Paper Slavery

(Art In Migration, May 2010)

A look at what paper means to a family of Chechen refugees in Warsaw, Poland

Lessons from a mobile school.

“I have paper work up to here,” says Shamkhan, cupping his neck with his hands. He is recalling the yearlong test of nerves in an application for a EU fund for entrepreneurs. Shamkhan and his family are rebuilding their lives. Their one-room home, no more than 15 sq m, is in a Chechen refugee centre in the northern district of Bielany in Warsaw, in a block of five-storey flats formerly used as quarters for labourers.

We sit in the small but neat living room. The sound on the TV set running a Russian program has been turned down. In no time, Zamira, Shamkhan’s wife, has overflowed the coffee table with cakes, biscuits, krówki (a milk-based candy) and glass mugs of hot tea. “Chechen hospitality,” explains Anna Osińska, my translator. Anna, a philologist and psychologist, is a veteran volunteer whose humanitarian work goes as back to the 1980s when she served in the Solidarity movement’s Commission of Intervention to assist the wrongfully imprisoned. Today, she is at the refugee centre as a volunteer of ATD Fourth World (, an international organization whose aim is to eradicate extreme poverty by creating networks of poor and non-poor acting together and sharing knowledge with each other.

At any time, about 500 refugees of all ages, from babies to grandparents, stream in and out of the centre. Some move on to Germany or France if they succeed in proving family ties there. Others packed up for their homeland if they were refused the status of “tolerated stay”. According to Anna, the granting of the right to stay is highly whimsical. One applicant is turned down while another is accepted, though both are from the same village, similar in age and education background. “They can contest the rejection,” says Anna. “But the process of finding the lawyers, filling up more paper and obtaining other supporting papers, that takes so much time they miss the deadline for reapplication.”

For those holding the “tolerated stay” papers, the future remains uncertain. Poland’s Solidarity movement sympathized with the Chechnya’s struggle and since 2002 Poland has opened its borders to Chechen refugees. However, there is little by way in support to help the refugees to assimilate into the community and become financially independent. Shamkhan’s family subsists on a monthly stipend of 256 zł (64 euros) for their three children and another 400 zł (100 euros) for the adults. He occasionally works as a day labourer but at 47 and in poor health, this isn’t a long-term option.

The long-term option is securing a EU funding for their business plan to export Polish foods to countries like Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Shamkhan has attended a month-long EU course on entrepreneurship. Not surprisingly, there was a mountain of forms to fill up in order to qualify for the course.

“If you are rich, you can escape the paper work,” says Zamira. “But if you are poor and want honest work, you have to deal with the papers.”

Pierre Klein, a Frenchman who heads the ATD operation in Poland, says “We find it tedious to go to a public office to renew a document once every two years. For these very poor people, the paper struggle is a daily reality, running from one office to another for certificates.”

In the funding application, the biggest stumbling block for Shamkhan was the “adres zameldowania”, a certificate issued by the district office as the registered address of residency. It’s an administrative system used during the communism era. Though the current government has proposed to abolish it, it is still required by Poles and non-Poles living in the country. Everything hinges on this address from opening a bank account to getting a driver’s license.

As the refugee centre does not qualify as adres zameldowania, the application was stalled. A Polish woman who attended the same entrepreneurship course heard of their plight and registered Shamkhan’s family under her address. Even so, Shamkhan’s funding application was rejected twice. Each time he drilled the director of the Work Office for the reasons of the rejection. More papers, such as character endorsement by ATD, were submitted. They are now awaiting the answer to their third attempt.

“This is our biggest hope in the three years we have been here,” says Zamira. The hope, as explained by Shamkhan, to have the dignity to earn a living and be an example his fellow refugees can aspire to.

“This EU project is called Human Capital,” continues Shamkhan. “It is for people. It cannot be so complicated. The bureaucracy has a big influence on health and the nervous system.”

Milana, their 5-year-old daughter skips into the room. Shamkhan hugs her, saying, “This is our medication. She gives us strength.” The little girl was out in the yard dealing with another form of paper – books brought by ATD volunteers as part of a weekly “Street Library” program.

As we leave the center, we encounter a volunteer from another organization who has just brought a group of children back from swimming. Anna asks her if the pool could be at another time so that it doesn’t clash the Street Library.

The water outing is sponsored the EU and during the fund application, the filled in time for the pool was Saturdays from 11am to 1pm. This cannot be modified.

“We have become slaves to EU money,” says Anna of the bureaucracy.

(Art In Migration, May 2010)