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That morning, members of the Rural Housewives’ Club in Michałowo were busy preparing dishes for the Sunday market at the local fire station. Croquettes were already frying in the pan, bigos was bubbling in the pot, and the potato babka was sitting in the oven. Around 10:00 am the kitchen door suddenly flew open and the fire chief burst in. "Oh my, a refugee!" - he shouted, clearly surprised.

Amir- a young, rather short, black-haired man with a stubble ran into the firehouse. He was out of breath, shaking and crying.

- I had never seen a man cry like that! I will never forget this sight. So, we decided we would feed him right away. The croquettes were just about ready. We served them on a plate, made some tea. But he didn't eat much, he was pointing at his stomach, indicating that it hurt. He nibbled on it a little and went to take a nap. Once he got up, he finished his croquettes and ate some bigos. The firemen rushed to town to get him a doner kebab. He was so thankful! He wanted to kiss our feet. I have never seen a man so full of gratitude. And then one of us pulled out a vacuum cleaner and started cleaning. The man then took the vacuum cleaner from her hands and vacuumed every single room in the firehouse because he wanted to return the favor somehow. He refused to give it back until he was done- Swietłana Łuksza, the club’s chairwoman, tells me.

DROPPING A PIN 

Michałowo is a small town in eastern Poland. It is located near Białystok, close to the border with Belarus. Masses of people arriving from the Middle East and Africa have been trying to make it through the Belarusian border to escape death and bottomless poverty. Many of them found themselves wandering helplessly through the forests, often with young children, trying not to fall into the hands of the Polish border guard officers who, under the so-called push-back procedure recently legalized by the Polish Parliament, take them back to Belarus. They are cold, hungry, and thirsty.

At the beginning of October, the council of Michałowo was the first local government in the Podlasie region to adopt a resolution establishing an emergency aid station for migrants and refugees. In the firehouse on Fabryczna Street, volunteers - firefighters and local residents - are on duty day and night. They sort out warm clothes, food, and personal hygiene products donated by people from all over the country. This is where the activist groups Ocalenie (Salvation) and Granica (Border), who travel around the area distributing essential items to migrants, get their supplies.

Blue posters depicting a pair of hands holding a heart and information in English saying "Michałowo Help Point. If you need help, call... " were put up around the entire municipal area. All one has to do is call the number. A firefighter will then come and take you to the firehouse where you can get warm, have something to eat, and change into dry clothes. Unfortunately, firefighters are required to notify the border guard patrol of such arrival, and officers will likely turn the person back to the forest. Not surprisingly, the Help Point in Michałowo does not really see crowds of people.

But Amir received asylum in Germany, and thus didn’t have to be afraid of being pushed back by the Border Guard. He came to Poland with a friend in a car that broke down 10 kilometers from Michałowo. His friend was stopped by border officers. Amir was let free. He wandered around the area for a few days until he ended up at the Help Point. When I arrived at the shelter around 2:00 pm, he had already taken a shower, finished his meal, and was trying on winter jackets. In a few simple sentences in English, he told me that he was a Kurd from Iraq, and that his cell phone had been taken away. He showed me a portrait of his wife, tattooed on his right arm. I asked him why they traveled from Germany to Poland, but he didn't really want to answer this question.  It was obvious. Someone has probably dropped them a pin on their smartphone, i.e. they came to pick up their relatives or loved ones who were still wandering around in the woods.

A CROWN OF THORNS

On Monday, September 27, the chairwoman of the local council, Maria Ancipiuk, was pacing around the house when she heard the phrase "Where are the children from Michałowo?" coming from the TV set. She rarely heard the name of her town on television, so she immediately turned up the volume.

On the display, she saw a picture of the local Border Guard headquarters on Sosnowa Street. Twenty-some people were sitting in front of the building, including women and eight children. The youngest of them, a girl dressed in a dirty, fluffy white jumpsuit, was no more than a year old. People were covering their faces, shouting, and folding their arms in a pleading gesture. A group of activists gathered around the fence. Someone would later show the video to an Iraqi translator and discover that they were asking to be granted asylum in Poland. However, according to the Polish Border Guard officers, these people were not interested in staying in Poland. "Because of that, the officers turned these individuals back to the border line with Belarus" – read the official message.

That day, Maria had already brought her potted plants from the porch back inside. In the morning, some of them were already frostbitten.

- Unbelievable! Leaving small children in the forest, in such cold? And to think that such things are happening in our own town. Why have we even bothered promoting Michałowo for years when all that people say now is that children die here?

Maria Ancipiuk has been a member of the local council for 28 years. She doesn't belong to any party, and represents the electoral committee called "Residents are First in Our Little Homeland". On the municipal website, I read that she has 54% voter support. There is also one anonymous comment saying: "She's talking crap on TVN, keep that in mind for the next election".

Immediately after seeing the TV coverage, she ran to the city hall.

- I said: "We need to call a council session and do something about this. It can't be that children simply disappear".

Whether a stranded migrant is turned back to the border or sent to a refugee center, where he or she can wait for an asylum decision in civilized conditions, is entirely at the discretion of the Border Guard commander. And what exactly motivates the commander? Ms Ancipiuk invited the deputy commander of the Michałowo Border Guard to come to the session and explain it to everyone.

- We decided to put a piece of barbed wire on the table. The kind of wire used by the military to keep people away from crossing the border- she says. - We bought the wire at a farm supply store; farmers use it to fence crops against deer. But while we were laying it out on the table, someone came up with another idea. We rolled up the wire and formed it into a crown of thorns.

The opposition councillor Ryszard Balcerzak (member of the United Municipality of Michałowo committee, 53.5% support) protested against it.

- It is an insult towards the Border Guard. This decoration should not be here. I am ashamed- he declared.

- I do not see the words "Border Guard" written on. Everyone can interpret this installation as they wish- answered the Mayor, Marek Nazarko.

And so the crown remained on the table.

Mr Nazarko, a Michałowo native, law school graduate, former district chief, farmer and tiler, has headed the municipality for 20 years. Like Ms Ancipiuk, he represents the "Residents are First in Our Little Homeland" committee. During the council session, he says: "I don't watch the state broadcaster because I luckily managed to regulate my blood pressure some time ago".

In his speech, Deputy Commander Major Piotr Dederko emphasized the difficult situation his subordinates have to face:

- What we have been dealing with here for the last four months has been beyond my wildest imagination. On average, the facility in Michałowo turns away a minimum of 40 people a day.  120 was the record. This is a very heavy burden for the officers, these are horrendous numbers. Most of the children that we find don’t have any shoes or socks, but not because they’ve lost them, but because their parents throw them away, trying to arouse pity. To a large extent, the foreigners are trying to fool us. An ambulance is called on site, people are examined, and it turns out that they are fine. Pretending to be ill is just another way of pressuring officers. Of course, there are some serious, even fatal cases, I do not deny that. But if someone does not apply for refugee status, we have the right to return such people to the border. And we do it.

Chairwoman Ancipiuk: - so these children were taken to the border line?

Commander Dederko: - We just transport them to the border line... And our role ends there.

Mayor Nazarko: - Today, the children were just turned back, but I can already see the headlines: "Children are freezing to death in Michałowo". Putting them behind wires will lead to exactly this. It's just a matter of time. We need to talk about what we’ll do tomorrow. There’s just one emotion here: compassion. You can’t sweep this under the rug, it will come back with tenfold force.

And that's where the idea for a refugee Help Point originated.

REFUGEES IN CORNFIELD

Michałowo is located 36 kilometers southeast of Białystok, and has a population of 3,000. One half is Orthodox and the other half is Catholic. In the last parliamentary elections, 43% of its residents voted for PiS, 39% for the oppositional Civic Coalition.

The first time I heard of Michałowo was in 2007, when someone bought a lottery ticket worth a net of PLN 6.5 million at a local store and never claimed the prize. Back then, Michałowo was still a village. It was mainly known for its hundred-year-old wooden church, decorated inside with unique polychromies made by Adam Stalony-Dobrzański.

When four years after Poland has joined the EU Michałowo gained its municipal rights, everything began to change. A swimming hall with a full-size swimming pool was opened and a beach with a wooden pier and a viewing tower was built at the Siemianówka Reservoir. Heading here at night from the direction of Białystok, driving out of the prehistoric darkness of the primeval forest, suddenly, one sees gigantic, white-glowing #MICHAŁOWO sign appear on a meadow- an expression of pride and joy connected to the local community’s social advancement. Fortunately, the neon goes dark after 10:00 p.m.

Recently, Michałowo was on the lips of the entire country when local authorities decided to open a "disco polo school". It was the initiative of the same people who now help migrants and refugees: Mayor Nazarko and council member Ancipiuk. They wanted to save the only high school in the municipal area, which at one point had more employees than students. The latter preferred to commute to schools in Białystok. The idea of attracting young people with courses for construction workers or paramedics did not work out at all. On the other hand, the "show business" profile immediately attracted new applicants from all over the country. Thanks to the disco polo class, the high school survived.

Mayor Nazarko has a reputation of being rather frugal when it comes to spending budget money. He tries to get EU subsidies for everything. As a non-partisan mayor, it is difficult for him to get support from other sources. Soccer fields, new roads, 80% subsidies for solar collectors and photovoltaics for private homes... Now he is trying to build a modern kindergarten, fully passive and ecological. The roof will be such that in summer kids will ride down it on bicycles, and in winter - on sledges. The mayor's ambition is a "Green Michałowo". The project assumes that the commune will become climate-neutral not by 2050, as the EU plan stipulates, but already by 2025.

Maria Ancipiuk is open about the fact that the refugee Help Point is also meant to send a message to the world, presenting Michałowo as a modern town that distances itself from the stereotype of a "backward rural region".

But during her appearance on the private TV station TVN, when talking about migrant children hiding in the cornfield, she was completely sincere and driven by compassion.

Migrants often move through fields of corn. The corn grows high, forming dense rows that protect against the cold, wind, and the watchful eyes of border guard officers. Yet, the gaps between the rows are wide enough to march freely. Maria herself has seen soaked clothes, shoes and bags of food lying on the edge of the fields. She told the TV anchor that she is afraid that when the time comes to mow down the corn, bodies of dead migrants will be found there: "My biggest fear is that there will be a body of a child". Following her TV appearance, she saw multiple critical comments on Facebook: "Then take them home"- reads one of them. On the council's website, there was also a comment about her "talking crap on TVN".

- Whatever you do or say, there will always be someone who’s against you - the councilwoman says with a shrug. – The people of Michałowo are divided. Some volunteer at the refugee Help Point, others are upset and say that there is no point in helping them. But other than on the internet, no one has ever told me that by helping others we’re doing something wrong- she concludes.

I'm trying to figure out why some people put green lights out on their porches to let the stranded migrants know that there’s a shelter waiting for them, while others behave like the person who, when a man came to his house at night asking only for a glass of water, refused to give it to him and called the police.

Maria Ancipiuk moved to Podlasie from the Greater Poland region over 40 years ago. She used to be a competitive mid-distance runner. Her husband has an entire box filled with her diplomas and medals. For him, she changed her faith to Eastern Orthodox and came here. They bred geese, and now their son has taken over the farm. For years, Maria ran a mushroom picking place. Perhaps she is not afraid of strangers because she and her husband often travel abroad. They have been to Egypt and the Canary Islands. They are going to Oman soon.

The Minister of the Interior, Mariusz Kami雟ki, is trying to convince the public that the Middle-Eastern newcomers are terrorists or even zoophiles. In Michałowo, there is no shortage of people who were fooled by a video of an alleged migrant having intercourse with a cow shown by the Minister at a press conference.

- Why didn't you fall for it? - I ask the councillor.

- At first, I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe it is true, maybe it is not- Ms Ancipiuk says. - But even if it is true and one of them had such a video on his cell phone, so what? You can find such people everywhere. And what, there are no such people here in Poland? And then it turned out that it was all just a load of crap, that they got it from the internet to fuel hatred. Let me say this: whoever does not love her neighbor, does not love God. We are full of platitudes, we are oh-so-holy, and we destroy other people without even blinking. We take great care to protect fetuses, but look away when children die out there in the forest. Innocent children!

- And what does the local reverend think about all this? - I ask.

- He supports us. In September, a lone migrant woman sat on the church steps. He gave her something warm to drink and called us. We notified the Border Guard, we had to. It was before we even opened the refugee Help Point. We don’t know what happened to her.

HONOR

During one of his TV appearances, Poland’s Prime Minister Morawiecki stated that the Border Guard was saving Poland's honor by turning refugees back to the forest. That is why I decided to post a photo I had taken of the ladies from the local Rural Housewives’ Club, showing them frying pork chops at the fire station. In the Facebook post, I wrote that it was the women of Michałowo who were in fact saving Poland's honor. The picture received a lot of enthusiastic comments. But there was also a critical thread: "I hope it's not minced meat". "Cooking pork for Muslims is stupid." "One should know how to help".

Amir ate cabbage and mushroom-stuffed croquettes, but he did not refuse the bigos, even though there was some sausage in it. He was delighted.

The club’s chairwoman, Swietłana Łuksza: - My daughter, who has a Facebook profile, called me one day saying: "Mom, you’re famous! How cool!". When I saw all the likes, the kind comments, I immediately wanted to help these migrants even more! - she shouted joyfully into the phone.

Swietłana is 57 years old and has three grandchildren. Both she and her husband live on disability benefits. For twenty years, she ran a small grocery store in Michałowo. She went bankrupt when a chain supermarket appeared in town.

- I probably won’t vote for PiS. After what they have done with abortion and all that. I think that people should be helped. It doesn't matter if the person’s black or a Muslim, we should help them. What if we had to flee our country because something similar happened? There are people here in Michałowo who say: "why do these people even come here? They should stay at home". And I said to my friend: "You, such a devoted Christian, you go to church, you sit in the first row, how can you say that? You’d better not go". That's what I told her. It makes me angry. So, take my little granddaughter, what if someone would take her away from me now and leave her in the forest? I don’t even want to think about it. But you know what? My girlfriends and I decided that we'd make jars of pickles as our part of the relief effort. We'll do it in batches. We don’t have to use pork, sure. We’ll prepare some chicken, or beef, or a meatless casserole. Or even bigos, like on Christmas Eve, with mushrooms and prunes.

WORD AGAINST WORD

Michałowo, October 2021. I see soldiers carrying bags from the local supermarket as they walk down the street. On the square in front of the town hall, Ms Ancipiuk is giving an interview. She’s talking to the camera. A car with a German license plate rolls by. Someone probably came to pick up their loved ones. It was a usual sight.

Deputy mayor Konrad Sikora receives me at the town hall. – But I need to emphasize something right away- he says. – It’s Michałowo, not Michałów. Some journalist recently wrote Michałów. Wasn’t that your newspaper?

- These refugees started to appeared here in the summer- he says. - Some of the residents got scared. Just imagine - an elderly, lone woman goes out into the yard and there are these strangers. They knocked on the doors, asking for food. We decided to keep the lanterns lit up all night to give the people a sense of security. Now we are going to open another help point in the village of Szymki, even closer to the border. If a migrant applies for protection in Poland, Border Guard officers are obliged to take him to their post, follow the usual application procedures, and put him in a refugee center. If he does not want asylum, he simply goes back to the forest.

- But who will check if the migrant really doesn't want asylum?

- It’s word against word - the deputy mayor spreads his hands in a helpless gesture. – When the guards say a migrant doesn’t want asylum in Poland, they just turn that person back to the border. But it doesn't mean that the migrant can't first get a warm shower, some food, and dry clothes. There is so much we can do for these people.

Mr Sikora’s cell phone starts ringing. He apologizes, and switches to fluent English. As I walk away, I pass "Reuters" reporters in the hallway.

Since Amir’s visit, no one has come to the Help Point on Fabryczna street seeking shelter. In front of the fire station, I see a journalist ask an elderly woman with a basket for an interview.

- Would you like to tell me what you think about this place? - he asks. He puts the woman in front of the camera, clips a microphone to her coat.

- Well, I think it's good that you can get warm and have something to eat. Why not? - the woman begins.

- So you think we should help refugees, let them in, right?

- No, we should not. Why should we help them? Why, is Poland so rich all of a sudden?

The journalist is disappointed. I walk along with the elderly lady for a while. She tells me that one of those "you know, the brown-looking ones", beat up someone from her family abroad and that's why she now hates them all.

IF THINGS GET UGLY, WE’LL JUST RUN AWAY

Karim, an Algerian national, has been living in Michałowo for 12 years. He lives here with his wife, a Michałów native, whom he met on holiday in Tunisia. He runs a pizzeria opposite the town hall. It is a small, two-seat pizza place, mainly take-away. Karim has already learned to speak decent Polish. His wife is one of the local residents most involved in helping migrants.

- When he came here with me, people reacted terribly. In short, they told him to get the fuck - she recalls. - There were two people who came to his pizza place and started messing around, and when he asked them to leave, they started a brawl. They threatened him and got into a fight. My husband reported them to the police. There was a trial, the perpetrators paid a fine for spreading racial hatred. Since then, they have stayed away from us.

- Were you not afraid to stay in Michałowo?

- Karim said: "If things get ugly, we'll just run away." But for now, there is no reason. The mentality of people here in Michałowo is changing for the better. If someone doesn't like the fact that Karim is an Arab, they just don't buy his pizza.

Karim's wife doesn't want to disclose any personal information, she prefers people don’t try to google her.

- Did you hear about that married couple they found in the woods? They were lying on the ground, using their bodies to keep their little daughter warm. The mother was dying - she whispers. - People say: "these migrants are not poor, they have phones...". Okay, sure, but don't we also have phones? If I was running away, I would take my phone first, too. "But they have branded shoes!". Wait a minute, we buy designer shoes too. I would run away in my  branded shoes as well. "Well, but we're not running away". And how do you know we won't have to run away one day? - I ask. They too once thought they would never have to run away. After all, it's not like we're going to build a wall and that's it. People are not going to stop migrating. It's going to get worse. The climate is changing. So what, we're supposed to seal ourselves off from everyone and everything? And if they build a wall, what will happen to the wild animals? We are the ones who have entered these forests, we are the ones who are disturbing them.

Karim's wife is a member of the Orthodox Church, but she doesn't go there much.

- I believe in God, but I don't necessarily want to subsidize him. I prefer to make a donation for those in need. My husband also prays at home. We went to the nearby mosque in Kruszyniany once.

She says her empathy comes from the fact that she herself was once an 'illegal'. She worked illegally in London. She went to visit her relatives, officially she was studying, but in fact she was working in a cafe. They caught her, but didn't deport her.

- We were leaving our country as well, we wanted to earn money too, right?

OUR COMMON HUMANITY SHOULD BE THE TOP PRIORITY

Why is councilwoman Nina Bielenia engaged in helping migrants? She reported to the Help Point the very first day it opened, and she now spends here several hours every day. She segregates the incoming clothes, answers the phones. She is always there when I come by. And she has quite a lot to do. Apart from being a councillor (she’s also a member of the "Residents are First in Our Little Homeland" committee), she has been the village leader for years (other than the office of the mayor, Michałowo retained the posts of two village leaders from back when it was still a village). She’s making some money on the side working in the pharmacy. She has a support of nearly 64% of the voters. Out of the 14 local council members, no one else has such backing.

Nina is a tall, slender blonde over 60.  Just like Maria Ancipiuk, she used to be an athlete: she was a runner and a volleyball player. She also graduated froma music school, played the accordion and xylophone, and wrote songs. She gave up both of these career opportunities at a young age. Her father died in an accident, and her mother was left alone with the children. Nina returned to Michałowo to help her. When her mother became seriously ill, her daughter has taken care of her for several years until she died.

Sołtys Michałowa Nina Bielenia pomagająca w strażnicy Ochotniczej Straży Pożarnej i ogrzewalni.Sołtys Michałowa Nina Bielenia pomagająca w strażnicy Ochotniczej Straży Pożarnej i ogrzewalni. Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

- Mom was the most wonderful person I know. I miss her very much. I also miss my dad. I had the luck of having wonderful, open, warm and honest parents. I can't find the right words for it- she says.

One of her duties as the village leader is handing out tax decisions to the residents. I'm surprised she doesn't send them out by mail.

- Sending a postage-paid letter costs PLN 7, which is a big expense for the municipality- she explains. - Besides, these are elderly people, sometimes you have to help them fill out the form, explain what it says. I have the documents with me wherever I go, so whoever I meet, I hand them out. 99% of people pay me in cash. Of course, I give them a receipt. Nothing gives me such a boost as knowing that I helped someone. You have no idea what kind words we get from people all over Poland. One gentleman from Tarczyn talked to me on the phone for a long time, and then he wrote me a text message: "Dear madam village leader, thank you for talking to me, and I'm sorry for getting overly emotional - because he literally sobbed into my phone earlier - we stand behind you, the whole country admires you. And you give us hope that there are still good people in this nation. I have to say, I also cried. I had to go out for a walk. Sometimes I think that this division into borders is anachronistic. Humanity should be our top priority.

THOSE WHO CAN TAKE A LEAVE OF ABSENCE

I wonder why councilman Ryszard Balcerzak was so opposed to the idea of a barbed-wire crown of thorns at the session. I knock on his door. He opens. His gentle face immediately turns into a hostile frown when he hears that I work for "Gazeta Wyborcza". He won't talk to me, even through the doorstep. I only learn that the crown offended his religious feelings: "Because the crown of Lord Jesus was made of thorns, not wire. Goodbye".

Or maybe the point was that Mr Balcerzak himself once worked in the Border Guard, and it pains him that some people compare it to the SS. He knows that a guard must follow orders. From local residents, I hear that some border guard officers ask them to leave items for migrants under the fence on Sosnowa Street. When they bring someone to the outpost to, as Major Dederko puts it, "process them as a foreigner", i.e. review their asylum application and take them to a refugee center, they call the Help Point and ask for shampoo, toothpaste, food, etc. Recently, they even asked for crayons for children. I was told off the record that many border guard officers are struggling with this tension. Those who can take a leave of absence.

One day, I drive up to Fabryczna Street with bags from Decathlon. My friends entrusted me with the money, and I bought a lot of specialist hiking clothes. When I bring it to the Help Point, I run into journalist from Euronews. The French woman wants to film me walking in with the bags. She asks me to say something into the camera. I show her the things I bought and tell her that when I was in the store choosing those little waterproof shoes with rubber soles or those black balaclavas so people would be harder to see from a distance, I thought to myself how dividing the world into sectors and closing them up with fences and wires at a time when we should be saving the planet together seems absurd.

The French journalist raises her thumb. - Can you say the same thing again but in a different angle? That part about saving the planet.

Just as I finish writing this article, I receive a text message from the Rural Housewives’ Club in Michałowo. I donated part of the money from an online fundraiser I set up to support the women and their idea of meal prep for migrants and refugees. They thank me for the money and send me a photo to prove that they did not misappropriate the donation. Proud, smiling, they are holding cardboard boxes filled with jars. Caption: Meat jars for those in need. THIS TIME IT’S CHICKEN!;)

***

Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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