But as the days were passing the confidence of the children was growing and they were participating more, helping each other, were eager to learn new things, share stories.  The families were getting more open too and we were invited to dinner s, tea and small gatherings of women. They taught us how to dance Chechen dances. I taught them how to prepare banitza.

The hardest of all was the farewell. We were already friends in the group of volunteers and with the people from the camp, so it was sad to part. I remember I cried a lot as one child, a very bright boy named Islam came to me with an empty notebook and asked me to write all the English words I know, so he can learn while I am gone. This was a heartbreaking moment but one of the sweetest memories from my first experience as a volunteer which changed the direction of my life.