Refuge cities In a country where xenophobia is increasingly rife, Poland’s longest-serving mayor is intent on building a safe haven for his city’s ‘invisible’ immigrants. After all, he says, integration is in the town’s DNA

Judging by the behaviour of some of its football fans, Gdańsk might not be expected to extend a warm welcome to any refugees arriving in this port city on Poland’s Baltic coast.

One infamous banner unfurled at a Lechia Gdańsk match showed a black man kneeling in front of a robed Ku Klux Klan character; another displayed a picture of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. In February, the city’s Jewish cemetery was desecrated.

So it is difficult to say which is more startling: Gdańsk’s record of racism, or the city mayor Paweł Adamowicz’s career gamble in setting out to reverse it. “I am a European so my nature is to be open,” says Adamowicz. “Gdańsk is a port and must always be a refuge from the sea.”

Former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa at the Gdańsk shipyard, 1983. Wałęsa has said he is ‘not convinced’ by the current mayor’s outlook on refugees.

Former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa at the Gdańsk shipyard, 1983. Wałęsa has said he is ‘not convinced’ by the current mayor’s outlook on refugees. Photograph: Jacques Langevin/AP

His sentiments are somewhat out of step with the wider mood in Poland.According to Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the country’s ruling Law and Justice party, migrants bring “all sorts of parasites and protozoa”. In March, in the eastern city of Białystok, protesters burnt an effigy of the German chancellor Angela Merkel in response to her migrant-friendly outlook.

The populist Kukiz’15 party – an ultra-nationalist coalition whose pop star leader Paweł Kukiz finished third in the 2015 presidential election – is currently circulating a petition aimed at reversing Poland’s pledge to take 7,600 Syrian refugees under the EU volunteer resettlement plan. More moderate voices are calling for Poland to select only Christian Syrians (Poland is the one country in Europe still building new Catholic churches).

“When people say that welcoming refugees is like opening our city to Muslim terrorists, I tell them not to worry,” Adamowicz says wryly. “The terrorists are far more interested in the big European capitals than in little Gdańsk.”

Hedi Alieva, a Chechen-born Muslim, is on the frontline of Adamowicz’s efforts to put his city through a crash course in multiculturalism. “Polish people understand Chechens because we are all against communism,” says the former statistics clerk from Grozny, who has been in Gdańsk for three and a half years. “Also, Gdańsk is special because it gave the world Lech Wałęsa.”

During a recent interview with the Guardian, however, Wałęsa – leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980s and the country’s president for five years from 1990 – said he was “not convinced” by the mayor’s open-arms policy towards refugees. “Poland is poor; it lacks housing and jobs. Many people can’t make ends meet. When I meet the mayor, I’ll ask him if he has really thought this policy through.”

The key to Adamowicz’s move to make the city more refugee-friendly has been to get people talking. His main ally is the Migrants’ Support Centre, where Alieva is a volunteer. The centre was set up four years ago to act as a bridge between migrants arriving in Gdańsk and the municipal and social services they may not be aware they are entitled to, including housing.

‘It is important that influential people stand up for positive European values,’ says Paweł Adamowicz.
‘It is important influential people stand up for positive European values,’ says Paweł Adamowicz

The city hall’s department of social development organises regular networking sessions between the support centre, the local Muslim League, the police and several private landlords (although not yet Lechia Gdańsk football club). The mayor wants them to develop an integration model for the whole city. To sweeten the initiative, people in the network have been sent on study visits to Bremen in Germany and the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

Alieva, 45, regularly addresses city-sponsored conferences and public debates on women, feminism and dress in Islam. When a group of young men ripped off her headscarf and shouted “Allah is a bomber!”, she responded peacefully. “The only solution is to smile; that’s how I handle it.” But when her 16-year-old daughter was told she was as a “gypsy”, Alieva advised her to stop wearing her headscarf to school.

Gdańsk has a population of about 460,000, up to 15,000 of whom may be non-Polish-born, according to informal city hall estimates. Most have come in the past 25 years from the east – Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Belarus. Immigrant communities here are still having conversations about whether it is best to “fit in” with local customs or to assert their own identities.

“It is hardest of all for African men; they have real trouble getting jobs,” says Karol Liliana Lopez, a 36-year-old Colombian social worker who moved to Gdańsk seven years ago. “If they do not speak the language and come from an exuberant, outgoing culture, they are often misunderstood.” Lopez is employed by the support centre, which receives both city and EU funding and has just opened its first office near the railway station. About 70 people attend its Polish language courses, and as many again come every month for legal advice.

“There used to be no one to guide immigrants; they were left to sort out their problems alone,” says the migrant centre’s founder, Marta Siciarek. She does not buy the oft-used argument that Poland’s homogeneity is an obstacle to it accepting refugees from faraway places: “People say as few as 2% of the population are immigrants – but there are 38 million people in Poland, so that means we are still talking about tens of thousands of people.

Activists in Gdansk last year, demonstrating their support of the city’s welcome policy towards refugees.

Activists in Gdańsk last year, demonstrating their support of the city’s welcome policy towards refugees. Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

“The reality in Poland is that immigrants are invisible, and so are all the more exposed to danger and abuse. It is our responsibility as Polish people to build a safe environment for them; it is not the immigrants’ job. And the best place to do that is at the grassroots, in the cities – not through central government.”

There are compelling statistical arguments for Poland to accept refugees, including the country’s yawning death/birth gap. The government last week made the first payments of a promised new child grant, worth 500 złoty (£85) per month. But experts say it is unlikely to reverse the demographic deficit.

Meanwhile, the prevailing attitude among conservatives in government and the influential church seems to be that integration and multiculturalism are a step on the road to sprawling ghettos and Islamic terrorism. Such initiatives are sometimes bundled in with abortion rights and gay marriage as indicators that Poland is being “contaminated” by west European moral decay.

The Law and Justice party has not explicitly told the EU it will go back on the previous government’s pledge to take 7,600 refugees – but it would clearly like to. In January, prime minister Beata Szydło said Poland would take only 400 people(out of the 7,600) this year. After the 22 March attacks in Brussels, she told Radio Superstacja: “The previous government agreed that several thousand [refugees] could come to Poland. I don’t see the possibility of migrants coming to Poland at this time.”

In Gdańsk, many people blame Adamowicz’s Civic Platform party for the demise of the city’s formerly huge shipyard, which has shed all but 1,000 of the 17,000 jobs it provided in 1980, when Wałęsa co-founded the Solidarity trade union there.

Adamowicz is the longest-serving mayor of a major Polish city. He was first chosen as head of the municipal council in 1990 and has been re-elected ever since mayoral elections were introduced in 1998. But in December 2014, he had to fight a run-off for the first time: “It was not exactly pleasant. It made me think people are looking for a fresh face.”

Despite the country’s prevailing mood of xenophobia, Adamowicz has established an alliance with the like-minded mayors of two southern Polish cities, Wrocław and Wałbrzych. In November 2015, after the government failed to condemn neo-Nazis who burnt the effigy of an Orthodox Jew at an anti-immigration rally in Wrocław, the three mayors signed a four-point “declaration of co-operation on openness and intercultural dialogue”.

Adamowicz is aware that his pro-migration moves may cost him his job, “because of stupid, frightened people”. “But so be it,” he says. “Right now I feel like my citizens need me. I have two-and-a-half years left as mayor and that is enough time to shift attitudes. It is important that influential people stand up for positive European values. We should take refugees. Poland is poor, but it is not as poor as Bulgaria or Romania.”

Beyond arguing that the seaport of Gdańsk has had openness thrust upon it by geography, the 50-year-old mayor claims history has left the city naturally pluralistic.

“We have a special DNA. Before 1945, everyone here spoke German. Gdańsk was Danzig, a Protestant outpost. Then those people were removed and replaced by others. My family came from Lithuania.

“Gdańsk is used to upheaval and handles it well. Protest movements were born here in 1968, 1970 and 1976. In the spirit of freedom and liberty, Solidarity was born here in the 1980s because a group of special people – workers and intellectuals – met and trusted one another. We have a problem with trust today.”