Zuhra had a hard time when she came to Warsaw at the age of seven. She only spoke her native Chechen and had to sit quietly in the first class at primary school, trying to work out what the teacher was saying in Polish. “I was lost and in a daze,” she says.
Zuhra’s success is also down to her own outgoing nature. She made friends with Polish kids, her best friends are Anna, from Ukraine, and Karol, from Poland.
Now aged 13, she has just won a city-wide competition for reciting a classic poem in Polish. Her achievement is testament to how well refugees – especially children with their flexible minds – can integrate into a new society if given enough support.
“I have observed her progress,” says 6th class teacher Jolanta Jedlińska. “I am very proud of Zuhra. She is active and participates in everything. She is completely fluent in Polish now.”
Photo: UNHCR/Rafał Kostrzyński
Teachers at Primary School number 58 in the working class Targowek district give plenty of individual attention to help refugee and other foreign children, who make up nearly half the pupils in the school.
But Zuhra’s success is also down to her own outgoing nature. From other post-Soviet kids, she picked up Russian, which she had not known back in Grozny. And she made friends with Polish kids too. Her best friends are Anna, from Ukraine, and Karol, from Poland.
At home Zuhra, who has two sisters and one brother, likes singing and dancing, both important parts of Chechen culture. Her mother Aisha recalls: “When she was small, she had this talent for reading. She always read very expressively.”
So how did Zuhra come to take part in the Warsaw-wide “Sirenka” (Mermaid) poetry recitation competition, where she was up against the best Polish pupils, speaking their own language?
It was not the school but a youth club Zuhra attends that put her forward for the competition earlier this year. The challenge was to recite by heart a quintessentially Polish poem, Tale about Love of Homeland by Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska:
“Without that love you can live
And have a heart as hollow as a nutshell,
Drink your tiny fate with a thimble…”
“At first, I was not certain I could do it,” says Zuhra. “But a lady at the youth club coached me, and Mum was behind me all the way.”
The day of the competition arrived. It was held at a theatre. Zuhra dressed in a black skirt and plain white blouse, nothing frilly. When she stepped out on stage in front of a panel of judges and an eager audience, she was shaking with nerves.
“But then something happened,” she says. “I stopped seeing the faces and started to feel the sadness of the poem.”
She began to recite — all the verses, about how a Pole is nothing without homeland, “like a fallen tree, grown too shallow in the ground, its roots torn by the wind, still alive but losing its leaves, no longer roaring in the forest chorus…”
When she finished, there was a moment’s silence. One of the judges, actress Emilia Krakowska, was in tears. The hall filled with thunderous applause. One Polish observer said she had recited without a hint of a foreign accent.
Photo: UNHCR/Rafał Kostrzyński
Zuhra won first prize for the Praga North district of Warsaw. She received a diploma and a book. Unfortunately her mother was not there to see her triumph, as she was working at her job in a nail studio. But she said afterwards: “I was overjoyed, so proud of her.”
Zuhra was astonished. “I really didn’t expect it,” she says, “but I felt good about myself.”
In future, Zuhra thinks she might like to pursue a singing or acting career. “But I also want to help people,” she says, “maybe in Africa.”
Like Angelina Jolie? She seems not to have heard of the Hollywood actress and UNHCR special envoy.
“Can I go now? My Mum’s waiting for me,” says Zuhra, full of dreams and potential, and still just a child.