‘Why didn’t I admit to being Polish?’ Brexit has divided Poles in Britain — and we need to talk about it

‘Why didn’t I admit to being Polish?’ Brexit has divided Poles in Britain — and we need to talk about it
Kamila aged nine in London with her mum

After moving from Poland to a fishing village in Scotland, Kamila Rymajdo struggled to fit in, first among her British peers, then among other émigré Poles. The Brexit crisis has plunged Poles into precarious migrant status in the UK, and as Rymajdo argues — an even greater divide.

30 October 2019

One of my earliest childhood memories is anxiously waiting at the airport en route from Warsaw as my mother pleads with a UK border control officer. As a nine-year-old, I didn’t understand what was going on, except that an imposing man in a uniform was standing between us and our destination — our new home in a small fishing village in Scotland with my mum’s new partner. It’s a scenario that repeated itself for months as we travelled between Warsaw and Whitehills in Aberdeenshire, until my mother married in the late 90s and we got visas to remain in the UK.

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The memory had long faded from my mind. I’ve been in the UK for over 20 years now after becoming a citizen when I was a teenager. But the anxiety of not knowing if we’d be deported came into sharp focus when a Polish friend recounted a similar scenario that happened just last week. She was detained on her way back from mainland Europe and her settled status was questioned, even though she’d been in the UK for years. It got me thinking about the fate of other Poles in the UK, who make up the biggest group of foreign nationals applying for settled status due of Brexit. It also made me think about our collective voice, which largely seems to be missing from the UK mainstream despite the fact there are now a million Poles living in the UK.

I was quick to embrace a British accent and everything that came with it — fish and chips, the Spice Girls, and Grange Hill. Perhaps because of this, my “Polishness” was not something I pondered until recently. As the one foreign kid in a tiny primary school, with no Polish community or even a Polish shop to speak of, there was little possibility of keeping a connection to my roots in Scotland at that time. Besides, I wanted so badly to fit so I could make new friends: I dropped the Polish pronunciation of my name, and adopted the English equivalent, which earned me the nickname “Parker” at school, after Camilla Parker Bowles.

First school photo in Scotland: Kamila in middle row, far right

We make up the biggest group of foreign nationals applying for settled status due of Brexit

It was different for my mother, however. While she had spent her youth seemingly trying to escape Poland by travelling abroad as much as she could (meeting my stepfather on a trans-Siberian train as a result), moving to the UK brought her closer to her Polish identity, which proved to be an asset as she began looking for work. She started writing about Polish film, and after completing a PhD, got a job as a lecturer specialising in Eastern European cinema.

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When my stepfather decided to stop working as a family doctor and move into public health policy, we moved to England, where there were more opportunities for them both. Settling down in Glossop, a Derbyshire town near to Manchester, I started attending a Polish Saturday school. It wasn’t long before I realised I wasn’t like the other students. The other kids were predominantly second-generation Poles, whose grandparents had fled their homeland after the war. Compared to me, they had never lived in Poland, and their Polish culture came from their grandparents and the Catholic Church. Being from an atheist family, I found it hard to fit in and was treated with suspicion in return. I begged my mum to leave, and stopped attending as soon as I passed my Polish GCSE. Somewhat scarred by this experience, I didn’t make friends with any Poles in the UK until long into my adulthood.

More recently, writing about Poles in the UK as a journalist and academic, I have come to notice the differences between Polish émigrés — my own generation, the post-war group, and those who arrived after Poland joined the EU in 2004. The differences between us are generational, but also stem from the purpose of our migration: someone who’s a political exile is likely to feel differently about their homeland and new country to someone who’s an economic migrant, with an option to return home.

Christmas in Poland

For starters, the post-war group feels a higher sense of gratitude towards Britain for providing refuge; this is how academic Jennifer Brown characterises the generation in Expressions of Diasporic Belonging: The Divergent Emotional Geographies of Britain’s Polish Communities. The post-1989 migrants, who came after the fall of the Iron Curtain, represent a group described by Aleksandra Galasińska, for whom migration was a “final step into leaving one space and moving into another” (in 2010 published Gossiping in the Polish Club: An Emotional Coexistence of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Migrants). The post-2004 migrants by comparison have a much closer bond with contemporary Poland. They keep in touch with Polish culture through TV and the internet, and are in constant contact with friends and relatives back home. They also keep a close eye on what’s popular in Poland: it’s evident in the UK Polish music club scene for instance, by the regular hip hop concerts and disco polo gigs. The post-2004 Poles I’ve met are also often working between the two countries, or on frequent trips back home, as “generation EasyJet”.

Someone who’s a political exile is likely to feel differently about their homeland and new country to someone who’s an economic migrant

What these different experiences can result in is a kind of division between the communities, or even sometimes within the same groups. Galasińska writes that post-2004 migrants can have problems in “being accepted in centres ‘ruled’ by the postwar group”, such as Polish schools and churches. Simultaneously, there is distrust towards Poles within their own group: “‘Poles may deliberately compete and undermine each other’ and joining a Polish community is perceived as ‘unhelpful and even dangerous,’” wrote the authors of the 2009 paper “Recent Polish migrants in London: accessing and participating in social networks across borders.” It’s not surprising, too, that Poles might want to pass as British, given the way that they are homogenised along with other EU migrants and are often viewed only as cheap labour from the Eastern Bloc.

As a toddler in Poland with mum (left) and aunt (right)

One thing happened to me recently which made me consider the cost of masking my own Polish identity for so long. It involved a young man sitting opposite me on a train, asking why there was nowhere to charge his phone. I was about to say something scathing about the inadequacies of British public transport but, noticing his foreign accent, I refrained. After all, he was likely on holiday or recently moved to the UK, and I didn’t want to burst his bubble. Instead, I presented him with my portable charger. In return, he told me his story: he’d been in the UK for three days, a newly-enrolled student. He was full of praise for all he’d experienced so far: delicious food in Manchester’s Chinatown and the pumping dance music at the city’s Gay Village. Then he said, “in Poland”, and recounted the recent attacks on the LGBT community, courtesy of the country’s populist right-wing government, Law and Justice. I kept waiting for an opportunity to interject, and say I was Polish too, but it never felt like it was the right moment. What I did was listen.

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Why didn’t I admit to being Polish? Was it because the country I left as a child was not the same country he had recently departed? Or was it that I did not feel Polish enough? In a way, my reaction is not out of the ordinary. According to Ewa Morawska, in comparison to some “more visibly ‘other’ racial and religious ethnic groups in the UK, such as Pakistanis, Indians, and Africans, Poles have generally attracted little attention from native-born Britons, which diminishes the need among Polish migrants to defensively ‘gather around the national flag’” and proclaim their Polishness.

The flipside is becoming evident to me now. With such little representation in British mainstream media, there is little scope for bringing attention to Poles’ plight in the UK, which is increasingly precarious in light of Brexit, and the rising xenophobia towards Poles which followed the European Union membership referendum.

Kamila aged 14 with aunt visiting from Poland

I feel regret at not letting the young man I met on the train know I was Polish, or sharing my phone number in case he ever needed help, but I’m glad I took the time to listen to his own story of emigration. It’s important we try to break from the shame of not being “Polish enough” or not fitting in and understanding each other, because if Poles are to have a voice in British society, especially when our right to be here is questioned at airport passport controls before Brexit has even happened, then we really need to put those divisions aside and mobilise as one community.

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