Ammar in the Polish wardrobe: A story about hiding refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border
published by OKO Press, Poland
She called briefly. I heard: “Come.” She couldn’t say anything more over the phone. I reached her an hour later.
“If you had seen what he looked like…” Beata takes a drag on her cigarette. We stand on the doorstep, smoke wafting inside. It’s minus 12 degrees outside, typical for February. Beata is shaking with emotion. She lives here alone. The house stands in a pseudo-exlusion zone, according to the law. We met two days ago. I didn’t expect her to call.
Beata can’t sit down. She walks over to the balcony window and taps on the glass.
“I was sitting in the armchair where you are and looking at the TV. I don’t watch that dumb TV, but I was thinking about what else I should do today. I heard soft thumps. I thought Karinka wanted to scare Grandma. I opened the balcony and then behind the railing I saw… I wish I had taken a picture. He had rubbish bags on his shoes. And he was all wrapped up in plastic. Not thermal blanket, but just ordinary foil, the kind used to wrap windows. I said, come and sit down. And he shows that he doesn’t want to sit down.”
“I didn’t want to sit down because I was all wet. I looked terrible.” Ammar suddenly joins the conversation, as if he understands everything. He already has dry clothes. He has managed to get warm, but he is still scared. He takes his phone, brings up the map app.
“There were four of us. We were sitting here hidden in the bushes, then suddenly soldiers appeared. They shouted: ‘Stop, stop!’ I ran ahead until I found myself at the river. I thought, since the water was frozen in the forest, the river will be too.”
Ammar looks at the map and takes a drag on his cigarette.
“If only I had known the water was so deep and rushing. I had to swim, I kept repeating in my mind: ‘God, why?’ When I got ashore, I no longer knew where I was going. The phones got wet. I felt that it was the end. That I was dying. I just kept walking ahead. Over the bridge, through the village, it was all the same to me, it didn’t matter if I got caught. At the first house the door was opened by a girl, she started shouting: ‘Mum, Mum!’ I ran away. Then I got here, I saw the lady watching TV. I knocked.”
Ammar talks about his older sister, who accompanies him in all the important moments of his life. She knows everything about him. It is also now that he is trying to reach her. She is the first person in the family to hear from him “I almost died. Tell everyone I survived, I’m healthy. I ended up in a home where they help people. I’m in a safe house.”
“Safe house” is what activists on the Polish-Belarusian border call the places where refugees find relief. Where no one will call the Border Guard. Some used to do that because they thought it was the right thing to do. Now they know that a single phone call might become a sentence. It would mean that the refugees are going back to Belarus, being pushed back through the border wire.”
Beata also called.
“It was September, there was a lot of fear. They imposed a state of emergency. The Border Guard instructed people: call.”
Beata suspends her voice and repeats several times: “Yes, I called, I admit it.”
I know what she is thinking now. She has already told me about an Iraqi family who ended up in her house for a few hours in the summer. That was enough to get them international protection. Then she called the guards. They should have taken the refugees to a centre, but instead they took the family “out to the wire”.
Beata cried as the little children called later from Belarus, asking, “Why did you do this to us?”
“I didn’t know they were going to deport them. They thought, and so did we, that if we got them international protection, nothing would happen,” she told me through tears.
Beata’s son managed to contact that Iraqi family. He also found their belongings, which the Border Guard had dumped in the forest.
Beata still has the little Iraqi girl’s backpack, her hairbrush and a small mirror. She repeats: “I look out the window and wait for someone to knock on my door.”
Dehumanised people are easier to haul back to the forest
I arrive at the village of Z., assisted by the Border Guard. Apparently, the officers have received information that a car with Warsaw plates is loitering in the area. There are still a lot of patrols here, a lot of army presence.
Almost nobody calls the Border Guard in this village any more. Not even those who at first were afraid to give a refugee a glass of water just because the border guards had declared that it was illegal to help. And those who did help were afraid to admit it. They kept silent or said: “Refugees? They were at a neighbour’s house, not at ours”.
An activist, who I travelled with in late October and early November, tempers: “I sense that it wasn’t the neighbour who had these refugees, though. It’s like during the war, the helpers are afraid to admit that they have been helping.”
After several months of border crisis and anti-refugee propaganda, the people of Podlasie know who to call when they meet foreigners. In the village of Z. they call Kasia and Tomek.
“When you welcome someone at your home, so that they can to get warm, have some food and rest, you are acting legally, it’s humanitarian aid”, Tomek explains. “But when you think how to put it into practice, the stumbling blocks start. Because people have different neighbours, and neighbours have different views. And how, for example, to tell refugees where the safe house is? When you go with them through the forest, for law enforcement you might be a guide or a smuggler. The refugees have to reach the house on their own. We won’t put them in a car and transport them. It’s impossible, it’s illegal,” says Tomek.
But then these people are usually between a rock and a hard place. So some things happen spontaneously and that’s that. A person takes risks. Even when faced with the danger of being arrested. Simply because others are threatened with deportation.
First time they took refugees home was in November. What were they supposed to do? Two guys completely emaciated, a shivering woman and these children. The boy was crying all the time.
“I didn’t even think we might be in danger. I was worried about them. I felt tense the whole time. My neck was straining and I was walking around aching all over. I don’t know why,” Kasia recalls.
“Because we live in war-like conditions”, Tomek says. “Hiding people is stressful. Maybe there are no battles, no threat of the death penalty, but when this harbouring of people goes on for a while, as it has recently, the stress level becomes unacceptable.”
Our conversation is interrupted by an elk outside the window. Bison are no longer so impressive, the herd often comes into the meadow near the house.. But the elk is an unusual visitor. Tomek asks Kasia if she can talk about the unromantic side of hiding people.
“Yes, because it shows the scale of the debasement,” says Kasia. “When you find them in the forest, it’s obvious they are dirty, they have been there for weeks, after all. But when they enter a house…” Kasia searches for words. “For an ordinary person who doesn’t deal with people in crisis situations, this is terribly hard. Both for them and for us. Because they also feel what we feel.”
Tomek joins in: “One Syrian man told me that his children had not been bathed for six weeks. Anyone who reads this can imagine themselves how they would feel after six weeks in the forest without a bath. The activists and I helped repack one woman’s belongings in the forest. Between her clothes I saw a cable. I pulled, and at the end… ‘Oh fuck, a hairdryer!’, we cried out together. Not very serious words, contrary to the matter. They are lugging this hairdryer around so as not to lose their dignity. After all, they didn’t think they would be stranded with a hairdryer in the forest.”
“But once they come out washed and clean, they are beautiful. The woman who was with us had beautiful long hair. When she left us, it was blowing wonderfully in the wind,” smiles Kasia.
“This shatters the image of a refugee that ordinary Poles have,” says Tomek. “Because a Pole might accept a dirty, barefoot, bedraggled person. But then if he has normal shoes, a phone and a suitcase, he is no longer a refugee, but an economic migrant. It doesn’t matter how many bombardments he has survived, how many loved ones he has lost, how many wounds he has suffered from. The guards would rather have these people dehumanised. It is easier to deport them to the forest. They prefer humans not to look like humans.”
Is there a limit to helping?
Kasia and Tomek have welcomed refugees into their home five times. The first family – a Kurdish one – spent five days.
“There was a constant hustle and bustle. The children were rushing around, the stories were flying, and they were doing nothing to end their stay with us,” Tomek recalls.
“You don’t know that,” remarks Kasia.
“I know it, and you know it too.”
“Well, maybe. But it’s a different situation than with the Sleepyhead.”
“We had two Syrian men and an activist living with us at the time,” Kasia recounts. ” We go out in the morning and, here you are, someone’s sleeping on the stairs by our front door. We wake him up. The man still has the bristle, while the two others at home are already clean and shaven. He said he knocked during the night, but no one heard him. Anyway, he stayed with us for almost a week. Most of the time, he just slept and, generally did nothing to organise his transport. He explained that he had no money. Or that his brother from Berlin would come. Finally, Sleepyhead’s father started calling us from Iraq, asking to find him a smuggler. He said: ‘Only to Warsaw, I can manage further’. And you feel this pressure. You do everything you can to help a person, but gosh, the awful thing is that you have to learn to put up boundaries. To learn to say no. It’s very difficult. They don’t understand that we can’t get them transport. They ask and they have no qualms, well, because they are fighting to survive. They are not guided by convention or good manners. They won’t say, ‘Oh I think I’ve been with you too long’. And I understand this very well. I would probably function that way too.”
Kasia and Tomek’s guests usually leave quietly. They agree that this is the moment and leave. Only once, when this first Kurdish family was leaving, did Kasia cry. Out of emotion but also relief. After so many days of tension, they finaly left. And not into the forest.
She took him by the hand, they walked like a couple
Anna knows that many would like to help, to welcome someone in need into their home, but not everyone can.
A flat, for example, is out of the question – too many neighbours and people who might “see something”. There are some houses that seemingly might work perfectly, but the neighbours are untested. Or outright hostile. That does not leave many options.
Residents in the zone opened their doors when immediate help provided on the spot, in the forest, started to prove ineffective. That the people they were finding were often hypothermic and needed to rest in decent conditions; when there were more and more pushbacks and deaths; when they realised that calling an ambulance could cause harm – as you cannot be sure whether the ambulance comes or not, but the border guards notified by the doctors certainly will. So the best thing to do is to take the person home. It is a human reflex impulse.
Anna received a text message: “There is an Iraqi man in the town centre. He’s sitting in the park. What should we do with him?”. She wrote back: “He needs to be hidden, I’m on my way to get him.”
A man was roaming around for days, with no food and no water. Completely alone. From time to time he would join some groups. One of them was caught in the forest. He saw them being picked up by people in civilian clothes, while a police car was parked on a side path. First he fled through the woods, but eventually he decided to go into town and see what would happen. That was when Anna’s friend saw him, in the park. She took his hand and walked with a confident step. They looked like a couple. The street was almost empty. A hooligan sitting in front of a block of flats was given 20 zloty not to tell anyone what he had seen. Anna was waiting behind the corner. The guy had his cap slipped down and his face covered with a scarf so that it wouldn’t be obvious he was darker than everyone else. He was frightened. They got into the car.
Anna remembers that as soon as they entered the house, Ali asked about the shower. He wanted to wash off the smell: damp, smoky, unwashed, very strong, Anna already knew it well.
After getting washed he immediately looked much better. He was very young. He said his journey had been a must because in Iraq he wanted to commit suicide in Iraq. Everything seemed pointless. That’s what Anna understood. And then someone told Ali about going for a better life through Belarus. He didn’t check if it would be difficult. A wave carried him until he ended up in the forest.
The camel in the kitchen
After Ali, Anna had eighteen other guests.
“At first they are very intimidated. They find it a bit hard to understand who I am or why I’m helping them. And then they go to sleep. In the morning, rested, they get back their colour,” says Anna. “You know, in a person you can see how they regain colour. In the face, in the clothes, in the flash of the eye, in their voice. One day later they start joking around, talking about themselves. After all, they all have their lives, their stories, just like anyone else. And not just tragic ones. They show pictures of their homes, their families, their daily lives. They want to manifest what they are like and that they have achieved something.”
We were seated at the table where Anna spent many hours with her guests. They talked in English and via translation. Once, she had to draw pictures, such as a car and with gestures tried to explain that she was going somewhere, as her guest spoke only Sorani, which Google Translate doesn’t know. At least not at that time.
Once at Anna’s table, somebody said: “I understand perfectly well what you are doing here. If I could stay, I would do that and help, just like you. Because that’s what I did in Syria.” He had a restaurant there, he gave back to people who had lost their homes.
At that table the guests would eat scrambled eggs together. A Cameroonian would make them for a Moroccan. And in the meantime, they would exchange stories about the right way to kill a camel so that it is halal.
And there, in the corner of the room, is exactly where they would pray. Anna fixed the direction according to the movement of the sun. To check if it was right, Ali pulled out his phone with a special app with a compass for Mecca and asked for two green tree leaves. She did not understand why he needed them. He put them on the floor and said it was instead of a prayer rug. He knelt on them. “When he left, I went into this room, there were these leaves on a wooden stool,” Anna says.
Ali sent news back from the refugee centre in Germany. He had already had his second interview that might prove decisive for his future. But the people there did not believe his words. They said that with such tales he could go to Hollywood. Because why would you believe his story? He managed to cross the border because it was foggy. He joined a group that was picked up by people in civilian clothes. He was the only one who avoided the pushback. Why? And then, after four days in the forest, he walked into the city, and no one stopped him. Strange, isn’t it? Finally he sits down on a park bench and someone takes him home. And then he ends up in Warsaw, where someone protects him in their house. And then in Poznań too.
Such a story seems to escape the logic. And many of them are like that.
You’re not crazy, you’re saving our lives
Anna asks visitors: where did you get the motivation to do this? Did you never doubt that it made sense?
And yes, they all confirm they doubted every single day. One guest replied: “Without dreams you are dead. They give you direction. And no one can forbid us from dreaming.” He added: “Our country has only one thing for us, namely, war. And I too have only one thing, which is my life. And I do care about it.”
“I had the feeling that I was going mad,” says Anna. “That I’m giving my house away to strangers, squeezing my life to some vacant rooms, and still going to the forest in the meantime. That we’re practising a secret, underground state here, playing hide and seek or hare and hounds. None of these seemed normal. Therefore, sometimes I had the impression that our involvement verges on insanity. I told one of my guests about this sense of madness. His response was: ‘Don’t even think like that. You are saving our lives.’ I confided that I often come back home and cry. And he said: ‘Don’t cry. In our country we have to be strong, because if you lack strength, they kill you. But you have no reason to cry.’ I learned a lot at this very table. We save their lives, then they move on in the world. Yet, a bond remains, probably because we met in such a special situation, and also due to the fact that I know something about them that nobody else knows, not even their families.”
First checkpoint, first lie
It was a Sunday in early September, beautiful sunshine. Dominika with her husband and son went to the forest. Not for a walk, because Dominika hates walking in the forest. They went because they wanted to help. In fact, the son wanted to. He packed a rucksack and shouted: let’s go.
They walked and walked. Nothing. Just when they were about to go home, something suddenly flashed by.
She remembers it well, her heart was in her throat. She said to her husband: “Let’s get the fuck out of here! I’m not going in there. I’m gonna have a heart attack and you’ll be looking for a phone signal to call an ambulance. I’m not going any further, I’m scared.” She was terrified, even though she could see just two young guys and a baby.
“Are you scared of the baby?”, asked her husband.
“Yeah, I’m going to go up to the baby, and thirty guys are going to come flying out. They’ll beat us up out here. We won’t even be able to call anyone because there’s no signal here.”
Her son turned on her: “Mum, at home you were so brave. To say that if you met someone, you’d help. And now you’re such a chicken.”
They approached. Three shivering little children asked for the internet. They didn’t want anything else. Just the internet. One spoke a little English, but poorly. Dominika thought: “Well well, then you’re at home. Because I also speak it very poorly, so we’ll get along.” She asked if there were any other children. There was another one. Together that made four: a talkative 10-year-old; a scared 15-year-old; a 17-year-old who seemed like he was the head of the family; and a 7-year-old child with autism.
They gave the kids food and some other stuff, but they kept going on and on about the internet. They wanted to contact someone to take them away. Getting people to a safe place with mobile coverage is not that easy. If someone sees them, guiding a whole gang, the game is over. How would they get out of that, explaining that they weren’t in fact smugglers? But Dominika knew she couldn’t leave them there. She said to her husband: “Show them the way.”
The boys managed to contact someone who promised to come and fetch them, but only in two days. Two days, goddammit! How are they going to manage with these children in the forest? We had to go and get more stuff. But then again, a car loaded to the ceiling with rucksacks, how do you get past the checkpoint with that?
“Where are you going?”, asked the policeman.
“To the mountains”, Dominika answered in a confident tone.
“And where are your skis?”
“Officer, it’s not worth dragging your skis with you these days. There are ski rental shops all around,” Dominika argued.
The policeman smiled and even wished her a nice holiday. Only her husband asked wryly: “So you’re going skiing in the mountains in September? And where will you get the snow from?
First checkpoint, first lie, thought Dominika. Later, after this first group, there would be others. Now, in mid-October the weather already got really cold. Leaving the children in the woods was out of question. It was simply impossible to walk away from them. She was scared as hell, because the army was everywhere, and she had to drive with the children from the forest through the very centre of the zone. Hardly had she set off, when an army vehicle came right behind. What bad luck, she thought, predicting that they would stop her. “I couldn’t feel the gas or the brake or anything. I was shaking all over.” But, fortunately, the army car disappeared around the bend. She stopped the engine, took a deep breath: “Get a grip. Your children are waiting at home. It’s only going to be a mess if you give up now.”
A dirty guy in the bathroom, a friend over coffee
Once they got back to Dominika’s house, it was strange. How to talk to them? How to behave? The first day was hard, and the first night too. Dominika was afraid: “What if we get our heads ripped off?” In the morning she said she had to go to work. She left the guests with her children at home. Her daughter remarked, “You’ve dragged in company and now you’re leaving, big thanks.” At work, she constantly kept thinking about them and could not concentrate. All in all, she decided to take a leave of absence.
They quickly learned to function together. The guests cleaned and cooked trying to show their gratitude. Their presence was not a burden. Worse were the people you had to hide them from.
Knock, knock. “Hi, I’m just stopping by for coffee”, said a friend on the doorstep. Oh shit, thought Dominica. The friend enters and starts chattering about the “dirty people”. That, fuck, they should be shot, a bullet in the head. And she is an educated girl. Dominika thinks patiently: let her have her coffee, as quick as possible, and get off. But the woman has one coffee, then another one, and keeps babbling, while Dominika’s guest is sitting in the wardrobe the whole time.
“I just thought to myself, God, how lucky it is that he doesn’t understand Polish. He would be upset. Because he’s just a person, the same as us. And the thought flashed through my mind: how about I tell the boy to come out? And I’ll show her: ‘Look, this is the dirty man you’re talking about. See how elegant he looks.’ Because they are indeed dirty, but only in the forest. Later, when they bathe, they start looking są good. Really, they are no different from us.”
At Beata’s house it smells of soup. The table in the living room is set with cakes and snacks. The previous night they didn’t get much sleep. Too many emotions.
We try to find out what happened to Ammar’s friends who stayed in the forest. But there is no contact with them.
We are joined by Robert, Beata’s son. He gives a matter-of-fact assessment of the situation.
“Ammar was not organised. I don’t know what he was hoping for, but certainly he had no big plans. Even if he hadn’t lost his phones in the river, I don’t think he would have known what to do next.”
Ammar tries to warm himself up by the fireplace. He calls, he writes, he tries to contact the people who are supposed to help him. He also shows the numbers of those who got through. Or of people who helped them get through. “They could be smugglers,” Robert says.
I ask him how long Ammar can stay with them.
“As long as he needs to,” says Robert. “You know, in fact, no one was waiting for him here. But it’s already happened, he’s with us. We can’t run away from it, can we? After all, if he hadn’t ended up here, if we hadn’t helped him, he’d probably be dead by now. There are many situations like this. We all face something new. At the beginning, in September and October, we felt the pressure of the authorities. There was a lot of fear, a sense of powerlessness, but eventually or maybe as a result, I decided to commit myself to helping in the forest.”
“Afterwards, I noticed that I had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was afraid to go out into the woods. Now I don’t take it as hard, although I do get involved. For me, it’s a fight against the sick system. Because I know what will happen to these people if we don’t help them. I know what happened to the first family that came to us. Even though we offered protection for them, they were pushed back to the wire. I tried to find them but it didn’t work. Ammar is incredibly lucky. Most situations from the border are miraculous cases. Here, there are lots of stories that are hard to believe.”
Ammar stayed in Beata’s house for nine days. Robert sent me pictures. Their guest was no longer sitting hunched over by the fireplace, but smiling on the sofa. Shaved, he had regained his colour.
For another week we had no contact. Finally, he wrote: “Guess where I am?” He has reached Germany, he is in a refugee centre.
His sister’s wish came true. Exactly one year earlier, on his 29th birthday, she wrote: “I hope our dreams come true. Your heart deserves it.”
I asked what was his birthday wish that year.
“I wanted to reach a country where human rights are respected and where I would have influence on my future. It probably sounds trivial, especially for a person who has been guaranteed this since birth. You won’t understand if you don’t know what it’s like in the country I come from, in a country where there is war. For me, security, freedom and dignity are the most precious things. Without them, life is not worth living. That’s also why people die trying to cross the border. And a miracle happened, many miracles. Just when I thought I was going to die, I knocked on Beata’s door. For sure, what I expected more in the village was the police. They weren’t looking for me, it was me that was looking for them. But I ended up at Beata and Robert’s house and everything changed. I got a lot more from them than I would have expected.”
The names of the characters have been changed.
Translation by Voxeurop.