Once a refugee, always a refugee?

Migration forms part of my DNA. Displacement runs through my family history. It constitutes an inextricable part of my identity. I am a great granddaughter, a granddaughter, and a daughter of refugees. Maybe this is why I often feel like a refugee? Unlike my ancestors I had a choice and I have chosen to leave the country, in which I was born.

My grandfather was born in Kars, a town close to the Turkish/Russian, to a Greek father (a soldier in the White Russian mother) and a Russian mother. My grandma was born in Smyrna to Greek parents. The Turks killed her mother during the Balkan wars. Both families had to move to Greece as part of the Greek-Turkish population transfer after the wars. My Greek grandparents both grew up to be communist and met during the WWII in the Greek resistance movement. They fought in the civil war and when Stalin betrayed them and struck a deal with Churchill and withdrew his support for the Greek communists, they had to flee Greece. They became homeless and stateless, stripped of their citizenship by the Greek government for their role in the civil war. Despite the withdrawal of military support by Russia, socialist states were ordered to open their borders and offer help and support. My grandparents were shipped first to Uzbekistan, and then transferred to Rumania, where my mother was born, and finally to Poland.

30000 Greek refugees found a new home in Poland. I was told that the Poles, having just been through a huge population transfer themselves, welcomed the Greek refugees with kindness and generosity. They gave them homes, jobs, and education. I have never felt discriminated or excluded in Poland, although I always felt different. People were curious rather than hostile. Many Poles admired antiquity. For poets such as Herbert, Miłosz, and Szymborska Greek history, philosophy, art, and literature constituted crucial points of reference in trying to understand Poland’s position and role in the world. Greece, like Poland, belonged simultaneously to the West and to the East. Many people knew who Kazantzakis or Ritsos were. I don’t think they know anymore.

What was life really like under communism?

For a child born in Poland in 1978 to a middle class family life under communism was very happy. There was free childcare and education provided by the state. We did not have great amenities, but I had extremely devoted teachers throughout my formative years. After school, there was a huge number of extra-curricular activities, most of which were for free. Those who showed skill and interest could join maths, physics, chemistry, and geography interests groups after school. We had a theatre group and run a school newspaper. Sport clubs were subsidised by the state. There was not enough time in the day to use all educational opportunities. Education was valued and supported more than anything else. Admittedly, access to educational opportunities was not equal across Poland. I was lucky to be born in a big city, in a middle class suburb, surrounded by the so-called intelligentsia. But the standard of education was generally high and access to it wide.

Of course, there were trade-offs in other areas of life. I remember not having a passport at home and having to apply for it every time we wanted to travel abroad. There would be an interview, and a thorough check of hundreds of documents. And there were queues! Anticipating delivery of basic items, such as meet, butter, cheese, or… toilette paper people would form queues at dawn and wait for hours, and sometimes even days (there would be a list of the queue members to enable them to go to work and not lose their spot). There was no real coffee or chocolate, and I can still feel in my mouth the insipid buttery taste of the chocolate substitute. There was no exotic fruit and we saw oranges or bananas only at Christmas. I was only a few years old, but I remember the empty shelves in the shops and the struggle for medicines, when my grandma got ill. I remember no real colours on the streets; everything was rather black and white. Many years later I learned, to my surprise, that life in the 1970s’ north of Britain was not very different. Perhaps this is why Poles and Brits share similar abstract and surreal sense of humour?

What happened in 1989?

Everything changed. My mum and dad lost their jobs almost from one day to the next, although she was an architect and he was an art historian restoring old buildings. Brought up under the socialist system they were not really prepared for the neo-liberal free-market economy rules. The adaptation process was tough and incomplete. During the first few years my mum had to keep three jobs to keep the family afloat. Fortunately, thanks to generous help of a family member my mum got a good job as a project manager and we were fine, better than fine, actually. I was able to spend summer holidays at a language school in the UK, travel, and pursue different interests. But my mum never went back full-time to architecture, which was her passion. At first, there was too much elbowing, too much corruption, and then it was probably too late. We were the lucky ones.

Poland became a democracy and the Polish society tried very hard to reinvent itself. Recent political events might suggest that these attempts were much less successful than originally thought. Millions of working class Poles lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and subsequently their dignity; women lost some of their fundamental rights; and the Catholic Church replaced the Polish United Workers’ Party as a hegemon.

What is your experience of moving to the UK?

Honestly? Easier than anticipated and pretty liberating, but not entirely straightforward. I left Poland because due to endemic nepotism at Polish universities at the time, it was made clear to me that it would be difficult for me to find a job. I also wanted to escape the growing influence of the Catholic Church and the conservatism of the Polish society. But I never thought I could find work in the UK and I was shocked when I got my first job offer in a Law Department at the University of Exeter. I got many jobs afterwards and I felt valued in most of them. And yet, I still feel like an impostor. I did not study here, not did I complete my PhD here. So how can I possibly teach English Law? My husband – who is English through and through - says, it’s because I am a woman and a refugee. Perhaps he is right. How many refugee women ask themselves the same question?

To my surprise I found most British people, especially working class people, blue and white collar workers, extremely warm and open, very straightforward, unpretentious. I found friends here, I found love, and family. I guess, with my family history, it is only natural that it is easier for me to feel at home in many places, Poland, Greece, in the UK... as long as I have people I love by my side.

There was only one moment during the last 10 years, which made me doubt all of this. My mum was dying in a hospital in Warsaw and I was at the Manchester airport, trying to catch a plane. I had been told my mum could have only hours to live. Although I had packed my suitcase long in advance (just in case), I had too many liquids in my little plastic bag. I still remember the cold empty stare of the airport worker as I was going through security. She seemed to move in slow motion. I tried to plead with her, but she followed the procedure to the latter, moving slowly and methodically through my clothes… In that moment, I hated her and the British obedience and respect for the law and for the rules… I hated every distance that ever existed between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, who for some reason got separated and could not say goodbye to each other. Fortunately, I got there in time and I did say goodbye. But I will never forget that feeling of complete powerlessness in relation to state institutions and frustration with geographical distance that refugees must experience more than once in their lives.

Once a refugee, always a refugee.

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Created: 19 Jun 2019, 11:51 p.m.

Nationality: Polish, Greek