Giving children a new chance in a new land

Friday 6, September 2013 WARSAW, Poland, 6 September (UNHCR) – As a city of 300,000 people hard on Poland’s border with Belarus, Białystok may be the last place that pre-school teacher Anna Biryło expected to come into contact with curious, vulnerable, and, at times, scarred minds from war-ravaged Chechnya. But […]

Friday 6, September 2013

WARSAW, Poland, 6 September (UNHCR) – As a city of 300,000 people hard on Poland’s border with Belarus, Białystok may be the last place that pre-school teacher Anna Biryło expected to come into contact with curious, vulnerable, and, at times, scarred minds from war-ravaged Chechnya.

But ever since 2002, when Biryło’s school began to accept Chechen asylum-seekers into its classrooms, Primary School No. 47 has become a multicultural haven in a city otherwise known for its museums and football team.

The school’s journey into a model of integration was not smooth. “In the beginning, it was hard,” admitted Biryło, who has been teaching Chechan five- and six-year-olds since 2011. “But now, I’m more than satisfied.”

Satisfaction comes nowhere near describing Biryło’s success in teaching asylum-seekers, which recently earned her a Cultural Achievement Award from the President of the Białystok Council. But her recognition comes as no surprize to the school’s principal Halina Hapunik, who picked Biryło to work with Chechen pre-schoolers.

“I decided to charge Anna Biryło with the youngest ones,” said Hapunik, “because she is truly dedicated to her job as a teacher.”

In the beginning, simple communication was a “barrier.” Although assisted by a Chechen teacher, Biryło needed to breach this divide on her own. She acquired a few Chechen words, and then basic expressions. Before long, she was reaching the children.

“When you manage finally to interact,” she said, “barriers begin to disappear.”

And the real work begins. Once able to communicate, she realized that she needed to adopt a “completely different approach” to teaching, which emphasized understanding and compassion. The children responded enthusiastically.

“Working with Chechen children is different from working with Polish ones,” Biryło explained. “They are more eager to learn. For many of them, these classes are their first contact with simple classroom tools like scissors, crayons, and pencils.”

And the school is not their only classroom. Biryło takes her pre-schoolers on field trips to explore Białystok, a 700-year-old city famous for its theatrical life (including Poland’s oldest puppet theatre), art, monuments, and parks.

“As part of our efforts aimed at integration, we organize carnivals with Polish and Chechen dance demonstrations, dance workshops, and food tasting from both countries,” she said. 

Nothing is off limits. Not even St. Nicholas. Last winter, her children received Christmas presents and had their pictures taken with Santa Claus.

The participation of Muslim children in a Christmas party underscores the trust the childrens’ parents have in Biryło, which she painstakingly earned.

“[Anna Biryło] drives her pupils to doctors appointments in her own car, and visits them at the Accommodation Centre [for asylum-seekers],” explained Hapunik, the school principal. “She’s managed to win their parents’ hearts and minds.”

Biryło is also winning the trust of her school’s Polish students. With as many as 100 Chechen pupils attending at one time, Primary School No. 47 is famous for its integration activities, which is EU-funded and supported by organizations like Caritas and the Białystok Center for Foreigners. But perhaps given Poland’s predominantly Slavic Roman-Catholic profile, some Polish children have little direct experience with foreigners.

“Some Polish children are sceptical at first,” Biryło said. “But later, they can’t get enough of their foreign friends.”

But tolerance within the larger community is another question. Despite Białystok’s reputation as a cultural centre (the city was shortlisted to be the 2016 European Capital of Culture), tensions caused by the prejudices of some have resulted in disquieting incidents of racism and xenophobia.

But despite a few outbursts, Białystok has proven itself to be an open-minded metropolis that celebrates multiculturalism, and those who nurture it. If there is a battle waging for the heart of Białystok, tolerance is winning the day. And the future. As proof, one need go no farther than the fifth grade of Primary School No. 47.

“In my opinion, we should learn about tolerance from an early age in our families and then at school,” one fifth grader wrote in a school publication on diversity and tolerance. “It is much easier to live if we learn to accept someone else’s beliefs, religious views, likes, and dislikes.

“We should learn to respect other people, their ideas, and way of life.”

Rafał Kostrzyński, Warsaw