‘Meet us before you reject us’: Ukraine’s Roma refugees face closed doors in Poland

A warm welcome has been given to most people fleeing Putin’s war but Roma women and children are struggling to find homes

Throughout the day, women with neatly tied buns slip out of a green door on to a narrow pavement just outside Kraków’s medieval market.

As young men in US army uniforms go by, trying to make sense of the maps on their phones, the women gather in a nook of a tall grey building to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and chat.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, the building was a hostel offering cheap accommodation to young Europeans Interrailing during their gap year. Now it is home to 80 Romany refugees from Ukraine, nearly all mothers with children.

“I just wish landlords would meet with us before they reject us,” says 42-year-old Nadia, who fled from her village near Donetsk when Russian bombs fell on her neighbour’s house in March. She came to Poland with her son’s wife, 22-year-old Raiia, her adult daughter, and with seven children between them.

While the women have found work in a meat processing factory making hotdog sausages, like other Romany refugees they have hit a wall in finding a home.

“They face discrimination,” says Mariam Masudi a coordinator at the hostel, working for Salam Lab, an NGO. “Roma are not admitted to other reception points. No one wants to rent to them. I don’t know anyone who has managed to settle in Poland. Those who have been able to move out of the hostel have moved abroad.”

The official number puts Ukraine’s Roma population at 400,000, though experts see that as a low estimate. No one knows how many Ukrainian Roma have arrived in Poland, says Poland’s civil rights deputy ombudsman, Hanna Machińska.

“These are large intergenerational families, some of 30 people. Most don’t have a precise plan when they arrive in Poland,” she says. “This situation requires institutional help. Individuals are not able to organise support for such large groups of people.”

The Express Hostel in Kraków, Poland
Families are uncertain how long they will be able to remain at the hostel, with rumours they may have to move out in May. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian

However, institutional help has not been forthcoming. Most of the relief has been coordinated by self-organised individuals and NGOs, says Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska an anthropologist at the University of Warsaw, who organised the Facebook group, Poland-Roma-Ukraine at the start of the war. “We wanted to gather information about people in need of help, communicate with central organs and find people ready to host Romany refugees,” she says. “We didn’t think that all responsibility for the situation would be shifted on to us.”

Even Nadia’s hostel has only been made possible by a private donor from the US who rented out the property until 15 May. That date can often be heard repeated with uncertainty among the women sitting in the hostel’s lobby. “And then what, they throw us out?” one woman says, as she kicks an invisible ball towards the door.

This is a question that Karol Wilczyński, director of Salam Lab, cannot answer. “Without governmental support, we will not manage. There is no way,” he says.

Romany refugees face not only a lack of support but outright discrimination, both from relief providers and fellow Ukrainian refugees. The fact that much of the relief effort is provided by self-organised volunteers rather than the government means equal treatment of minorities is difficult to assert.

“In the first days of the war, we saw Poles make beautiful gestures of solidarity towards refugees from Ukraine,” says Talewicz-Kwiatkowska, who is a member of Poland’s Roma. “I would have never imagined we would be here talking about discrimination or dehumanisation, but that is what we are seeing.”

According to Talewicz-Kwiatkowska, Roma have been refused access to transport and resources offered by the volunteers welcoming refugees at the border. “Roma were chased away from reception points, where it was said they were stealing clothes to later sell. We also received information that Romany families and groups were turned away from cars and buses offering transport,” she says.

“Finding accommodation was another challenge, because when someone does not want to have Roma in their car, you can imagine they will not want to invite them under their own roof.”

A woman sits on a row of red chairs against a red wall
‘No one wants to rent to them’: Mariam Masudi, a coordinator at the hostel, says Romany refugees face discrimination. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian

Masudi says that Roma fleeing Ukraine often face discrimination from other refugees. “When they see Roma at the reception point, the other refugees loudly tell each other to hide their belongings. Roma in Ukraine are used to facing discrimination, and what they experience in Poland is the continuation of this,” she says.

When Nadia arrived in Lviv, she says train station staff would not allow her and her family into the boarding area reserved for women and children hoping to travel to Poland. “Ukrainian women were let in with their pets,” she says. “But they didn’t want to let me on. They didn’t believe I was a refugee from Donetsk.”

Only after she showed her papers, proving she had come from the east, was she allowed to board the train. “But still, they wouldn’t give me any of the food they were giving out to refugees,” she says.

Masudi works with Romany women at the hostel
Masudi assists women at the hostel. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian

The best option for the Roma in the hostel would be to go west, Masudi says, to countries that are “more diverse, where they would blend in”. While Talewicz-Kwiatkowska has been able to coordinate with Roma organisations in Sweden and Germany to organise accommodation, many are reluctant to take up the offers. “They don’t want to be far away from Ukraine – they hope they will be able to go back home soon,” she says.

Others are afraid to trust foreign help. “After the war in Yugoslavia, many Roma fell victims to organ sellers. Some are afraid of the situation repeating itself.”

Nadia is aware of the stereotypes that follow her, but hopes, as she settles in Poland, she will be able to prove them false. “When one Romany person steals something, or is fortune-telling, then people think we’re all like that,” she says. “But I don’t know how to be a fortune-teller, so what can I do? All I know is how to work a job.”

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Weronika Strzyżyńska in Warsaw

The GuardianTramp

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