[Opinion] Why Poland Sheltering Ukrainians Now but not Syrians Before Is NOT a Case of Racism.
March 16th, a message like this appears on my Instagram Feed, reposted by an acquaintance of mine:
The reposted tweet says:
Can’t get it out of my head that Europe cried about a ‘migrant crisis’ in 2015 against 1.4M refugees fleeing war in Syria and yet quickly absorbed some 2M Ukrainians within days. complete with flags and piano music.
Europe never had a migrant crisis. It has a racism crisis.
I’ve seen stories of how there may have been racial issues on the Polish border, and have seen a couple of friends posting things along the lines of “Why wasn’t the world as outraged when Syrians were forced to flee?”, or “War is happening all across the globe today, but we don’t hear about it. Why are we paying attention only to the Ukraine conflict?” all across Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
I was just thinking that there is a grain of truth in it, but there are various reasons for it. So I skipped these, and allowed people to have their opinion- it’s everyone’s right.
But then, the Instagram post, claiming Europe is racist for showing a different reaction to Syrian crisis in 2015 and Ukrainian one now.
And to be honest, I got angry.
My first thought was (and that’s what I reposted to my story, replies to which inspired me to write this opinion piece):
“How can someone helping someone else still offend some people?!”
But thinking about it now, I think there is a bit more that needs addressing here.
Before you hear me out…
Now, to set the stage for my explanation below, I need to mention a couple things.
First off, I was supportive of welcoming Syrian refugees into Poland in 2015 and 2016. In fact, I was very actively participating in a social business challenge for students, specifically targeting the issue. I do not think how western Europe handled the immigration wave was 100% on point, but to this day, I strongly believe my country should have shown more support. So on that, I agree.
Second thing I would like to point out is, I cannot speak for other nations, so what I’ll write here is my perspective as a Pole on why some people who weren’t so welcoming back then are putting so much effort into helping out our neighbors- Ukraine. And since as of today (Mar. 17th, 2022), nearly 1.9M out of all 3M relocated Ukrainians have landed in Poland, the “Europe” mentioned in the tweet, to me, refers to Poland.
So here is why I do not agree that Poland being welcoming to Ukrainians but not so much Syrians before is a case of racism.
Why Are Poles Welcoming Ukrainians, but Didn’t Welcome Syrians
To answer this complex question, I would like to present a couple of my perspectives on the issue.
Poland’s primary responsibility is to Polish people
To give a bit of background, you need to understand the polish mindset regarding responsibility of our government before talking about other things.
As we aren’t a rich country, and are not among the world leadership like the US or Germany are, our understanding of the government is that its first and foremost responsibility is to its own citizens.
With limited resources, we feel in position to help only if it benefits us as well, or at the very least will not interfere with our way of things too much. Or is otherwise very relevant to us.
Otherwise, we cannot afford to be too supportive. Probably as a broke college student, you weren’t donating too much, right? So we are the broke college student. But if your good buddy asks for help, you’ll do all in your power.
Welcoming someone to your ACTUAL home
The big difference between handling of the Syrian refugee crisis and how the Ukrainians are welcomed in Poland is that there are no refugee camps set up in Poland for those fleeing the war.
Setting up a refugee camp with proper facilities is a large investment, which some said Poland could not afford at the time of Syrian crisis. So the way this crisis is handled right now is that people are literally opening their homes to refugees, which is a tough thing to ask from people.
In order for one to be willing to do something like this, to allow a stranger near one’s kids and beloved ones, the host would need to feel safe about it.
Ukrainian community in Poland is large, and has been there for ages. Over the years, they have proven they can very easily assimilate to the Polish society, as their language is similar, so it’s easy to learn Polish, their culture has a lot of familiar elements, we come from a very similar religion, and share virtually identical system of values and beliefs.
On another hand, we’ve observed the middle eastern immigration into other European countries for decades before the 2015 crisis, and time after time again, there have been strong clashes between locals and the immigrants, often based on cultural misunderstandings or differences and different system of values (e.g. treatment of women).
Not assigning any blame here, but frictions are unavoidable.
So the message is: Ukrainians in Poland have good rapport.
To give you a relatable analogy, imagine you receive a call at 2AM, and the person on the phone says “hey, so my wife kicked me out, can I crash at your couch?”
Your answer will depend on who’s calling.
You’ll likely welcome the person if this is a friend of yours whom you’ve known for a long time, have chemistry with, and have invited over time and time again, and they never caused trouble- in fact, each time they came, they respected the rules of your household, even helped you clean up after fun or prepare the dinner. That’s the kind of friend who shows up an hour before the party to help you finish preparations.
Now, if the person calling is someone you don’t know, have no connection with, but know of him/her, and know for a fact that they have very different interests and circle of friends from you, you may be cautious welcoming them to your home.
Our history is their present
Another thing to look at is that we (Poles) have more sympathy for what’s happening to Ukraine because we’ve suffered similar fate in the past from the same country as they are right now. We understand their struggle, and can relate. And there is this aspect of having a common “enemy” too, which we did not with Syrians.
Unified front of opposition for own security
I’ve seen opinions like “Europe only cares about war now that it’s at their door”. Indeed, this is happening so close to us, and we’re the next on the map.
It is my feeling that polish society still fears Russian aggression to some degree. Showing strong, united front against their aggression in Ukraine may discourage them from further advancing their military action into Europe (which would be Poland first).
And then there is the other thing…
I’m not so hip on mentioning these because they’re very eagerly used by conservative media, which I often don’t agree with and sharing that opinion may flag me as a supporter, which I’m not, but I think they have a point about this:
- The people we see flowing into Poland are predominantly elderly, women and children. That wasn’t really the case in 2015, or at least the society has seen multiple reports supporting that point of view. And I’m not saying men don’t need support, but seeing suffering kids and women definitely strikes a more emotional tune, and helps develop deep sympathy.
- Vast majority of the refugees from Ukraine are seeking a temporary shelter, while Syrian refugees often were seeking permanent relocation. And while I think there were totally ways to make that happen (and the way west of Europe welcomed Syrians wasn’t riddled with issues), and allow them to become a part of local society in the long term, that’s just my opinion, and I can see how the more conservative part of the society would have… concerns about this. And Poland is still predominantly conservative. In fact, conservative PiS (Law and Justice party) party has been selected to stay in power during last election.
So what’s the issue with Poland?
Issue is not a word I’d use, but we do have a certain mindset.
Poland has been known for our hospitality since medieval. But, it’s certainly not unconditional.
In analysis, my opinion is that it’s much easier to immigrate to Poland than it is to my country of residence- Taiwan, not to mention countries like USA. We’re not xenophobic as a nation, although we certainly do have certain groups that are (which nation doesn’t?).
In Poland, all are welcome, as long as they respect the fact Poland is Poland, and things will be kept a Polish way.
That’s the spirit I was raised in. I was taught that if you visit someone at their home, and they don’t wear shoes indoors, you should not step into their apartment wearing yours. And that’s the spirit I’ve been applying to my own immigration to Taiwan for the past 8 years.
Immigration is not something everyone is entitled to. In XXI century, there are so many choices for people. If your choice is to live in Poland, you need to respect our rules.
Meaning, we love people who assimilate well! Shout out to Ukrainians, Vietnamese, and other nations that became an integral part of our society!
And the concern the conservatives had with welcoming a wave of Syrian refugees was their ability (or lack thereof) to assimilate.
Your targeting is off, buddy!
I think much more meaningful question to ask by the poster of the tweet I commented on would be:
“If a neighboring country with similar language, religion, and system of values proves they can be supportive to refugees in times of war, why Syria’s neighbors haven’t reacted the same way as Poland is now, so the victims of war wouldn’t have to seek refuge in a completely strange land”.
That’s a better question.
It all boils down to this:
To me, it all boils down to relevancy and relatability as the number 1 reason why Poles chose to help now, but not in 2015.
I’m not an expert, that’s just my perspective. And again, I myself was supportive of welcoming Syrians into my country, and still think refusing entry is something we should be ashamed of, but I definitely don’t think our current efforts should be discredited because of what could be considered our past mistakes by some.
So, why don’t we focus on how countless households provided shelter at their own private spaces, committed funds, time, and effort to provide supplies to those fighting and still fleeing Ukraine, and expect nothing in return.
What do you think?