First we would like to thank the Barka Foundation for inviting Mendicity to Poznan Poland and for the hospitality they extended to us. We had a very busy schedule outlined by Dagmara Our party included two people from DCC, Gerry Folan and Lisa Kelleher, myself and Charles from Mendicity one detox nurse from Simon, Mary Fleming,. one director from De Paul Ireland, Brian Higgins and my husband George who took an interest in the business setups and was invaluable at asking the right questions regarding the financing of projects etc,. Thanks to Dagmara our schedule worked very well, our bus was waiting outside with our driver Leschek after every visit.
During our trip we stayed in a place called Chudobczyce, which was just outside Poznan. This is a collective farm of approx 40 acres. The farm has a large market garden area where all the vegetables are grown. Their livestock is mainly sheep, goats and pigs. There is ongoing construction for further expansion for living and educational needs. There is a large apartment block where many families live, many of these men have been through the reconnection experience themselves and have decided with their families to stay and work for Barka.. One of the people we met was Tomasz Flinic, he had been in prison since he was a young boy until Barka helped him, he told us his story himself. He has devoted his life to helping others. He now lives in Chudobczyce with his wife and children. Our ‘hotel’ on the farm was very simple, clean and comfortable. We ate every day at the main house, the food was wholesome and plentiful. Altogether we visited 19 places in three days, in some cases the communication was difficult as everything had to be translated. We asked many questions and all were answered willingly.
A short history of Poland is helpful in under standing the situation there. Poland is bordered on both sides by Russia and Germany. Poland’s history was defined by large estates owned by the aristocracy; many ordinary Poles worked the land. At the outbreak of World War Two Poland was invaded by Germany at the outbreak of World War Two. The horrors and turmoil of war was impounded by the invasion of Russia after the war, when there was a return to collective farming. Many Poles were displaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Many emerged from a system where they had been taken care of by a communist government yet were very poor, the economic system was destroyed and many became homeless. In 1989 Barbara and Tomasz Sadowska opened their home and soon there were16 people living there. This was the beginning of the Barka Foundation.
We visited many centres during our study visit, where social enterprises have been set up such as, market gardening, computer training, dress making, cooking/baking, people are encouraged to set up their own businesses as co-operatives and work for themselves. The Government has become more involved as they see how successful they are.
Our group were particularly interested in the homeless situation as we wanted to know how social integration is achieved through the reconnection programme. Most interesting for us was a visit to a homeless hostel which had previously been used as an army barracks. This unit housed 180 people and Barka has taken over the running of it. The general profile of the people living there were mostly elderly both men and women with a few middle aged and younger, it appeared to me that many had been on the streets for a long time with subsequent health problems due to substance abuse and addiction .I also noted that many people appeared to have underlying psychiatric problems, There were three to four people to a room They were also allowed to stay all day and seemed to have plenty of freedom to move around, to go outside or chat to people in their rooms. Barka has done its best to modernise the place however it still felt very institutionalised and people had very little room for privacy, in spite of this they seemed happy. There is absolutely no drinking allowed, and no person is allowed in who has drink taken. They did admit however in the Polish winter when temperatures drop to minus 20 they are allowed in to sleep on the floor of the common room or library
Another interesting meeting was with government officials in the social welfare dept., we also met with social workers. It seemed to us that they had a much tougher attitude toward long term unemployed than we have in Ireland They have embraced the Barka programme and cooperate with them by referring people to their centres Barka stress the dignity of work and see the acceptance of long term unemployment as counter productive in a healthy society. The officials were shocked at the amount of money received in Ireland, in Poland they receive approx 200 euro a month We questioned their policy of not allowing people who drink into their hostel at night, their reply that ‘these people always survive’, brought an outcry from the Irish group particularly from DePaul, Mendicity and Simon who said, no they do not survive, they die, have accidents, end up in hospital or prison.
Our most memorable meeting was with eight or nine young men who lived on the farm at Chudobczyce, these were young people who had been reconnected from several places, many from England. some of them went to England with the promise of work from a Polish man, they were exploited by this man and were not paid for months when they were paid they were given £200 for six months work, and then he abandoned them. They had poor English, little money and they were illegal. They ended up in a squat, started drinking and their lives spiralled out of control, they were eventually contacted by Barka on the street and were persuaded to return home everyone one of them said they were delighted to have their lives back, they had been in Chudobczyce for several months working on the land and on construction. Most of them said they would go back to their families but a couple said they would love to go abroad again but this time they would plan it properly and not trust anyone.
Most people who reconnect to Poland go to stay in the farm near Poznan, there are three farms altogether. There they get medical attention. Detox and therapy are provided by professional people outside. The farm is their home and they are looked after all the time by leaders who themselves have been through the whole process. Some make contact with their families and eventually go home but many stay and work on the farm and they are paid by the Co-operative. They seemed quite happy and grateful to Barka for their new life
Poland is a beautiful country very like Ireland, the scenery is quite pastoral, the land is not divided by hedge rows and ditches but wide expanses of fields coming almost down to the road, there are few cattle and horses, all of the land is tilled for growing. Poznan is just like any other bustling city, however the reality is there is serious unemployment. Poland does not have the structures in place to deal with the demands of an economy in recession. There is a culture which expects people to look after themselves and to find work however menial.
The Barka philosophy is to provide people with the skills and training to get back into the labour market, they believe in the dignity of work; and that people can work together to achieve this. They believe that long term dependence on state welfare is demoralising. Their method is one of positive reinforcement and encouragement. We were impressed as we visited the various social integration projects at how industrious and happy the participants were.
We reckonise that reconnection is only part of the Barka programme, yet it is this area that is of most interest to Mendicity. After this study visit we were reassured that upon arrival in Poland people who are reconnected are taken care of and looked after. We believe that Mendicity’s partnership with Barka is worthwhile.