About funerals, soups and compassion: how does the Tatar faith minority respond to the border crisis?

Sandra Pertek

In this piece I reflect on how the little-known Tatar faith minority of Poland responds to the border crisis currently trapping thousands of forced migrants in freezing conditions exhausted and barely surviving. The actions of the Tatar community show the importance of the actions of faith communities responding to the humanitarian crisis in the absence of adequate services and a coordinated humanitarian response. Amid anti-Muslim sentiments, with some officials in Poland declaring they would accept only Christian refugees, a Tatar (Muslim) minority community rewrites the narrative of belonging and inclusion in Polish society through their action. I share my experiences and reflections from a recent visit to the remote and increasingly militarized Eastern Poland border.

A new normal – funerals dictating the course of life

It was a sunny but cold day, the roads were clear. As I approached the Eastern border areas I passed police, border guards and military vehicles. I shortly received a text message from the authorities warning migrants: “The Polish border is sealed. BLR authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Don’t take any pills from Belarusian soldiers”. I arrived in a small village, home to the Tatar community in Eastern Poland for a pre-arranged appointment. My intention was to hold informal conversations about the charitable work underway across the Poland-Belarus border 10 km away. I parked at the House of the Pilgrim. I asked the calm woman, stood in front of it, where I could meet the chairman of the commune. She responded quietly that a local funeral was underway and that I should enter and ask for the chairman. And so, I did. He opened the door of the kitchen, but could not remember my name nor our appointment, which I had confirmed two days prior by phone. He was obviously overwhelmed by recent events. Certainly, funerals cannot be planned in advance and death dictates a life course of the lifeful.

Upon my introduction, he responded that he cannot meet because of the funeral. I explained that I travelled all the way from England to meet him and we started ‘small talk’. He told me he was at the border earlier, twice already and there was, unusually, no crowd in attendance. He had heard that forced migrants on the Belarusian side had started moving toward the South, mentioning the names of places where they may be gathering. The talk evolved around deaths and funerals the Tatar association organised, and their soup project to feed forced migrants and soldiers. He talked about two recent deaths – one unknown migrant from Africa in his 30s on Thursday (18 November), who was found in Kuścińce and a Yemeni man on Sunday (21 November) found in the fields of Poniatowicze (photo below). In addition, there was a funeral on Monday (15 November) of a Syrian adolescent boy drowned in the Bug River. Together there were three funerals in one week. Media attention focused on the funeral of a Syrian boy – whose mother dialled in online to observe his dignified burial – hopefully helping her reconcile the death of her son. Two days after I left, there was yet another funeral – a 26 weeks-old unborn baby (Tuesday, 23 November).

Source: Google maps

The other locals I met spoke about funerals quietly, and were unable to answer my questions about how many there had been. It seemed like funerals of strangers-refugees (known and unknown) had become a new norm. Unlike the local funeral I witnessed during my visit, the refugee funerals were conducted in silence, without reception, but following the Islamic ethos of burial for migrants identified as Muslim. I learned about decomposed bodies of migrants found in woodlands and about those disfigured by wolves and birds of prey. Locals talked about an increased presence of these wild creatures in recent weeks. Some families of the deceased managed to reach out to the local leader through the help of Polish activists and organisations to confirm whether the bodies found in woodlands, fields and the rivers belonged to their loved ones. Some remained unidentified and were buried with the sign NN – name not known. In respect for the privacy of the local funeral proceedings, I felt I should avoid visiting the cemetery. The photo below (from OKO.press) shows where migrant men and a baby girl were buried in the last fortnight.

Source: Aleksandra Perzyńska, OKO.press

More than a life-saving soup

We talked in the corridor, which was filled with aid items donated by locals and remotely by post. The corridor led to the kitchen in which four women prepared a huge dinner for 300 people daily. The local community witnessing the starvation on its doorsteps took action by organising a soup project to dignify the conditions of abandoned forced migrants. Led by the commune leader – previously a guest restaurant and community centre the “House of the Pilgrim” transformed into a life-saving soup project, responding daily to the unanswered humanitarian crisis (there are currently no official humanitarian corridors for stranded refugees in Poland and Belarus). Responding to the needs of both soldiers and refugees was perhaps a silent strategy to gain access and respond to the urgent needs of the stranded refugees. Perhaps the soup could build bridges of compassion and sharing in the freezing conditions.

The soup project receives no funding and is provided through the generosity of the local Tatars’ commune. The local community gives the little they have – time, food and non-food items – in absence of humanitarian action from people in power. But as the needs grow, the commune does not know how long it can continue serving soups without support. Each soup with packaging costs 3.5zł (around £0.7/$1, 300 soups in total around £200 a day and £6,000 a month). Some locals support the project with in-kind donations. A cook mentioned they received a large delivery of carrots, cabbage, and potatoes from which they cooked the soup that day. The Tatars’ soup is rich – an honest vegetable homemade soup (the leftover peels in the photo below – show the quality).

Source: author

Besides soups, cakes make it to the border too, baked by local families and schools, and transported through the Tatar leader with a pass to enter special zones to feed those around the Kuźnica border. The commune provides material support – donated clothes and hygiene items. However, there is a shortage of volunteers to sort items received. I was told that after the media streamed pictures of well-dressed migrants waiting at the entrance to Poland, the number of material donations dropped.

From compassion for stranded migrants to gratitude for border control

In my brief discussion, I identified two perspectives toward the ongoing crisis. On one hand, compassion and empathy was shown but on the other, gratitude to soldiers for protecting the borders from Belarusian influence. The banner displayed on the local mosque testified to the support shown to soldiers for protecting the borders (photo below). Local communities feared a potential military confrontation from Belarus so the local army presence was reassuring.

Source: author

Despite the support for border protection, locals pushed back against the violence, hunger and cold endured by displaced migrants stuck in the geopolitical conflict. Several people, I met outside of the House of the Pilgrim, voiced sympathy for forced migrants deceived, threatened and pushed by the Belarus regime across borders in the deteriorating winter weather conditions. They felt uncomfortable about the border violence inflicted on forced migrants by Belarusian soldiers pushing them toward Poland, where they were captured and returned to the Belarusian side. Some mentioned there was lawlessness in Belarus and anything could happen. From those who had contact with migrants stuck on the border, I heard accounts of the exploitative camps for those physically too weak to walk to the border. One activist in informal phone conversation mentioned incidents of sexual violence from militia on both sides of the border. The media reported the weaponisation of migrants – a process wherein migrants are used to strike on Polish border controls. Some migrant men were coerced to confront the Polish border with threats to their families.

Locals especially felt for mothers and children, but also men who sold their belongings and used savings to arrange transfers to Minsk, without anything left to return to. Some saw migrants trying to pass their village – some as young as 4 months and 2 years old in a state of exhaustion. The chairman found two women and six children in the fields behind the mosque who were then transported to a local hospital. A female mosque-tour lead talked about meeting a man who appeared a little different than other tourists visiting the mosque. This encounter occurred early in summer, before the crisis escalated. She described how he sat calmly on the floor and listened to her storytelling in Polish, as if he understood, and then prayed before leaving. During my visit, I toured around the little mosque. In the storytelling, the woman introduced Tatars as themselves refugees, who were awarded asylum and land in the 16th century as compensation for their loyalties to King Jan III Sobieski.

Returning into the midlands of Poland

On my return through Warsaw, there was a contrast of two worlds – a world of refugee deaths from international neglect and a careless world living its own pace. Without humanitarian corridors open, Poland is likely to witness the deaths of many more stranded people on the move. Local protesters demand change – local mothers in Hajnówka protested loudly about the horror of allowing children to die in neighbouring forests. Countless courageous activists and informal aid initiatives (without publicity, as aid is prohibited) continue to save lives. Without a political solution and with humanitarian assistance blocked, the growing tragedy of people dying from cold and starvation in woodlands and fields, hiding from violence, seeking international protection, may soon transform into a crime against humanity. If some states bypass the requirement to provide essential humanitarian aid to people in crisis (as set out by international humanitarian law), the ‘moral hangover’ may be irreversible leaving a wound from which the next generations may not recover.

In a world where the numbers of forced migrants have reached an all-time high we appear to be observing a refugee compassion fatigue. The pictures of dead refugee children no longer cause outrage. In the face of the suffering on the Polish-Belarus border now is the time for those in power to act with humanity. If they do not this crisis will pave the way for others where people seeking sanctuary are treated as pawns and the basics of humanity will be discarded in favour of political expedience.