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GFPS e. V. > Programm > Archiv > 2018 > Ukrainer*innen in Polen – von Perspektivwechseln und neuen Ufern > Interview II: Sergii

Interview II: Sergii

[Photo] Sergii

Sergii, 34, came to Poland in 2014. He is a MA student of Cultural Studies at Wrocław University and works as an educator of civic education at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Last year, official statistics stated that 10% of Wrocław’s population is now Ukrainian. What makes so many Ukrainians come here?
These are the official statistics, actually there are many more. It has changed in 2017 because of new visa regulations. Now people with biometrical passports can come here without a visa. Also they do not have to register anymore for working here one or two months if they go back to Ukraine afterwards. These special rules made even more people come here. I am pretty sure there it is not 10% but perhaps even 20%. It is of course not a fixed group – some people stay, some leave, they come back again. Working in Poland is a source of income for them.
So, it is about economic reasons and a better income?
Yes, for most of the people coming, economic reasons play a leading part in their decision. It is not about “becoming European” and to live in Europe in terms of specific standards. Of course, when they live here they start to like e.g. the way things are organised – from public transportation to working conditions. Comparing Poland to Ukraine you can see a big difference in terms of infrastructure. But still, the main reason is the income, you can simply earn more money working in construction here than in Ukraine.
And what about you, how come you are here?
For the main part I wanted to live closer to certain standards that are important to me, e.g. the rule of law, culture and life in public space. Of course, there were also economic factors, but not at the first place. And me and my brother, we could move easily because we could prove our Polish roots.
How did your procedure look like?
Being in Poland already I applied for a permanent residency card – karta stałego pobytu – a procedure which is related to a fifteen-minute “exam”. During this interview you have to prove your language skills, show your connections to Poland and Polish culture and also state that you consider yourself Polish. I told them also about my former work in the EU, in the Netherlands, and what I was planning to do in Poland. As I have Polish ancestors, this was something important to mention, too.
What role does migration from the conflict zones in Eastern Ukraine and Donbas play? Do people from there come to Poland at all?
It was generally assumpted that the majority of Ukrainian migrants moved to Poland from Western Ukraine because they can already speak Polish, but this is one of many false assumptions. Now in every small town in whole Ukraine you will find people who have a relative working in Poland. It is at the first place of destination countries. There are some Facebook groups where Russian speaking Ukrainians are quite active, many of them from Dnipropetrovsk and the industrial regions around. That’s why you can get the feeling there are a lot of people from Eastern Ukraine – because they are visible in these groups.
Beside Facebook groups, is there a strong network or community existing among Ukrainian migrants in Poland?
From my first time in Poland, in Legnica, I remember there was the historical diaspora organisation “Union of Ukrainians in Poland” – Związek Ukrainców w Polsce – that has been active in cultural fields, organising concerts, Ukrainian classes etc. since the 1950s. As since 2014 there were more people coming, new ideas appeared to create bigger networks, also business wise. For example, every Ukrainian coming to Legnica should receive information and there should evolve a proper community. But as it became a mass migration and there were so many people coming, this did not work anymore.
So, the Ukrainian migrants in Poland have become “lone fighters”?
Ukrainians in Poland are not connected at all, they stay in their smaller reference groups of family and friends. I think there is even no need for most of them to be part of the Ukrainian community. Sometimes there are funny discussions in the Facebook groups I mentioned before, e.g. one asking if there is anyone from Dnipropevtrovsk to meet for barbecue and people commenting ‘what for’, if the only thing they have in common is their home town … There is not one group of Ukrainians but many, all with different perceptions and attitudes towards this sense of “community”, depending on their background, their age. There are Ukrainian organisations such as Fundacja Ukraina but they rather work as a first contact point that help people organise themselves.
How visible are Ukrainians in Wrocław as fellow citizens?
There is still a low level of active participation by Ukrainians in the cultural sphere of the city. They often live according to their image of an outsider. Ukrainians are involved rather as consumers, not yet as “creators”, let’s say.
In “Wir Strebermigranten”, Polish-German author Emilia Smechowski claims that the Poles coming to Germany in the 1980s have assimilated in record time in order to build their career while completely repressing their Polish background. Do you see parallels here?
As there are so many Ukrainians in Poland now, of course you have also these people that come and kind of disappear as migrants. For example, my brother is now a boss and fully integrated in terms of equality to Polish fellow citizens on a professional level. However, it is not that easy to build a career as a migrant, not because of discrimination as such but it is just harder to reach certain positions. My brother experienced that. He had problems being not Polish, not “local” enough. There is a stereotype of Ukrainians as cheap labourers and it is hard to prove that you strive for something else. There are some Ukrainians in Wrocław that developed their small business. They already belonged to middle class in Ukraine and had a good financial status before they moved here – otherwise it would not have been possible. Your career and lifestyle pretty much depend on the social status you had already before. Interestingly enough, these people do not emphasise their Ukrainian background, they just want to have their successful business. However, they do not represent the majority of Ukrainian migrants in Poland. The Ukrainians working in the IT sector in Wrocław or Kraków are, again, a totally different group. They often stay in their international expat environment and e.g. do not have any connection to the “world” of most of Ukrainian workers, they live in their own cosmos …
How does the Polish state deal with migration from Ukraine? And did you experience any bureaucratic hurdles?
I personally was lucky because I applied still at the beginning of the vast migration. Nowadays people wait for months or even one year to get a simple temporary permit of residence, not to mention the long waiting queues everywhere or the situation at the border. The Polish services are not capable to deal with such a number of migrants coming, they are overstrained now even if you want to register a car. However, it is very positive for the economy at the same time, as there are so many Poles leaving to the West. So, Ukrainians are now actually helping local companies and farms to function.
And the public discourse, what is the official statement by the authorities on this topic?
In terms of a public discourse Ukrainians are invisible in Poland. Everyone knows, they just do not mention the topic – at most as justification not to receive more refugees from other countries. One week ago, the Minister of Foreign Affairs used this argument again in the European Parliament. Things are falsely mixed up here, as Polish economy has become dependent on these cheap labourers from Ukraine and the public budget benefits from their taxes, too. However, the current government does not even address the issue not to lose voters that are sensitive here. There are a lot of grassroots initiatives and people manage somehow, but not on a governmental level, no political or PR strategy.
What is the situation like for long term residents? And do you personally feel somehow “Polish” in the meantime?
The situation is very unclear. On the one side, they are seen as already “Polish” enough to organise themselves. But at the same time, they are still considered Ukrainian in the sense of foreigners in Polish society. I am not considering myself as Polish, also because Polish people do not see me as such. For example, I do not speak the language purely, so I am not Polish for them. It would be bizarre and a fake construct to me and to others to present myself as a Pole.
What other points of reference are important for your identity then?
Geographically and socially, probably, I am from Ukraine, from Kiev. Still, I would not say that I am primarly Ukrainian because it does not make me proud or anything. I feel it is important to mention that I am from Ukraine sometimes insofar as to be present and considered involved in the city, too. In this way Polish people see that they cannot only buy stuff at Żabka1 from a Ukrainian or get their flat cleaned by a one, but they can meet one at the same level, as an equal citizen. I do not want to be this “good Ukrainian”, but for some I represent that. I wish it would be more like that, there is still a lot of stigmatisation.
Being active in the city and in local structures, did that help you to find your place in this complex situation?
It was, but in the sense that I got to know people with same interests. These activities were the impulse. Being interested and capable to take part in such things is always a big plus. However, I think not many Ukrainians are like that.
Maybe because they have to ensure their livelihood first?
No, not only. It is about peoples’ principles and the majority of Ukrainans here is rather passive in these topics. It is just not their priority to participate in e.g. the anti-smog movement or to protest against a new shopping mall. They say, if I do not like it here, I should go back to Ukraine. This attitude can be explained by the low level of civil society engagement in Ukraine, the missing trust in politics, the corruption etc. Young Ukrainians are often different, but I did not see a strong representation of Ukrainians in Czarny Protest, for example.
Emilia Smechowski relates her childhood to a ban of Polish language in public, her family felt ashamed of being visible as Poles. Are Ukrainians cautious speaking their mother tongue in public?
If you are in a supermarket and hear someone speaking Ukrainian you avoid outing yourself as one, I see people ignoring or smiling, but never an extrovert reaction. People do not feel ashamed as such but hearing Ukrainian in public has just become so trivial that no one pays attention any more. Ukrainians are present everywhere and you can hear Ukrainian or Russian everywhere, that is the normal situation today. It is not special anymore, you are “one of millions”.

Thank you, Sergii!


  1. Chain of convenience stores in Poland. ↩︎

Lotta Storm, Paula Sawatzki

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