Anti-racism campaign brings postive change
‘Stop Islamisation of Europe! …well, do you like your coffee?’ This message was printed on napkins in McDonald‘s in Zgierz, in central Poland - one initiative in the ‘Open Zgierz’ project which has come up with novel ways to challenge xenophobia.
A town with a long history of diversity, Zgierz is the third largest community in the metropolitan area of the city of Łódź. In the nineteenth century, 39% of the population was Protestant, 36% Catholic, and 24% Jewish.
“We wanted to show that Zgierz is an open and welcoming place, not because this is our idea but because it has always been like that. With a refugee shelter just a few miles away, we want everyone to feel that they belong here, regardless of the minority they are part of,” said Weronika Jóźwiak, one of the project coordinators.
Supported by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants NGO programme in Poland, the project is run by the A. Gołąb Association for Children and Youth Ability Enhancement.
We wanted to be visible
The campaign lasted several months. The goal was to trigger debate about difference and diversity in response to a worrying rise of racist sentiments in the town.
“Racist and xenophobic messages have sadly become only too visible in Zgierz. We wanted to counter this and spread our message of multiculturalism and openness,” said Jóźwiak.
The town was filled with colourful murals, abusive graffiti painted over and replaced with positive messages, and magnets featuring quotes from inspirational personalities like Pope John Paul II, Irena Sendlerowa (a Polish nurse who helped Jewish children flee Nazi-occupied Poland during the Holocaust) and Marek Edelman (a Jewish-Polish activist who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) were attached to road signs.
“All was done in line with the rules. We received permits for the murals and wall graffiti and used easy-to-wash spray paint on the pavements,” assured Ilona Majewska, also a project coordinator.
The goal was accomplished. The project gained much publicity, increasing numbers of people got involved and several thousand people registered for the Festival of Colours (Holi). The phrase ‘Open Zgierz’ is now a generic term. Inspiring educational materials were developed, including a beautifully illustrated ‘Reversed Roles Fairy Tales’ book. The stories feature brave princesses and beautiful princes, challenging the usual roles assigned to male and female characters .
The journey has not though been entirely smooth. Murals were regularly defaced and abusive graffiti kept coming back. Mateusz Mirys, a well-known activist in the town, and co-architect of ‘Open Zgierz’ received a number of threats:
“It was scary to see the debate shift so far and the resentment manifested in anonymous acts of vandalism come forward to confront us,” he said.
There was also much resistance to the project in schools attended by refugee children. Many have Chechen or Kazakh origins and little understanding of Polish culture or language. To help them, signs with pictograms and key words translated into Russian were put up in schools, and an information pack sent out to help parents get a better understanding of how the school works.
“While the pack in itself was not controversial, some of the other parents did not like to see Russian signs in schools. We spent a lot of time explaining the concept but we kept hearing that the school was being 'Russified’,” Jóźwiak explained.
Professional development workshops have been held for teachers to help them address the diverse challenges of multicultural classrooms. A video produced with children from the Grotniki Refugee Centre which tells the moving story of rabbits who fled their woods (click on video for subtitles) was screened in schools. This served as an introduction to discussion sessions on refugees and what it was like to be in a foreign place.
Has anything changed in Zgierz?
“Things that happened under the project did create a positive energy and we’ve received a lot of good feedback,” said Mirys.
Abusive graffiti, painted over seven times, has not reappeared in most cases. A working relationship with the local government has been successfully established. The association has received numerous requests from libraries, schools and charities from all over Poland for copies of the fairy tales book. Workshops started in schools in October 2015 which include 500 hours of sessions on cultural diversity, different religions and how upbringing and language influences our world view.
"We have made a strong statement. Now it's time for day-to-day education,” Mirys concludes.