How to Talk When No One Wants to Listen?
Reflections on moments from the struggle for migrant liberation, seen through the eyes of a Polish-Spanish migrant in search of strategies for a global revolution based on love.
Movement is in our blood
My great-grandparents were Cossack refugees from the Ukraine. My grandparents were refugees in their own country—the Nazis knocked down their houses and banned them from returning to their village. My parents also migrated many times, and always for work: to Sweden, France, and then to Spain.
Actually, we all migrated there, searching for a better life. We were denied political asylum in Canada. So we stayed halfway there, on this side of the water. Spain was only going to be a stop or a trampoline to “the best of all possible worlds”. In any case, my parents thought that it was going to be much better than post-socialist Poland for a family of four that had no place to live. We returned to Poland after five long years of exploitation of the bodies and minds of my parents who, although university graduates, were forced to work precariously in the black market, serving the needs of Madrid’s submerged economy.
I could never part with my Spanish cultural identity. After many years, I decided to go back to Spain to finish my education and improve my language skills, among other things. There, thanks to the Theatre of Listening and the cultural Platform A Desalambrar, I had the possibility to participate in a process of political and artistic reflection that is still actively developing. Through a collective process we tried to respond to the reality around us. For migrant people, it was a tremendously cruel reality. I became involved, because despite already being in possession of a European citizenship, I have always identified with this underprivileged part of society.
The appalling silence and indifference of the good people
We started to study the reality: street raids, disappeared family members in prisons for foreigners, unnamed exploitation, Networks of human trafficking. People being deported with incredible violence. And worst of all: the silence of the people. “Why is nobody talking about this?”, we asked ourselves. Because silence is so comfortable, and we are accomplices in this crime.
We felt that we had to respond to so much evil. But, among other things, I feel that we wanted to do something and not be those indifferent people whose silence Martin Luther King talked about so many years earlier. We organised a day of solidarity that lasted 24 hours, with street actions, conferences, workshops, testimonies of migrants. At night we held a vigil of around 80 people in front of the detention centre of Aluche, in Madrid. I will never forget those cries of “freedom!!!” from inside, behind the jail bars.
But our gesture of solidarity unleashed a violent response. It was comprehensible, considering the situation in which people were being held is one of unbearable violence. They set a sheet on fire and then pulled it out of the window. We don’t know what happened inside, but maybe the guards beat them. If the prisoners rebel, they are usually punished—not given dinner, or banned from going out to the yard, or their football is taken away. And often, they are also beaten.
We needed to rethink our approach, and we found a very attractive option. We copied an action called Circles of Silence that was invented by the Franciscan Order of Toulouse in 2007 and that, independent of them, had spread massively to many other places. The circles are present in more than 180 places in France and in other European and African countries.
More than 10,000 people take part in these actions. They are of different nationalities, with and without papers, atheists, believers, people of different faiths and political ideologies. They are united by the fact that they do not want to be indifferent in front of that crime, manifesting their conviction with a protest action based on the principle of non violence. In a public square of their cities or villages, they stand in a circle in silence. Instead of protesting with shouting, noise or movement, they stop for one hour and shout with their silence: No laws against migrants!; Foreigner, my brother!; No more deaths at the borders.
Each circle organises independently and freely. There is no common coordination, although there have been some national meetings in France and Spain. In the first half of 2015, we celebrated the news of the creation of new iterations in Donostia (Basque country), Málaga, Ceuta and Melilla; these last two are Spanish cities on the African continent.
I will tell Europe about the hell in Poland
Having returned to Poland again, I thought I had left the problems related to the degrading treatment of migrant people behind in “Western” Europe. “Poles are a migrant nation, it’s us who leave the country, no one comes here”, I thought. So I concentrated on my work and for about one year did not pay much attention to the situation of migrants in Poland. But in the fall of 2012, one day I read in the largest daily paper an article with the title I will tell the whole of Europe about the hell in Poland. It was a letter, dictated over the phone by Ekaterina Lemonjava, a Georgian journalist, who was behind bars in the immigrant prison of Lesznowola. In the letter, she denounced the dramatic prison conditions in the so-called, “guarded centers for foreigners” and revealed that more than 70 people were on hunger strikes in four of the seven detention centres in Poland.
In that moment I could no longer imagine nothing was happening regarding migrants in Poland. I decided to use the tool I best knew—the Circles of Silence—and inform people in the street about what was going on. With a few friends (some migrants, others not), we gathered in a small square in the centre of Warsaw with a sign reading “Against the anti-migrant laws”. We stood in silence for an hour, while one person stayed on the outside of the circle to speak to people who approached us. Obviously, nothing changed that day. It was just a small action. But it was the beginning of a path that we continue to walk on, and that I would like to share with you briefly.
That was the beginning of a protest action that continued once a month, the first Saturday of each month at 3PM. We continued for nearly three years, with an average three or four people participating, sometimes up to fifteen. This is a very small amount compared to the crowds in other countries, where the Circles are usually formed by 30 to 100 people, even 200.
I was not part of the support group for the prisoners on hunger strike. It had formed out of autonomous struggle movements, its members doing everything possible to attract attention to the strike, including putting pressure on the media to publish Ekaterina’s letter. While later we combined forces and continue to work together today, at the moment me and my friends followed a parallel path of struggle based on art and dance. Marina, with whom we had initiated the Circle of Warsaw, and who has years of experience of doing cultural work (especially Caucasian dances inside the prisons), decided to use her contacts to enter the “Polish hell”, suggesting to the ventre managers a dance performance inside the detention centres. That is where everything began.
As for the outcomes of the 2012 hunger strike, the migrants who protested were beaten up by the border guards who administer the migrant prisons. The hunger strike lasted three and a half weeks. Ekaterina, who had initiated the strike, was deported despite a pending investigation into the border guard’s abuse of authority, along with other defendants who put the Polish authorities on the stand. The investigation was adjourned a year after the strike, in October 2013.
We are part of the universe
Simultaneously, from the year 2012 on, autonomous migrant movements started to appear in Europe. I had the chance to meet many of these people in person.
As part of our dance project, we entered many Polish immigrant prisons and danced and sang with the people inside. We also gave out letters of solidarity and flyers informing the people inside about our Circles. One of these papers got to Ekaterina, who contacted me after her deportation. From one Skype call to the next, we became closer and closer friends, and decided to continue working together.
She decided to write about her migrant life and her struggle behind the bars. Her book, Number 56, or Remember, my name is Ekaterina will be published in the near future in Polish and Georgian. If you wish, it could one day be published in your language too. One only needs to organise, which, as Dr. House said, is “not easy but it’s simple”.
We shared dreams for the future. In search of autonomous movements, Ekaterina, a few friends from the platform A Desalambrar and I came together to create the International Day of Fasting in Solidarity with Migrants, on December 18, 2013. It’s an international day of fasting with friends who struggle on the Mexican border, with Tunisian mothers, with an independent refugee movement in Australia, with many people in many locations on the planet, and we continue to organise it every year.
We collaborate with autonomous movements, like the group No Borders Warsaw, to organise The Anti-Frontex Days to protest against the EU border agency. Frontex’s main office is situated in the centre of Warsaw, so we feel compelled to act. We have denounced and will continue to denounce the deaths at Europe’s borders. We hope that in this way, a more serious dialogue about migration could come about in Poland: a consumer society enslaved by neo-liberalism, based on patriarchy, with an extreme right government, which every day becomes more nationalist.
Our fight is based on art, on self-directed struggle, and undoubtedly on friendship. We will not stop, we will continue to work to build ties and relationships of solidarity with all the people of this world, migrants or not. We work to transform the suffering of millions of enslaved and disparaged people, and the silence in response to their suffering, into policy based on the law of love. Our respect, to that within us which is eternal, and that which we search for when we look beyond ourselves, cannot be taken away from us with any law.. We are all part of a human family, and ultimately, as Ekaterina says, “we are part of the universe”.
“I myself am my own passport”, said Napuli Paul Langa of the Berlin refugee protest movement, when in 2013 he spoke at the United Nations Office in Vienna after having jumped over one of these illegal (illegal, as they are inhuman) borders. In that same office, Ekaterina told all of Europe and all of the world what had happened in Poland.
We will continue to be inspired by brave women and men who love liberty and life. Look as we might, the only thing we can see are human beings with their unalienable rights, with their hearts as their only flag.
I will leave you with this hope and with a haiku that crosses borders, to put an end to borders, and those between the concepts of me and you. It is a sum of all we have learned from our teachers, migrant people forced into illegality.
Search in my eyes.
There you will find, one day, way back
a passport that will take you home
More information about Ekaterina Lemonjava’s book at www.nr56.pl , The International Day of Fasting in Solidarity with Migrants at 18dsolidarity.wordpress.com, The Anti-Frontex Days at migracja.noblogs.org and the Spanish platform A Desalambrar at plataformaadesalambrar.wordpress.com.
1) A political and social form of theatre, based on the traditions of the Theatre of the Oppressed, actualised to fit current times.
Zuzana Gawron is a migrant, precarious worker, Spanish lecturer and translator. She lives in Warsaw, travelling quite often to collect stories of people trying to enter Fortress Europe.