Based on interviews with migrant workers in Wałbrzych. Names have been changed to protect privacy. The first part and photo gallery can be found here.
Sveta worked as a journalist in Poltava, a city in central-eastern Ukraine. Since the war started, she constantly heard combat aircrafts taking off and landing in the airbase located near the city. Battles were taking place far away, but still she couldn’t overcome the fear that someday she and her two sons would wake up in a war zone. Her husband found a Polish job agency specialized in sending Ukrainians to work in Polish factories. They decided that first he would go abroad alone. After three months, Sveta with their sons joined him.
“We didn’t know whether they would send us north or south, it didn’t really matter. I just wanted to wake up without hearing the noise of combat aircrafts.”
They ended up in Piaskowa Góra, a huge housing estate in Wałbrzych, where many Ukrainian workers live. The job agency outsourced them to Cersanit, a Polish factory producing ceramic sheets. Her husband works in the warehouse where he prepares the ceramic sheets to be sent away. Sveta works in the main hall, at the producing line, she puts lacquer on polished ceramics. If she makes a mistake, the ceramic sheet becomes useless. In order to earn the minimum wage (10 złoty per hour) the quality rate of her work has to reach 90%. If she works less efficiently, the factory’s manager reduces her monthly salary. She could earn more if she was hired directly by the factory, as the job agency takes 1/3 of her wage. The working system in the factory is divided in two twelve hours shifts. The first one starts at 6 AM, the second at 6 PM. The factory stoves operate non-stop. Sveta and her husband see each other mostly on Sundays as they have to take different shifts in order to take care of their children.”Life is hard. I am not working in my profession. But still it is better than it used to be. All I wanted is a better life for my sons. The older one goes to a Polish primary school and he has adapted really easily. The other one is in a nursery school,” says Sveta.
Although she has been in Poland for eight months, she is still waiting to obtain her temporary residence permit which would entitle her to travel. For Ukrainians in Poland, waiting for documents is one of the major problems. Some of Sveta’s friends have already waited almost two years to get them. The second problem is loneliness. “For a couple of months, I met Ukrainians only at work. A few days before Easter, my friend asked me if I was going to the church service. I was shocked that in Wałbrzych there was an Orthodox church. How come I didn’t know about it for all those months?” – Sveta looks surprised as we sit with other members of the Ukrainian community gathered around Mariusz Kiślak, a Polish Orthodox priest.
“Sadly the majority of Ukrainians in Wałbrzych do not know about the church, and the sense of being part of a community that shares similar problems is extremely important when you are an immigrant.”
Lately Olga and Sasha have become grandparents. Their grandson was born in Ukraine as his parents still live there. Two years ago Olga and Sasha, who were living in a small town in Crimea, decided to go abroad. They wanted to make some savings for the future. Sasha’s brother was working in Wałbrzych as a bus driver, they joined him as the public transport service was seeking for more drivers. Olga, who worked as vet in Ukraine, had to find another job because her qualifications weren’t valid in Poland.
“I worked as a cleaner in several drugstores. They fired me today. Do you want to know why?” she asks as we listen to her and her husband’s story during the meeting in the local authorities’ office, where Ukrainian migrants attend a Polish language course. “They fired me due to the conflict that I had with a pharmacist in the drugstore – Olga continues. – She had been very nasty towards me for several months. For a very long time, I didn’t know why, I became a target of her malicious remarks. Until the day when she shouted at me: ‘My grandfather was murdered during the II World War by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army!’ How can I take responsibility for the history I wasn’t even part of? I submitted an official complaint to the head of the drugstore arguing that she doesn’t have the right to mob me because of her family’s history. Instead of solving the conflict, they fired me,” Olga complains.
Unfortunately, her case is not unique as many Wałbrzych citizens are descendants of the people who after the II World War were resettled here from the Eastern borderlands which then became part of the USSR. The historical context of turbulent Polish-Ukrainian relations is still vital here. Unlike Olga, Sasha is satisfied with his job as a bus driver. He works eight hours a day, six days a week. During his leisure time he plays guitar and sings Ukrainian songs with his friends from the Polish language course. Olga dreams about opening her own Ukrainian restaurant. “I hope someday it will happen, yet I don’t know whether in Wałbrzych or somewhere else,” she adds.
The Visegrad caravan is travelling through the cities and towns of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, exploring the experiences and struggles of migrant communities. Follow us on social media on the hashtags #TranseuropaCaravans #VisegradRoute.