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Ukrainian immigrants in Poland: a taste of second-hand

There are already over a million Ukrainians working in Poland. Despite a rise in xenophobic attitudes, their number could grow. If you begin your visit to Poland from Warsaw Central Station, you may think you’ve found yourself in a western European metropolis, no different from Paris or London. Here, you can buy sushi rolls and a kale bioshake — a lunch fitting for the ride to Berlin on the hipster-filled Friday train. On the platforms, white-collar workers await their trains. When panic over air pollution gripped the city, they switched from SUVs to public transport.

A few kilometres away lies Warsaw West bus station, and here it’s a different world. You can’t find any kale in this dirty pavilion that saw its last renovation under communism — instead there’s sausage with ketchup and second hand clothes. Tired faces descend from ramshackle buses: Poles coming home from Germany, Austria and Belgium; Ukrainians arriving in Poland. For many of the latter, Warsaw West is their first encounter with the “Europe” of which they dreamt.

Poland, a country of 38 million (counting citizens without guest workers), is already home to over one million Ukrainians. Most of them decided to emigrate after military conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when the currency value of the Ukrainian hryvnia plummeted and prices rose.

After the populist right party Prawo i Sprawiedliwości (Law and Justice) came to power in 2015, the Polish-Ukrainian relationship deteriorated and public opinion polls show a rise in xenophobic attitudes. Despite this, Poland, due to its migration policy’s preferences for nationals from the former USSR and its cultural and linguistic similarity, is still an attractive destination for Ukrainians.

1,000 dollars for a lawyer

“Warsaw West is a first shock for everyone who imagines Poland as a European paradise,” explains Anna, who arrived in Poland almost a year ago. “In fact, it’s the second shock, because first you have to stand for several hours at the border and endure the shouting from border guards. If someone does not know any Polish yet, the only thing they understand is kurwa.”

Anna is an energetic cheerful woman in her fifties. In Ukraine, she worked as a geography teacher, but after the currency crash, the monthly paycheck of a Ukrainian teacher averages about $75.

In Poland, Anna earns around $400 and has also room and board. Thanks to this she is able to transfer most of her earnings to Lviv, where she left her husband and two daughters. According to estimates of the National Bank of Poland, only nine percent of Ukrainian migrants in Poland have no secondary or higher education, but as many as 70.7% perform physical labour.

“They say a Polish woman earns twice as much in my position,” estimates Anna. “But it’s difficult to negotiate if in half of the job offers you read ‘No Ukrainians’. Though I don’t complain about my employers. They themselves have family abroad whom they are trying to help.”

Anna’s friend Yulia was less lucky. Back in Ukraine, Yulia bought a “vacancy”, a declaration from an employer needed to acquire a visa, from dishonest agents. She was convinced that once she arrived at Warsaw West she would be greeted by employers and transferred to the promised apartment. This isn’t what happened.

“They say a Polish woman earns twice as much in my position, but it’s difficult to negotiate if in half of the job offers you read ‘No Ukrainians’”

“A man approached me and started convincing me that, in order to legally stay in Poland, I had to pay a $1,000 fee for a lawyer,” Yulia tells me. “In the beginning, I did not believe him and called the number they gave me in Ukraine over and over. Nobody answered. After a night spent at the bus station I called this ‘lawyer’ and asked if he had work for me. We arranged to meet in a small town next to Warsaw. From there they took me to an orchard with apples, even though I told them I was looking for work as a babysitter. I wanted to refuse because I have problems with my back, but the man told me that it had cost him to find me this job and I had to stay there at least a month. Luckily I was able to escape when we stopped at a gas station.”

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