‘Kitchen of Conflict’: Through the stomach towards tolerance

Jarmiła and Muhamadjon [Kitchen of Conflict]

Poland and Hungary are the only two EU countries that have not accepted any refugees under the EU relocation and resettlement programme. Politicians who talked about “Europe’s suicide” and “dangerous diseases” brought by refugees have managed to convince many Poles that refugees should be feared.

In an interview with EURACTIV Poland’s Karolina Zbytniewska, Jarmila Rybicka talks about how her project tries to overcome fears and stereotypes.

Jarmila Rybicka is the co-founder of the “Kitchen of Conflict” – “a restaurant and meeting place for cultures” – which aims to “give refugees and immigrants in Poland jobs and the opportunity to share the excellent cuisine of their regions.” 

Conflict kitchen seems to be brilliant in its simplicity. It breaks stereotypes and at the same time introduces foreigners to new realities.

The idea for this social project was born two years ago in connection with the situation in Syria. We wanted to help foreigners here on the spot. In our opinion, cooperation with the local community is often more important than the large expert programs implemented from above without any consultations with those people.

We knew from the foreigners’ community in Warsaw that the main problem for them is to rent an apartment and the second one is to find a job. As a result, many people are condemned to live in a centre for foreigners – for example in Dębak near Warsaw – where they do not work, do not learn, and they cannot travel. The two Chechens who work with us have been stuck in this trap for four years. You can go crazy!

Theoretically, after receiving the consent of the head of the Office for Foreigners (USC), it is possible to undertake work for half a year after submitting the application for asylum. The USC spokesperson also informed me that pre-school children receive care in a centre for foreigners, older children are covered by school duty just like other children, and that it is possible to study after reaching adolescence.

Theoretically yes. However, it is extremely difficult for such people to find a job in such a discriminatory market as ours. These people are often traumatized and have specific needs. Usually, they do not speak Polish either.

It is not surprising – it’s difficult to learn Polish in half a year.

That is why we employ refugees and immigrants by giving them a safe start in the labour market and helping them to take their first steps in the Polish reality. We want to integrate through practice, creating a space for dialogue in which new acquaintances and friendships naturally arise.

These people learn Polish from us – and we Russian or other languages, get to know their habits and traditions, we vividly disprove stereotypes of the type that “refugees live from the Polish social benefits”, “do not want to work”, “do not want to learn Polish” or that ‘Muslims discriminate against women and are unable to function in our culture’. We do not even need to refute these stereotypes actively, it is just enough to come to us.

We were looking for a positive educational tool that will be available to everyone, including those not particularly interested in social issues, but maybe they would like to help. The way to show a symbolic, but not only symbolic gesture of support.

How many people do you work with?

Eight. They come from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, Iraq and Tajikistan.

I met with a Tajik who had studied in different countries and spoke impeccable English. Is it not only the better-educated people with international experience  who work with you? Wouldn’t they in any case, have less difficulty finding a job and finding a new reality?

No. You can have such an impression because you talked to Muhamadjon, who is the only person in our team of foreigners who speaks English and comes from the upper class. He is strictly a political refugee and had a very high position in his country’s society before. He is well educated, he travelled the world.

But the girl who joined us a week ago lived for a week with her husband at the train station and was unable to find a job or a flat. She was in a really hopeless situation. And this is not the first person we hired when she was de facto homeless, looped in a vicious circle from which it is very difficult to get out. The cheapest room in Warsaw is about PLN 600, plus you have to pay a deposit at the beginning, that is, a total of 1200 PLN. How can you manage, when you do not have friends here, from which one could borrow, do not speak Polish and look different? The chances of renting anything are small.

How can such a person get to you?

Usually, non-governmental organisations call us asking if we can help a specific person. Contract work is contracted. We do not offer employment contracts for now, because we are only in the Wilcza premises for 1.5 months, and these people are in a very precarious situations. It’s hard for me to sign a contract of employment with an employee whom I see for the first time in my life and who has just come from the Central Station. For example, Sauda from Tajikistan disappeared the day before starting work, because she got refused international protection and fled to France during the night. Contact has stopped. But with people we already know and who we know will stay for a longer time with us, we will be planning such agreements.

How are people you work with treated by other Poles? After all, we are said to have anti-social attitudes in Europe. But the refugees I spoke with – from Lebanon and Syria and the afore-mentioned Muhamadjon from Tajikistan – speak unambiguously about Poland and Poles with great gratitude that they can live here.

Most of the people I work with never want to share negative opinions or have done it very rarely. Even people who I know for a long time talk about positive experiences and are above all grateful. When we were already operating along the Vistula River, it was the time when the number of attacks on foreigners increased – in public transport, on the street. There was even such a moment that once a week an attack was reported on kebab shops in various places in Poland.

The increase in the xenophobic bias over the last two years is also confirmed by data from the Human Rights Defenders Office: from 2016 to 2018, the number of racist crimes has increased threefold. Some of the people I worked with told me that they were starting to be scared and stressed that they do not want to leave their house after dark. This means that in a free country that was meant to give these people shelter, they feel intimidated. They fled from war, dictatorships, persecutions, but they also do not feel safe here.

This is also why we rented a place in the centre and our opening hours are not long so that these people do not have to go home after dark. The girls are especially stressed. One of them does not allow her 12-year-old daughter to carry a headscarf, because she is afraid that she will be beaten – but this is an important attribute of her culture and religion.

Anxiety also occurs on the part of Poles who, as a result of the dominant political narrative, began to identify refugees as potential terrorists.

We also assume that both sides are afraid in Poland nowadays. Foreigners and people who were here before. I speak in this way because many of the people living here are also some kind of arrivers – I’m not from Warsaw but from Gdańsk.

In many cases, xenophobia comes from fear. Poland is a very racially and religiously homogenous society. Even in Warsaw, we do not meet many people who have a different skin colour or women wearing a headscarf every day. We do not know these people, we do not know anything about them, that’s why it’s easy to manipulate us.

Therefore, it is important not to lecture these people or call them racists – this may be counter-effective. From our work experience here and in other projects related to the protection of human rights, we learned that contact itself greatly reduce the societal distance. However, we also want to avoid treating the meetings with “other” as an exotic phenomenon, because we do not run a zoo. That is why we create a space for an equal meeting of two people. Psychological research confirms that direct contact reduces the level of stereotype and anxiety.

And instead of convincing people that refugees are cool, or that they should not be afraid of them, we show that we are friends with them, we run a cool business, we have fun together and support each other. Nor is it that we create this place for them. They co-create it with us and feel they are responsible for it. Most do not treat the kitchen only as a workplace but feel as hosts here.

However, we cannot see the situation in black and white. Like in Poland, there are aggressive units in Syria and in every country, which we would prefer not to run into in the evening.

Of course. However, we live in Poland. I know of cases of assault by such Poles on other Poles with darker skin colour. The situation has become very serious, and unfortunately, the current government has been contributing to the peaceful consent for such behaviour.

Don’t you have the impression that the government has changed its stance lately?

It is still not enough. When it comes to structural issues, the situation at the Eastern borders of Poland has not changed. It was just as hopeless as with previous Civic Platform governments, but the symbolic narrative has changed. Human rights are broken on the border as they were, because the border guard sends back people who cannot be sent back because the return threatens their lives and health, for example, they flee from torture. Under international law, you cannot send such persons back.

“The most real and the most concrete assistance for refugees can be provided locally,” said PM Mateusz Morawiecki. As a result, the Polish foreign ministry has already allocated PLN 30 million to help refugees from Syria stay in Lebanon and will allocate another dozen more. 

Of course, this help is also very important. But the very fact of how many refugees Lebanon has taken in sets a perspective.

Lebanon has 4 million citizens, it is in a difficult economic and political situation but has welcomed about 1.5 million refugees.

The attitude of Lebanon is admirable and requires the support of the international community, but that is not everything. The fact that there is no refugee integration system in Poland is a scandalous joke. The Polish state expects these people to integrate in a mysterious way and learn the Polish language.

But there are Polish lessons in centres.

Well, in centres. If you live in a centre for four months and then move, for example from Dębak to Warsaw, you will not be able to learn Polish. The integration program in Germany lasts three years and includes language learning, implementation into the way of life and customs, courses of the German bureaucracy. In Poland, these people are left to their own devices – they do not know what PIT [Polish income tax system] is, they do not know how to get to the doctor, they know nothing. And without NGOs, they would not know that all. They leave the centre without even knowing how to get to Warsaw. They are left alone.

People who work with you want to stay in Poland?

Yes, everyone wants to stay. Perhaps a part would like to go back if the situation in their country changed, but that is not the case in any of them.

Special thanks for cooperation to CHLEBEM I SOLĄ, courtesy of whom the author of the interview could talk to the refugees living in Poland.

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