On the afternoon of my fifth day in Warsaw, I find Nura sitting in the rear courtyard office where she sits every day. I’ve had some difficulty tracking her down – the building is unmarked, and distinguished only by some scrappy red ivy climbing the walls – and when I walk in the man at the front desk seems to think I’m lost.Every day, women make their way to Nura. If it’s their first time they glance nervously at the men until she appears, then smile when, lo and behold, she speaks their language. She takes them into a private room and guides them through their housing search or the job market, explains how to navigate grade-school registration or a Polish doctor’s office – whatever they happen to need. That she knows how to sew, and toiled for years as a seamstress in a refugee camp, endears her to new arrivals looking for work.Nura offers guidance where the government is silent. For years Poland has lacked a meaningful support system for refugees, and the new pseudo-autocratic state, led by the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS), is committed to an explicitly xenophobic platform. Life for foreigners has become increasingly complicated since the elections in October 2015. There has been a collapse of support for migrants, a rapid conflation of the terms ‘Muslim’, ‘refugee’ and ‘terrorist’. Liberal Poles have protested this attitude but it seems to have reached critical mass anyway. 73 per cent of the country believes refugees from Syria and Iraq are a major threat, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and another poll found that 58 per cent of the country are against refugees totally. It is rarely reported that the largest group of asylum seekers who come to Poland are Chechen women traveling alone with their children. The men at home are dead or missing. In this respect Nura knows she’s lucky. She has a husband by her side, even if he is always sick.
A Land Without Strangers