AN UNUSUAL SCHOOL
WIESŁAWA LEWANDOWSKA: - At the end of August in the secondary school of the College of St. Stanisław Kostka in Warsaw one can see a big crowd of young people – serious, concentrated, speaking scarcely correct Polish. Since when have they been immigrating here from the far?
EWA PETRYKIEWICZ: - In such a big amount – for a few years. They apply for getting to the first year, take tests in Polish, foreign languages. This year we have accepted over fifty candidates for a boarding school, and totally, together with repatriates and immigrants’ children from Warsaw, we have 70 students of the first year.
The history of the school for Poles from the East, which is completely a private initiative and idea realized for a few fervent people, is quite long. The beginnings were not easy, were they?
And it still not easy! But our history began in 1992, when the Warsaw Branch of the Catholic Association of Educators established it with parents and a head-teacher of an Orphanage in Pyre. It was a private school then, one of many such schools then, but more for elites – for children from Catholic families. In 1994 it passed over its heritage to this school – a flag, name and souvenirs – near the Graduates of the Prewar Junior High School and Secondary School of St. Stanisław Kostka. And in 1997 I began to work here as a teacher of Polish, and soon I also became a chairperson of the association. In 2001 the school was moved from Pyr to Wilanów, to a building at the parish there…
…And it was when you got an idea to invite students from the East, wasn’t it?
Yes, but not earlier than in 2003. There was a suitable place for a boarding school, at first our host in Wilanów a prelate priest Bogusław Bijak suggested giving admission to students from poorer areas of Poland (twenty of them took the GCSE exam, later there was nobody willing to take the exam). I thought then also about our compatriots from the East, with whom I had an opportunity to meet, when in the beginning of the 90s I was working for a missionary magazine of Pallottine priests ‘I send you’ and I travelled to Pallottine parishes in Belarus, Ukraine a few times. I was looking then at ruined churches there and talked to Poles living there, the poor – and religious ones and who dreamt about Poland. Elderly women rebuilt the churches with their own hands – they were carrying buckets with concrete, for example when rebuilding a Polish cathedral in Mohylewo – later the women used to take their grandchildren to the churches…I felt great respect to those people and I saw how they were fighting for their identity and how helpless and left behind by others they were. I could not do very much for them then, but I managed to organize holiday in Poland for ‘Chernobyl children’. When did you decide to take up the difficult challenge and realize your idea of establishing a school for Poles? This idea had been developing in my mind and heart since my first contact with my compatriots in the borderlands. It was when I felt my own borderlands roots…So, when there was an opportunity – boarding school rooms at the parish in Wilanów – I gave a command at once to give admission to a few students from the East. It was referring – completely unconsciously then – to the prewar tradition of the school named St. Stanisław Kostka, as in 1920 a boarding school was established in it for students arriving from the borderlands.
Those students from the borderlands did not have to cross the borders, overcome obstacles. Whereas new independent Poland, despite many declarations, did not take care of its compatriots from the East…There were always difficulties, weren’t they?
Yes. And They are still appearing. But there also were some optimistic lights in the tunnel. The president of Warsaw of that time, the late prof. Lech Kaczyński helped us receive a grant from the city authorities to equip the boarding school. However, it turned out later that it was difficult to maintain it without any donations – students did not pay anything, and it even often happened that it was necessary to give them money for their some little needs, for example, to go to their families with some gifts at Christmas or at Easter. There were also problems with registering the boarding school, which were overcome only thanks to the personal engagement of Mrs. Maria Kaczyńska.
Wasn’t it possible in a normal way?
The issue got stuck somewhere on the official level. It was a luck of fate that our school performance ‘Maiden Vows’ – put up at the Little Theatre, thanks to the cooperation with many people of good will and private sponsors to present our talented youth and show that in Warsaw we have a school for compatriots from the East – was attended by Mrs. Maria Kaczyńska, who was delighted by our youth and what we do; she made our boarding school registered soon. Later she was also supported us a lot.
How can you apply for this school?
Thanks to recommendations of Polish parishes in the East, recruitment to our school has been growing since the very beginning. In 2003, beside 20 Polish students, in Wilanów we had already had the first 10 students from Ukraine and 10 from Belarus. Having spread information about our school to Polish associations, parishes, consulates in the following years, the number of students grew to 70, and then it was growing very quickly. The school got its household name very quickly, that it is very religious and safe. Initially – in the years 2003 – 05 – we had children from very poor Polish borderlands villages, very talented, but with lots of educational gaps.
One could assume that you, as the Head-teacher, risked a lot, as how is it possible to run a private school without taking any fees from students?
At that time, as the chairperson of the association I was particularly trying to gain means to maintain the school, regardless of grants of the National Education Ministry. We did not take any fees from our students, but we have been forced for a few years to take fees to maintain the boarding building. It is difficult to for private schools to be maintained only on grants, especially for such schools as ours, which must take care of its students much more than other schools. The only little light in a tunnel was implementing donations by the National Education Ministry in 2010 for the extra lessons of Polish language, comprised by various restrictions, though. It was introduced as in various schools there began to appear more and more children from foreign families. Also children from richer families began to attend our school.. However, the fact is that for that whole time we had to – and we have to – look for donors.
What result does it bring?
It is various, but, surely, if it was not for sponsors, who feel the sense o four Polish mission, this school would not exist. We must fight for existence all the time. In 2013 we had to leave Wilanów, where we rent a very expensive building in Mokotów, in which – considering that we have 170 students – there is very little space for the boarding school. Moreover our school for Poles is much more expensive to maintain than other ordinary schools. It is sad that those politicians who speak a lot about a duty of helping compatriots in the East, do not understand it… ….and our knocking on the door remains with no echo. We are treated as all other education institutions. However, there are those who supported us. Mr. Płażyński, the Speaker of the Seym, who visited our school said that it was one of the most sensible activities for Poles in the East; he promised help, cooperation…It was just before 10 April 2010….When in 2011 the donation for students in the boarding building was reduced – from 800 to 600 zlotys – and we feel it more than others, because our school boarding building must provide care for the whole week, in winter holidays, and also at Christmas and Easter. In an ordinary school boarding building parents pay for all meals, but in our case it is impossible. At that time we had to survive two months without any money…
What did you do then?
It was much worse in the beginning of 2012 when we did not longer receive support from the Office of Senate and not from the Foreign Ministry, which had taken over the care of Poles abroad. Students were crying as the threat of closing down the school was real. It was necessary to take loans, beg…Even today we are feeling the consequences of that crisis…In 2012 we set up a Foundation for Polish Diaspora, which has been raising funds since June. In 2013 we received 100 thousand zlotys from the Foreign Ministry which was sufficient to purchase food for one and a half month.
How do you explain this officials’ unwillingness or indifference towards the school for Poles from the East?
I think that in independent Poland there was no idea at all – despite political declarations – about helping Poles once left behind in the East. And our school is this kind of an idea which has had no place anywhere – neither in the Foreign Ministry or in the Education Ministry.
Did the governments of ‘a good change’ bring any changes?
We presented a new minister with the situation of our school, its special mission and needs connected with it and requiring increased financial expenditures. We met with understanding. Donation for Polish language lessons in all schools was increased and liberated from unnecessary restrictions, which became a real rescue for our school. The current authority recognizes repatriation of Poles from the East as a moral duty. The National Education Ministry presented a grant project ‘Polish Diaspora Family’, of which we have already taken an advantage. Moreover, it is two years since we have been able to rely on the support from the Senate Office. Our school has already educated 700 students during 15 years, many of whom brought their families here. So, one can say that we have been fulfilling this patriotic duty for a long time, as repatriation through education is the best road of return to Homeland.
What do you, as the head-teacher, think about why politicians governing in the Third Republic of Poland did not care about using this possibility?
Probably because either they did not care about repatriation or they considered it as too expensive or they did not know what to do about it. Politicians whom we asked for help, were only multiplying problems for a long time, theorizing and did not suggest any practical solutions, no support. For example, they accused us of running the school only for the youth from the East; they claimed that it should be mixed so as to provide a better integration with the local youth.
Weren’t they right?
No, as our youth, by their eastern nature, is not closed up. Although one must admit that we had to struggle with the problem of being picked on as ‘the Russians’ for a long time…..However, we cannot allow for running an ‘integration’ school as our youth requires mainly equalizing the knowledge level. They come to our school with insufficient knowledge of the Polish language, nearly with the lack of knowledge about history and geography of Poland. Luckily, this youth is very talented and extremely willing to learn, so these lacks of knowledge are quickly filled in. Our school is not a school of special care for now – it is simply unusual! We have excellent students and teachers with the sense of mission.
So far this extraordinary sense of mission and your personal determination has made the school for Poles from the East exist at all, make the ends meet. What next?
There are more and more students, and we, as usually, are making efforts to provide them with the best conditions. This year our school boarding building is going to have its own kitchen. Our primary school is also developing, to which children from the East already living in Warsaw are given admission. We are facing up a necessity of changing the building for the schools and the school boarding building, etc. So, we are looking forward to the ‘good change’ in the authorities of Warsaw.
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 39/2018 (30 IX 2018)