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Reading helps you understand yourself and the world

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, artist's archive

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, artist's archive

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, artist's archive

Five years ago I once again started reading children’s books, and when I read them, I very often adjust suffixes and add the missing sentences. I have read books to Jewish children in a Sunday school for one year. I have read books in the centres for foreigners and, on a regular basis, in my five-year-old son’s nursery school. I always read about things that are hard to imagine – about refugee experiences, about girls who do not become mothers but pursue their passions instead, about war that makes no sense at all, about experiencing illness or reduced mobility, about grief. As it turns out, a few-year-old child can understand all of these matters. What it means to me is that the sense of community is not necessarily based on shared experiences but on empathy.

Today, as I stay at home, I try to read to them only about good things, but sometimes they cannot hear me well enough or the connection breaks up. In the centres for foreigners, they do not have good reception or computers, so we spend most of the time trying to connect, and then there is little time left before the limited call is over.

A limit is a border. The word “border” is pronounced doza in Chechen, “control” translates to hazalla, and “purpose of your visit” to bahan wara. This is how I and Khedi Alieva1 simplified the pronunciation of these words. A year ago, we published together the first Polish-Chechen book/dictionary. The first, even though people from Chechnya have been the largest group seeking international protection in Poland since 2000. In the statistics, they are listed as citizens of Russia.

In seven days and nights, Khedi and I translated hundreds of words and sentences constituting “Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook”2, but we did not choose them on our own. Before that, we had been meeting for two weeks with residents of Bydgoszcz and with the residents of the centre for foreigners in Grupa (which is more than an hour’s drive from the city). We had been meeting all together as well, in order to experience another invisible border (called a language barrier) which we had decided to cross.

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, pages 4 and 5

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, pages 10 and 11

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, photo Paweł Błęcki

The mini-phrasebook starts with the selection of the most important words, which, as it turned out, were identical for both groups, even though they had been selected independently. During the meetings we had been learning how to pronounce: “freedom,” “love,” “good,” “truth,” “father,” “mother,” “child,” “faith,” “joy,” “solidarity,” and “life” – marszo, bezam, dikalla, bako-o, da, nana, bera, teszam, hazhetar, hankhetar, dahar. That first chapter is about learning basic words – it is a children’s book.

But the phrasebook is not naive in its simplicity, and, just like good children’s books, it leaves no doubt about the cruelty that takes place around the political border – doza. Poland has been breaching the provisions of the Geneva Convention, which includes a certain spell, and spells, after all, should have some effect. You say: “I request refugee status” (uchodźczyni [a female refugee]* is probably unheard of, but this is exactly what I add when I read books to children). The spell, however, has no effect at all.

At the beginning of my artist-in-residence programme at the BWA Municipal Gallery in Bydgoszcz, I was aware that I would have to not only face the language barrier but also earn people’s trust. I asked for help and a recommendation, the same kind of recommendation that is given to people seeking international protection, which is meant to prove their trustworthiness (and which seems to have no importance or effect). The recommendation was recorded by my friends from the centre for foreigners in Łuków, whom I had known for quite some time; we had been working together, creating a post-artistic bookbinding initiative called “Notesy z Łukowa” [Notebooks from Łuków]. During the meeting in the centre in Grupa, I played the melody of their voices, hoping that the spell would work this time.

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, artist's archive

Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook, photo Paweł Błęcki

Zulfiia Akhmethanova, Fatimat Musaeva and Madina Balsaeva decided to work on the phrasebook, together with twenty eight other people, to whom I was able to explain everything on my own.

Half of the mini-phrasebook’s press run was given to the EMIC Foundation as part of my practice of small gestures, which perhaps do not significantly improve people’s financial situation, but they help me envision a different scale of support strategies that make use of, for example, socially engaged publishing activities. The non-governmental organisations which work for migrants in Poland struggle with enormous economic difficulties, and significant, long-term and valuable initiatives cannot be funded by toy and clothing drives. If we want to support others, we should trust people who have the widest experience and are aware of the real needs. On the Foundation’s website, you can still buy the books by giving your donation to the Foundation and helping it achieve its statutory objectives.

Thanks to the “For the Earth” [Dla Ziemi] Association, which has been actively working in the centres for foreigners in Lublin Province [Lubelszczyzna] for over a decade, “Notesy z Łukowa” are no longer a small gesture. The notebooks are sewn by hand by the residents of the centre who have been granted a work permit by the Office for Foreigners, for which they receive remuneration on the basis of contracts. The notebooks can be bought at any time in the online store run by the association. “Notesy z Łukowa” have been described as a post-artistic or participatory project, but it is based on community and connection in the human sense, not the artificial one.

Notebooks from Łuków, artist's archive

The participation extends far beyond the centre for foreigners by including different places related to art and activism; the notebooks are available in-store (or were available, considering the ongoing pandemic) in the following spots: Szara Gallery in Katowice, the “Ciach Fryzjer” hair salon in Warsaw, the “Dobrze” Food Cooperative shops in Warsaw, Jest Gallery in Wrocław, the “Obszar Wspólny” [Common Area] Foundation in Łódź, the “Klubokawiarnia Pestka” café and restaurant in Częstochowa, the “Królikarnia Cafe” Art Bookstore in the Królikarnia Palace in Warsaw. The notebooks were also available at the Kraków Photomonth Festival and the Nadmiar [Excess] Festival.

For the sake of the records and artificiality, every collaboration is formally manifested by a unique series of notebooks with the logos of “Notesy z Łukowa” (NzŁ) and the given collaborator. A notebook always costs PLN 40, and after deducting the unavoidable costs, its author receives PLN 18. It is the remuneration for work which takes about one hour and which may be completed at any time, which, from my personal perspective of a person who has been single-handedly raising (just one!) child, seems to be a necessary condition for talking about accessibility. The economic situation of people waiting for the decision of the Office for Foreigners is difficult, because it is difficult to actively change it. Imagine that you live with your husband and three children in one room. Or that your children live in that room, and you and your husband live in the kitchen. It has been going on for more than three years, and during that time you have been repeatedly granted and then denied a work permit, even though the potential employment is hardly stable and, despite the fact that the economic conditions in Poland have been dynamically changing, the amount of the “pocket money” has been exactly the same for the last ten years: PLN 50 per month and the additional PLN 20 for hygiene products for an adult.

During one of the interviews which I held last week for the new issue of “Wiza-Vis,” a quarterly dedicated to art, connection and migration, I was talking to Julietta, a refugee from Georgia, who reminded me that nine years ago, when she came to Poland, a kilogram of potatoes cost PLN 0.50.

“Wiza-Vis”, a quarterly dedicated to art, connection and migration, artist's archive

“Wiza-Vis”, a quarterly dedicated to art, connection and migration, artist's archive

The mentioned “Wiza-Vis” quarterly was created as a grassroots initiative; it put me in the position of an artist-editor and a producer of a magazine whose creation seemed to be a logical consequence of events. When I was planning “Wiza-Vis,” one of my priorities was to cooperate with independent public institutions and include people who have a real impact on their programmes and the direction of their activity. Especially today, but also for the sake of the difficult near future, we need to share privileges, and give a voice and visibility to those groups and narratives which have been marginalised and kept out of sight. The first issue, dedicated to the concept of a road, was published thanks to the Bogna Olszewska grant, which had been awarded to me by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Fundacja Nieograniczona [Unlimited Foundation].

In the days before #quarantine, Galeria Labirynt [Labyrinth Gallery] in Lublin provided the institutional matronage to “Wiza-Vis,” and the situation of migrants in Poland has been discussed by people who are directly affected by it or who will be responsible for creating the change that we all really hope for.

Thanks to the commitment of many authors, poets, translators, artists, graphic designers, non-governmental organisations, institutions’ representatives and all other people who have decided to share their abilities, it will be possible to create a small record of conversations from the first month of the pandemic.

“Reading helps you understand yourself and the world” was a slogan of a public service announcement which promoted reading and which was created, as I believe, in the days of my childhood. It has been resonating in my mind, devoid of its original context and enriched by the new one. Today, when I think about writing and reading, I think about reciprocation; about sending a message, receiving/reading/listening to that message, and then formulating an answer. I do not think about “solidarity” but about hankhetar, and it no longer seems played out, exhausted or impossible.

Pamela Bożek – a visual artist, a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and a PhD student; a recipient of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage scholarship; a winner of the second edition of the Bogna Olszewska grant [Stypendium im. Bogny Olszewskiej], awarded by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Fundacja Nieograniczona [Unlimited Foundation]; a grantee of the Feminist Fund (together with the “For the Earth” [Dla Ziemi] Association). As an artist, she practises post-artistic and participatory activities; she is interested in the topics of migration, disability, and broadly defined poverty and exclusion. A publisher of the “Wiza-Vis” quarterly, which is co-created by refugees in Poland. She cooperates with non-governmental organisations working for migrants in Poland, such as the “For the Earth” Association, the “Ocalenie” [Rescue] Foundation, the EMIC Foundation, the “Kobiety Wędrowne” [Wandering Women] Foundation, Fundacja dla Wolności [Foundation for Freedom]. An initiator and facilitator of the “Notesy z Łukowa” [Notebooks from Łuków] post-artistic bookbinding initiative, which economically supports refugees in Poland.

* TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: the majority of Polish nouns which describe people have a masculine or feminine gender. The masculine nouns (such as uchodźca, a male refugee) have been predominantly used for centuries, even when referring to women. The feminine nouns (such as uchodźczyni, a female refugee), which are usually created by adding certain suffixes to masculine nouns, have often been ridiculed or deemed unnecessary. The situation is gradually changing and, in order to sound more inclusive and avoid discrimination, it is now more appropriate to use both masculine and feminine forms when referring to a group of people of different or unknown genders (in this case: uchodźczynie i uchodźcy, female and male refugees).


1 Khedi Alieva – a chairwoman of the “Kobiety Wędrowne” [Wandering Women] Foundation, a Chechen, an activist, and a member of Poland’s first Immigrant Council in Gdańsk. 

2 Polish-Chechen/Chechen-Polish mini-phrasebook [Mini-rozmówki polsko-czeczeńskie / czeczeńsko-polskie] – a project completed as part of the Artists-In-Residence Programme of the BWA Municipal Gallery in Bydgoszcz; the curator: Danka Milewska.


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