Administrator Ania blogs for us about the moment when she realised she had more in common with someone ‘different’, and what that’s meant to her.
Two weeks ago I visited my local mosque for a coffee morning, organised by the Muslim women’s group. I used to be a regular visitor at the mosque, spending my Saturday mornings learning Arabic. But that was some years ago now and when I arrived, I realised I only knew two of the women. Nevertheless, I was greeted with open arms by women who had absolutely no idea who I was, and who were genuinely happy to meet me. And as we sat and ate a variety of delicious cakes, we talked. About the different countries we’re from, the different languages we speak, the things we do in our spare time, and – of course – the cakes we like! Sadly, some women have exchanged stories of verbal harassment they have experienced, and then their coping techniques.
And I remembered my own experience of xenophobia, which I have recently shared with my friends. When I was young and still living in Wroclaw, Poland, Germans were our biggest enemy. Because they have occupied our country for many years, they’ve bombed us and killed our people during WW2. The narrative was always “them” oppressing “us”. This is how we were brought up to think, despite the fact that the war was over 50 years before. In 2001 I went to Germany for a voluntary placement, paid by The Robert Bosch Foundation, the same company that produces household electricals. Their charitable branch encourages reconciliation between Germany and Poland, through investment in the nations’ young people and allowing them to volunteer abroad. And so I ended up in a small German village, where I made many German friends. Of course they weren’t my enemies, they weren’t even alive during the war! That summer I met my Scottish husband-to-be and when I first took him to Poland, my grandad said “well, at least he’s not a German”. You could forgive my grandad, who can remember Warsaw, his home town, burning down during the Warsaw uprising in 1944. Later the same year, I moved to Berlin, to volunteer in another project. And there I met a lovely old man, called Hubertus. He was roughly the same age as my grandad. He was part of an organisation working towards reconciliation between the nations. When I told him, where in Poland I come from, he was overjoyed, because he came from Wroclaw too. Or rather Breslau, as it was called when it was still a German city. He then told me how him and his family were forced to flee his hometown, urged by their own army, which was preparing the city for the Russian offensive. They were relocated westwards, deeper into Germany and have lost everything. Most importantly, Hubertus told me how his mother was unable in her life time to return to her hometown. My hometown.
If I could pinpoint the moment when my attitude towards “the other” changed, it would definitely be that conversation with Hubertus – a German, born in Breslau, in my hometown. And when I moved into the UK, I was truly intrigued by the diversity and no longer scared by the “otherness” of other people. And the more “different” people I met, the more I understood that, in reality, we have lots in common. In fact, one of my best diversity experiences was being part of a focus group, working on Action Hampshire’s equality and diversity toolkit
Just like everyone else, I’m made of multiple identities. I am a woman. I’m a wife. I’m a mother. I’m a wrocławianka (a woman from Wrocław). I’m Polish. I’m European. I’m a linguist. I’m a polyglot. I’m a drummer. I’m a cake lover. I’m a board game enthusiast. I’m a charity worker. I’m a volunteer. My own diversity means that I can always find something in common with the strangers around me. And this is how them and I stop being “others” and become humans.