Are you Joanna from the Roma community?


This was not in the plans. When the war broke out in Ukraine, Joanna Talewicz knew only that assistance would be needed for refugees arriving in Poland. Along with Vice President Małgorzata Kołaczek, they did not anticipate that these people would be exclusively Roma. However, when volunteers from the Foundation Towards Dialogue began arriving at border crossings and train stations, it became apparent that, apart from a few activists, no one else was helping. Families of Roma origin stood alone and helpless, with neither Polish nor foreign volunteers approaching them.

Joanna Talewicz

They could be recognized because they had been neglected, and, stereotypically, by their appearance. The women wore long skirts; many had long dark hair and a distinctive complexion. Though it's not a rule, the origin of some would be hard to distinguish. Some approached Roma activists and Joanna, being drawn to them for the same reason. They also witnessed her talking to Romani women and men, organizing transportation with volunteers, and distributing flyers. She doesn't even know how it happened, but suddenly, numerous unknown numbers were calling her, asking, "Are you Joanna, the one for the Roma? We need your help." There was a moment when she was added to dozens of online groups across various locations in Poland, where the community communicated and exchanged information rapidly.

"The Romani internet worked," she jokes today, now that the situation has somewhat calmed down. Talewicz cannot specify exactly how many people the Foundation has helped since the beginning, but she remembers days when 100 to 200 people would arrive in the city daily. In total, it could be five thousand people, maybe even eight. There is also no data precisely determining the number of Roma from Ukraine in Poland. According to figures published by the European Commission in April 2022, between February and April, about 100,000 people of Romani origin fled their country due to the war. How many of them are in Poland? Between 50,000 and 70,000, twice as many Roma in Poland as before. But does it matter? "Collecting data based on ethnic origin, as history has shown, usually served no good purpose," notes the activist.

Joanna Talewicz recalls that when the LGBTQ+ community was attacked or anti-Semitic sentiments grew in Poland, she hoped that society would notice the discrimination against the Roma as well. Every time minority rights were violated in the country, she knew that it was nothing new for the Romani community. But as a high-ranking official once told her, "Dear Joanna, but who cares?" Paradoxically, it was the war in Ukraine that caused the Foundation to grow, and public opinion became concerned about the fate of Roma due to media coverage.

There was so much work that, being a Doctor of Anthropology, Talewicz had to resign from her position at the University of Warsaw. She wasn’t able to combine lecturing with working for the Roma, and the latter has become her full-time job. Especially since she had to deal with disappointment more than once. She remembers how organizations advocating for diversity only paid attention until it became clear that the refugees in need of support were of Romani origin. She asked, "Why aren't you helping them?" The response was, "Because they were supposed to be refugees, not Gypsies." "Why aren't you giving them clothes?" "Because they will sell them." Several times, she had to refrain from making blunt comments.

She knows that there were instances where Roma were discriminated against at the border, with Ukrainian officials pushing them to the end of the line simply because of their appearance. However, many people didn't want to talk about it publicly, responding briefly, "This is my country, and I don't want to speak ill of it." In Poland, she often had to intervene personally, such as at the station in Przemyśl, where a security guard refused to let a Romani mother into the mother-and-child room, saying, "Because she's a Gypsy." Even within the community, there were voices saying that the more Roma from Ukraine come to the country, the more visible the community will be. She couldn't understand it. She remembers being at her aunt's place. "I asked her and other relatives: why don't you want to help these people? She replied, 'Joanna, I can finally go to the store peacefully, and no one insults me.'"

There were those who chose Hungary or the Czech Republic as their destination, but they quickly realized that it wasn't any better over there. Orban rules in Hungary, and the political climate doesn't favour diversity, while in the Czech Republic, they encountered segregated trains. They returned and told Talewicz, "We couldn't enter the compartments with people." Roma prefer Poland because it's close to home, they can communicate more easily in Polish language, and they can send their children to schools.

Despite all the difficulties, much good has come out of the current situation. Firstly, at the community level -  mutual support has shown Romani women and men that they can be very strong, rising above cultural or simply human divisions. Perhaps it's not good that Joanna Talewicz feels like she's constantly in a position of proving something, but that's exactly what the Romani community did: they proved that they can handle crisis situations. Contrary to the stereotype, they don't reach out for help and don't expect the world to do something for them, but they organize and act independently, and they do it increasingly effectively. Today, international organizations approach the Foundation Towards Dialogue requesting training and sharing knowledge in this area.

Secondly, on a broader scale, the community is becoming visible externally. For example, the Roma Community Center in Warsaw has been established, where anyone can come and learn. Even other organizations are more willing to cooperate with the Foundation. Previously, it was often overlooked in mainstream events and conferences. Recently, the Polish Humanitarian Action, after Talewicz's workshops, included the rights of the Romani community as one of the priorities on its agenda.

Joanna concludes, "I never thought we would have so many wonderful people around us, that we would have the means to organize new projects, employ new people, and do so much in such a short time. Despite being tired, I still want to do more."

I never thought we would have so many wonderful people around us, that we would have the means to organize new projects, employ new people, and do so much in such a short time. Despite being tired, I still want to do more.

The views and conclusions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.