As Charles de Gaulle said once, “Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself”. I believe that in times of crisis people reveal their true selves, displaying character traits that are unknown and surprising even to themselves. All wars and crises involve inhuman cruelty and violence, but also amazing acts of heroism and solidarity…
The world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II made me see how cruel and hateful a human being can be. And I don’t mean warmakers. I mean my Polish Facebook friends who from one day to another started posting hate messages next to Minions memes and cat videos. People that I have always considered polite and educated; mums from FB support groups, my former classmates, even sweet elderly ladies from the neighbourhood. Hateful, insulting anti-refugees and anti-Islam fan pages were created one after another, gaining hundreds thousands of followers within a few days. Even worse, hatred moved from the Internet to the streets; anti-refugees demonstrations gathered thousands of people in several Polish cities. People were holding banners with threats to kill immigrants. Some of them came to the manifestation with small children…
Everyone is entitled to their own views regarding taking refugees in Poland. I can understand and I totally respect different views on this issue, scepticism of Poland’s capacities to take refugees, criticisism, lack of knowledge and fear. However, I cannot understand hatred. I refuse to understand how descendants of concentration camp survivors can chant “Open Auschwitz again and burn Islamic pigs”! I refuse to understand and I’m scared of that hatred…
One evening, while I was scrolling my Facebook feed, I found an article on one of my favourite travel blogs Family Without Borders that expressed my thoughts exactly. And Anna Alboth, the blog author, did not just condemn hatred; she took action. She decided to gather sleeping bags for Berlin-based refugees in several Polish cities with little hello messages inside to show them Polish empathy. And who gave her this idea? One of the refugees who are staying in Anna’s flat. Yes, you read it right; Anna, Thomas and their little daughters host three men in their flat and have a wonderful experience; the guys are friendly, cook great meals, help around the house and play with the girls.
It was an on-the-spot decision; we’re going to join in Anna’s action. I immediately contacted a friend from Migrant Info Point, an organization that supports foreigners in Poznań. We agreed to start collecting sleeping bags at the manifestation of support for refugees that took place in Poznań on the 12th of September. After that people still could bring sleeping bags to MIP office, to Mały Książek second hand book shop and Blubra Café; on the 19th of September we would drive to Berlin to deliver the bags to the refugees with Anna and her family.
When the manifestation started, after a quarter there was already a pile of sleeping bags; my son Michał found them comfy and said they will be comfy for Syrian kids, too. (PICTURES).
He also recruited a helper “because we collect these sleeping bags for kids who escape from war and need our help”.
This project had a special meaning for me since my 30th birthday was approaching and I wanted to give this day a special meaning, to start a whole new decade of solidarity. Volunteering has always been a huge part of our family life and we had always taught our children to be tolerant and open-minded towards others.
On my birthday afternoon we made hello cards for refugees. I was surprised since Andres didn’t draw- as usual- Cars or Disney characters. “I will cut a paper house for them, they must be sad to be very far from home”, he said. We also pinned the “Refugees Welcome” badge in Polish to the card.
Meanwhile, surfing the Internet became a real emotional rollercoaster. On one hand, there were more and more hate messages agains refugees, the story of a Hungarian journalist who kicked refugee children, and – the most scary – attacks on Muslims on the streets of European cities. On the other hand, there were amazing stories, like that one of German crowds warmly welcoming refugees at the train station . Many fellow bloggers from Multicultural Kid Blogs responded to the crisis compiling a list of practical ways to help Syrian refugees.
People around also reacted in many different ways to the news of our trip. “Hanna, I know that you have a big heart and you want to help, but are you sure it’s a safe thing to do with kids? Didn’t you see videos from Hungary or Greece? There are crowds all over the place throwing rocks at Innocent people and destroying everything on their way! ” – one friend said. “Be aware, Muslims behead Christian children! Someone can beat you up just because you’re not wearing a burka”! – said another one. But we also got a lot of support. A university colleague that I haven’t seen in years has sent me a generous check, which allowed me to buy brand new six sleeping bags! Another friend, despite busy preparations for her wedding, came to the demonstration with her family and brought two sleeping bags with her kids’ lovely drawings. Finally, all lovely ladies from MIP did an amazing job organising a huge pile of goods in small space and sharing information about the project all around the Internet.
The day before our trip we were surprised to find more than 90 sleeping bags, 15 sleeping pads and even a few huge bags with warm clothes in MIP office! It took us two car rides to take it all home and we realised that we need to hire a bigger car to transport it all to Berlin! Fortunately there was another great hero of the sleeping bags’ story, a guy called Marcin who not only took the goods from the other collection points, but also those we couldn’t fit in the trunk! Like us, Marcin didn’t know Ania before the action, but spontaneously offered his help.
Finally the day has come; we packed the sleeping bags and set off for Berlin. Anna, Thomas, Hanna and Mila gave us a warm welcome in their flat, we had a lunch together and met two of their guests: Radomil from Montenegro and Akil from Syria.
After lunch we went to the refugee registration centre, LaGeSo, where people have to queue for weeks before they get a registration number. Anna told us that there are about 2000 people waiting in the line and on the first day of the action she gave out more than a hundred of sleeping bags immediately.
On Saturday the centre is closed; when we arrived, there were only about twenty people who were waiting on the street in front of the centre for the whole weekend to move forward in a queue.
We got out of the car and showed the sleeping bags to a few men gathered on the street. They came closer to the car, looking at us curiously. “Sleeping bags…for you…from Poland!”, we explained, taking the sleeping bags out of the car one by one. People patiently waited for their turn, nobody was pushing. One guy from Afghanistan politely rejected the sleeping bag because he was spending the night with a family member and “it’s warm in his house”. However, on the contrary to what we heard on Facebook, nobody threw our sleeping bags on the ground, nobody asked us for money or smartphones.
The men gathered in front of LaGeSo came from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Macedonia. One of the guys’ wife and children were staying at a refugee camp in Lebanon; he was planning to bring them to Germany once he was granted asylum. I could see he missed his family since he was looking at my boys with sadness and tenderness in his eyes.
The men spoke very little English; they kept on repeating “thank you” and “shukrun”. One man from Pakistan was especially touched to find a card from Wojtek from Poznań in his sleeping bag and asked us for a picture.
Michałki, common Polish candies, were a big hit; once we made sure they were halal approved, the men took whole handfuls of the candy and they smiled to hear they had my son’s name.
As for Michał himself, as you can see he was working very hard.
At one point an elegant man in a suit jacket came up to us and introduced himself as profesor Mahmoud Ibrahim. It turned out that he was a director and lecturer at DEURABIKA, Diversity Management Institute, and he came to LaGeSo everyday as a volunteer translator. We were very glad to met him since he could translate for us some of the refugees’ stories, like the sad tale of Fatma from Syria and her beautiful family who came to Berlin on the very same day after one month spent on the road. They were held in a refugee camp in Hungary for one week, her husband and her were handcuffed and pushed around by the police. “Very. very bad people”! – said Fatma, and although she was smiling, I could see fear and sadness in her eyes. “Here, in Germany, good people! And in Poland, we care”! – I said, holding her hand and pointing at the sleeping bags and toys. Back in Syria Fatma’s husband was a carpentry business owner. He wants to learn German and start working as soon as possible. What kind of job? “Any job, for my family”- he said and Mr Ibrahim translated for me.
Andrés gave out children’s sleeping bags to Fatma’s kids, a 2yo, a 4yo and a 6yo. We were laughing when the 6yo boy politely refused a fluffy animal. “This no…baby”! he said, pointing at his little brother. Andrés totally understood him; it’s obvious that big boys don’t play with baby toys! “We must bring him a Hot Wheels car, mummy!, he said.
It was time to come back to Poznań. Mr. Ibrahim promised that we can contact him anytime, visit him in his office and ask any questions regarding refugees. He was clearly surprised with our action. “Your government…and your people don’t want refugees”, he said sadly and I didn’t know what to answer. Fortunately, Anna helped me. “But we care! People in Poland care! You are welcome!” – she repeated slowly and clearly. People smiled and shaked our hands and I suddenly saw the importance of Anna’s action. How important it is to realize that despite all the hatred and cruelty we CAN make a difference, one thought at a time, one human at a time. How important it is to see a human in the crowd and to show that this human matters; that one, particular person who will feel warm in your sleeping bag tonight. And maybe, in a moment of sadness and doubt, far away from home, a few words on the card from Poland will make them smile…
As we were driving through the rainy streets of Berlin, I was thinking on how little all the hysterical threads about “refugees’ invasion” on Facebook had to do with reality. Berlin looks are usual, Berliners are living their lives and apart from the registration point you wouldn’t even notice the refugees’ presence. Despite numerous warnings on the Internet, we didn’t meet any “wild crowds” that would block the streets, break into people’s houses and throw stones at infidels. The space around LaGeSo was clean, nobody was throwing liter on the street.
We came back to Poland safe and sound, with our heads still on our necks and with a feeling that we did the right thing!
If you would like to join Anna’s action, you can find all the relevant information here: http://thefamilywithoutborders.com/refugees-taking-action-sleeping-bags-2015-10-01/
There are more heart-warming stories and beautiful pictures on the Family Without Borders Facebook page; up to date they gave out 1750 sleeping bags! Amazing job!