In Poland, the homeless and Chechen refugees form unlikely bond

Thanks to a Warsaw-based activist, friendship grows between marginalised communities without permanent homes.

[Marta Rybicka/Al Jazeera]
Kazik, left, said he started believing in people again after receiving support from the refugee community following an initiative by activist Marina Hulia, right [Marta Rybicka/Al Jazeera]

Warsaw, Poland – Kazik, a 61-year-old moustached man, rarely leaves western Warsaw, an area known for simple summer houses, orchards and community gardens.

In recent years, it has become popular with the city’s homeless, Kazik among them.

For the past 10 years, he has been living in a small cottage, which although surrounded by apple and walnut trees is far from idyllic.

His homelessness came after years of personal challenges.

“I got on the ‘wrong train’ and I travelled with it for 40 years,” Kazik explains. “And then I ended up here.” 

He has arterial disease and is unable to move without his crutches. But his garden with small plants in flowerpots and an old nesting box brings him some joy. 

“I made it four years ago for my partner. She liked to watch birds. It used to look different, now it’s falling apart,” Kazik explains.

In winter, Kazik and his partner would fill the birdhouse with sunflower seeds and in spring, the birds would sing at their window. 

Since his partner died three years ago on a hot July day, loneliness has become the permanent melody of his life.

But the little box and Kazik’s woodwork skills were to change his life.

They have no one and neither do we.

by Madina, 36-year-old Chechen refugee

Two years ago, he met Marina Hulia, an energetic human rights activist and volunteer from the Polish capital who has long worked with disadvantaged groups: the homeless, prisoners, refugees and the elderly.

Her goal has centred on connecting these groups to create a strong community of marginalised people who support each other, learn from each other and use their skills to empower others. 

“Help should be mutual, both sides should benefit from it,” Hulia told Al Jazeera.

Hulia became known for her support of Chechen refugees, who having fled persecution and violence at home were stranded at the border between Poland and Belarus.

In August 2016, thousands of people started arriving at the border city of Brest to cross into Poland – the first European Union country – to ask for international protection.

Hulia spent months helping those in need. 

She would visit Brest with other volunteers, including her Chechen friends, to provide stranded refugees with food, clothes and other aid.

She also organised educational activities for children. During the peak of the crisis, many families lived at the central train station, each day making attempts to claim asylum in Poland. Hundreds of families were denied entry by Polish border security and many of them needed several months to finally enter what they saw as a better world. 

Madina, 36, and her three children spent four months in Brest before they were allowed to claim asylum in Poland.

“When I first came, I stayed at the train station not to waste money. Then we rented a one-bedroom flat,” Madina told Al Jazeera. “We were five families, and we lived there all together.”

Madina first met Hulia in Brest. After 17 attempts, she finally crossed into Poland and became one of Hulia’s most devoted volunteers.

Almost three years later, Madina and her family are still waiting for their papers. But they have already found a community, friends and a support network.

Kazik's garden is now one of the places Chechen refugees visit regularly [Marta Rybicka/Al Jazeera]
Kazik’s garden is now one of the places Chechen refugees visit regularly [Marta Rybicka/Al Jazeera]

When Hulia first offered Chechen women to visit Kazik’s garden, they were unimpressed; stereotypes about homeless people being drunk criminals ran deep.

“When I went there for the first time, I thought, ‘What is this, where have they taken me?’ I had a feeling as if I was brought to a kind of rubbish dump,” Madina said. “But then we thought the same could happen to us. We are homeless too, in the end. We had to leave our land and live in a foreign country.”

At the time, Kazik’s garden was full of items he had hoarded and acquired; he was unable to afford waste disposal. 

But his birdhouse stood out among the piles of rubbish.

Hulia encouraged Kazik to make more, paint them with the help of Chechen children and sell them at a local auction. From the money earned, Hulia ordered waste containers to clean up the garden.

“Apart from accepting rice or canned food, they have a lot to give and teach us,” Hulia said of the refugees.

As Kazik flips through photographs taken last summer, his face lights up when he sees pictures of Chechen boys helping him make nest boxes and Chechen woman preparing traditional food.

“I started believing in people,” said Kazik, who does not accept money for his work. “I saw their joy, the smiles on their faces and the painted birdhouses. It was incredible.

I may not have a home, your children may not have a home, but let the birds have one.”

Kazik’s garden was tidied with the help of Chechens and other allotment dwellers. He has also received more orders for birdhouses, which he continues to make with the help of refugee children. When the snow melts, they are planning to make sledges for pugs.

For the Chechens, many of whom still live in refugee centres with little space to spare or opportunities to integrate with Poles – especially amid growing nationalist tendencies – the time spent at the allotments is important too.

“They have no one and neither do we,” Madina said.

Source: Al Jazeera