Night. Ewa is bent over a laptop in an old two-storey London townhouse. Exhausted, she fills out an application form to tease out a few more pounds from the local government. From below Janusz, a former alcoholic, calls. As does Tomasz, once a child of reformed youth offenders.
Ewa pulls on a sweater and jeans. She fastens her hair, hiding her beauty. God forbid she wears lipstick or mascara. With both men she goes on a night-time patrol around London. A couple of Poles barbecue in an alley; Ewa sees the sizzling corpse of a rat. She assures herself they tore off the naturally strychnine-soaked tails.
Knowing the person allows the conversation to flow quicker. If not, Ewa ceremoniously, and politely, begins to ask basic questions. To, as much as possible, enquire, discover, and then try to convince that life can be different. If she’s told to f*** off, then… tough. She comes back with the guys another time.
Returning from the patrol, Ewa stumbles into Tadzio. He was nearly convinced. She puts her hand on his neck. No pulse. He had been drinking a gel-like liquid with which the English disinfect their hands. The Poles call it makumba.
Lured by beauty
Five years ago John Downie, an official from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, starts encountering countless homeless Poles on the streets, in the park – those who failed to conquer the job market. He doesn’t understand who they are, why they lie on the pavement, not wanting to return to their country. They don’t even speak English.
On the internet he reads about Barka – Ark – an organisation from Poznan, north-west Poland, that helps the homeless. He writes an e-mail. In Barka there’s a meeting; they invite him to visit. He sees the homeless, drunks, criminals and drug addicts working on Barka’s farms: no addictions, fully conscious, with new families. He returns to London and calls a meeting with his staff. Bring in Barka.
Ewa, together with Barka founder Tomasz Sadowski and a few others, lands in a London airport midway through 2006. They’re on a reconnaissance mission, visiting parks, touring streets. They see thousands of Poles, at rock bottom. Ewa is in her element, and with Tomasz is planning to build a base from which to take compatriots back to Poland.
They start with a stand in Hammersmith, near a newsagent’s bulletin board known as the “wailing wall”. Ewa rushes around the homeless, persuading them to talk, to return and work in Poland, with a smile, sympathy, a kind word. She is told to go away, branded a gangster, a head-hunter.
Observing her closely is Jurek, 50, who arrived in the UK for work but ended up in a drunken spiral of despair. He steals and sleeps in a squat. “Who’s that?” he asks his friends. Be careful, he hears, the blonde is here to lure you away. To kidnap, deport, expel you. Without your kidneys.
Jurek escapes back to the squat. He eats at a day centre – one of dozens in London that feeds and clothes the homeless. But he returns, approaches Ewa, takes a flyer, starts talking. From behind he hears: you’re stupid, run, they’ll take you away, cut it out.
So be it. Jurek can’t take it anymore.
Barka gives him a ticket, he returns home to his mother. He stays a week, drinks, boards a train to Barka’s commune. He quits drinking, gets a job, undergoes training. After two years he returns to London – as a leader. He goes to Hammersmith, sees his friends, their faces swollen, reddened through drink. They greet him as their own.
“Got your kidneys?” they ask.
“I do,” he tells them. “Now it’s your turn. Or you’ll rot here like garbage. Your choice.”
A scarred face
“They think we’re some sort of cult,” Ewa tells me, “paid for by the English to take Poles off the streets.” Now, she says, they have four leaders in London like Jurek: It’s easier for a homeless person to talk to somebody whose face is furrowed with alcohol, homelessness and tattoos.
The leadership training includes such scenarios. “You can’t simply approach them and ask them their name,” Ewa says. “Because they’ll reply: what’s it to you?” But then again recruits don’t need much training. They need to be honest; using their experience to show it can be done.
“If only you saw,” she continues, “how surprised English council and social workers were when we started this program. They patrol with walkie-talkies and police; the homeless won’t talk to them.
“But the boys and I, in four years, sent 1,400 people back to Poland, many of whom found jobs. Here they are trained to approach the homeless from a distance, even without a scarf as they might be strangled. What nonsense.”
A psychologist with an “English-style” approach once examined a homeless Pole. Ewa listened as the doctor declared: “I recognize symptoms of manic depression. Please come to my office.” He gurgled dismissively in reply. Then Zdzislaw, a leader, formerly homeless, presented his diagnosis:
“Get a f****** grip or you’ll die under this fence.” Relationship established.
When we sit in the office of Michelle Binfield, a specialist adviser on rough sleeping for the Department of Communities and Local Government, she explains to me that British officials are obsessed with professionalism, that it would be inconceivable for a reformed alcoholic to be a leader, an outreach worker.
“But Barka has shown a different approach,” says Michelle, “demonstrating their method is effective. Nobody in England has worked with the homeless in this way.”
“The English welfare system,” says Ewa, “is a bigger problem than methods of contact with the homeless.” She quotes from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, where it mentions that in the 1930s the homeless were left in shelters run by owners only interested in the money. According to Ewa, to this day little in London has changed.
After returning from a night patrol she turns into a manager, one who must negotiate funds and hear accusations from other foundations that she is taking their money. “Here they are mainly interested in giving the homeless food,” Ewa says. “But we convince them that they are people, that they can go to work, and that Barka can help them with this.”
And not only Poles, but all of those from the new EU countries who landed on London’s pavements. Had the English read their Classics, she adds, they wouldn’t make the same mistakes. Again she paraphrases Orwell: we should find the homeless work so they regain their self-respect; idleness demoralises.
I sit outside the government office where Ewa is negotiating further grants; the clerk refused to talk in the presence of a journalist. Ewa comes out. She’s in good spirits, but annoyed.
“Social workers switch off their telephones after 3pm, mine is on all day,” she complains. “I want London to have a free hotline for the homeless, but they tell me there’s a financial crisis.”
We go to the Houses of Parliament. Waiting for us is Lord Roberts of Llandudno, a friend of Barka. We sit in the cafeteria; the venerable Lord treats Ewa as a granddaughter. We joke, drink coffee, but Ewa gets straight to the point.
“What about the telephone line? Will there be money?” she asks.
Lord Roberts shrugs. There’s a crisis, but he’ll try. We leave. Ewa presses Lord Roberts’ assistant, 22-year-old Piotr Leśniak who arrived from Poland to study and who managed to land an internship at the House of Lords.
“I’ll remind Lord Roberts,” he promises.
Ewa urges him: “Piotr, you must, it is important. What we do is of upmost importance.”
When Ewa argues about money, promoting the Barka ideal, she is animated, gesticulating wildly. She admitted to me that before negotiating with officials she stands in front of a mirror rehearsing her speech.
Guardian of discipline
Staszek Szczerba, a former alcoholic and Barka UK’s first leader, who worked with Ewa in London, recalls how after a few months he wanted to pack up and go home.
“I told her,” says Staszek, “I will not be ordered around by a young shiksa, like an ox sent to work. Ring your mother and stepfather. Let them carry the homeless on their backs to the consulate.”
Ewa listens. “Staszku,” she interjects, “it was a difficult moment, and I had confidence in you.”
“Well, yes,” says Staszek. “But you made me work without drawing breath or taking a rest.”
“Because, you see, Ewa is incredibly ambitious,” he tells me, “and dedicated to the cause. She can be ruthless when her targets are in sight. Nothing stands in her way.”
Ewa is not embarrassed, explaining that on her rests responsibility for the mission, for the discipline among the leaders. Once, she didn’t guard one closely enough. Didn’t notice he isolated himself. So he went on a binge and hit bottom. There was also Janusz, a former alcoholic, another leader, who disappeared one weekend. Rumours circulated that he was having an affair with a younger Barka worker.
Ewa caused a scene, but Janusz to this day is adamant, saying it was nonsense, he was misunderstood.
“But I’m not their chaperone,” says Ewa, as we sit with the leaders at the table. “After all, guys, you know the rules. I can’t allow for you to have romances here while your families are in Poland.”
On the living room door Ewa hung a list of rules: observance of group standards; work on personal development; AA meeting; English lessons. Gosia, a rehabilitation worker from Barka UK, tells me that Ewa has no private life, devoting herself totally to Barka. If she saw her staff in the office at 10pm, she would believe it the norm.
Maiden of the homeless
I’m having a cigarette with the leaders. I probe, for this is a man’s world, and Ewa is female, young, attractive. No – they look at her asexually. She’s like a sister, a daughter. Family.
“Although,” says Janusz, pulling on his cigarette, “it’s a little abnormal. Ewka is nearly 30 and still a virgin. She should find herself a boyfriend, but it’s always ‘Barka, Barka..’.”
“How do you know?” I say. They look at each other.
“She told us.”
Seeing as it was no secret, I ask. “For me it’s no problem,” replies Ewa. “I took a vow of chastity before marriage when I was 17 and I stand by it.”
Michelle Binfield, who became good friends with Ewa, told me she has tried to set her up before. Ewa sighes. Yes, she did go on a date with a friend of Michelle’s, to the cinema, but it was because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Another time she went on a date with a local official who wanted to make her his child-bearing wife.
Another cigarette with the leaders. They throw up a new lead. Ask, they say, about the prince from Holland. So I do. Ewa blushes for the first time.
“He’s a friend of mine,” she says. A prince? That’s the high life, I reply. Ewa snorts. She doesn’t like that world.
A few months ago Ewa, with her mother, stepfather and sister, was at a charity ball hosted by a Polish countess in Warsaw. Attending were actors, businessmen – the cream of Polish society. Ewa was sitting at a table, an adviser of President on her left, a Dame on her right.
She tells the Dame about the mission in London and how the homeless dined on rats. “Oh my,” the lady sighed over her lobster. “Does it not scare you?”
“No,” Ewa answered, adding how as a child she grew up with a murderer, a prostitute, her 12 dogs and the homeless. When the lady moves away, her sister says: “Must you instantly tell people about our house and alienate them?”
The little angel and the murderer
Ewa’s first memory: She is four years old and her mother, Basia, is dragging a suitcase. They are leaving her father, a lawyer, and move in with Tomasz Sadowski, a psychologist. Basia, who also studied psychology, cannot watch when insane asylums drug their patients and keep them straight-jacketed, away from other people.
Tomasz takes patients under his wing, no prescription drugs. He is disliked by the medical fraternity, who see him as a kind of McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; a man who tears the mentally ill away from the hands of lunatic doctors.
This suits Basia, who also wants to escape – from her husband’s well-ordered, arranged world. Tomasz and Basia marry and work together to humanise the insane, but resentment of their methods grows. So they quit their jobs in a Poznan clinic and go their own way.
They take to repairing a school building in Władysławowo near Poznan. Ewa, seven years old at the time and with two younger sisters, remembers wading through the knee-deep snow to see their new home: a leaky-roofed, windowless ruin. They sleep in their hats. They live there with a few patients but begin to attract, according to Ewa, some amazing individuals.
There’s Henio, a murderer with a face tattooed like a Polish, patterned Easter egg. He would break the Barka custom of communal eating and prayer, sitting alone, eating from his plate, drinking from his own cup, never producing a hostile glance or a knife from his boot.
Ewa remembers how her 18-month-old sister, Jadzia, approached the man, thrust into his hands a doll and sat on his lap – a moment that deeply moved Henio. And she remembers sitting with Henio on a haystack while he peeled carrots for the horses, listening to him talk about how he once raided a bank, or when he told her about his Ukrainian grandmother, a woman who instilled in him a belief that life was black and white.
Ewa remembers how he would pick her up from school in clothes stinking of the stables. And how, when he died, the whole village came, because it was at Barka where Henio believed that he was a human being and that the world was not so black and white.
Ewa remembers Ziuta, a prostitute who came from the woods, where she lived in a hut with a pack of 12 dogs. Ziuta was happy Barka accepted her with pets and gave her a bed, in a room which now smells like a dog shelter.
Ewa remembers walks with Ziuta when she’d hear about the husband and child who died in an accident, and how Ziuta, wracked by grief, tumbled to the bottom of a bottle, prostitution, solitude. Or when Ziuta recites from her favourite Polish novel, when she laughs, happily, toothlessly. And when she returned from a parent-teacher meeting, which she attended in place of Barka-busy Basia, announcing proudly that little Ewa had won another contest.
She remembers Grandma Stasia, an 80-year-old thrown out in the middle of winter by her family, the only person capable of coercing Henio into praying by slapping his head with a wet rag, who used to call Ewa a little angel, and for whom the lads, upon her death, constructed a small coffin in Barka’s workshop.
She remembers rubbish bin-loving Franciszek. In her memories she sees as they walk to market, Franciszek unable to pass a trash can without peering in, with whatever dug out added to his collection in their big, happy house.
She remembers Andrzej, who lived in a bunker for 16 years, entering the house, his stench gripping their throats, sand and dust almost embedded in his skin. Ewa remembers how happy Andrzej was when trusted with taking care of the sheep, giving them names, and how they, in return, appreciative of his concern, would follow his voice.
The house rules in Władysławowo are laid out on the table. Newcomers must talk about themselves, stop drinking, and become a member of the family. Thieves, the homeless, drunks, junkies – everybody at the table has a voice, every dollar divided equally, each person receiving a loaf of bread.
Such therapy was established by Ewa’s stepfather, who remembers the long nights when he would tell everybody how they could work, earn, make something of themselves.
Ziuta, Heniek, Franciszek and others looked at him and believed it was possible. Therapy was based on the assumption that everybody could get work, responsibilities and tasks in the house and adjacent farm. That is why Ewa feels safe in the house.
But they don’t tempt fate, knowing that some of the former criminals had not seen women for years – which is why Basia walks around in broad skirts, hair tied back like a teacher. Although she does begin to worry when, once back in Poznan, her daughters must return home through the city.
“I also remember the poverty,” says Ewa. “When there was only bread and butter on the table. I resented my mother and Tomasz, believing that it shouldn’t be this way – it was Christmas Eve.”
Oh well, they would say, and pull out Inuk by Roger Buliard, a monk who in the 1930s spent time with Eskimos, eating with them raw fish, hunting, living in an igloo, defrosting his hands and feet. They would read it aloud.
“I did not understand at the beginning,” Staszek tells me, “why Tomasz and Basia left a comfortable job and took the children to slum it with social ulcers like me.”
Staszek felt sorry for Ewa, who was returning from school in tears, crying that children despised her because she lived with the homeless and the insane. But Ewa remembers having fun travelling to school in a shack being pulled by tractor, their tree house, the cross by the road under which village women would sing, the neighbour who would bring fresh sausages from the slaughterhouse which Tomasz would divide evenly in 20 pieces. And how she would study hard in school to prove they weren’t crazy, returning home with straight As, winning recitals.
Before one of the competitions Tomasz told Ewa to stand on a chair so that everyone could see her. Ewa saw in the audience Henio, Ziute, Grandma Stasia and others. Straightening up, she looked in their eyes and recited Anthony de Mello’s parable:
“A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
“Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbour. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.”
Escape from porcelain
Ewa didn’t have to live in Władysławowo with a prostitute, a murderer, her mother, and the stepfather who drew people into his extreme social experiment. She could have stayed with her father. Basia left her first husband when Ewa was four years old. That was when a life on the border of two worlds began:
The house of her lawyer and lecturer father, in immaculate order, where lunch would be served on a white tablecloth with silver cutlery and satin-covered chairs; returning to Barka from a weekend at her father’s, her dinner served on odd, chipped plates. Her stepmother’s hands white, smooth, manicured; her mother’s with damaged skin, broken nails. The quiet, maybe muffled conversations between her father and stepmother; the expressive relationship with Tomasz, her stepfather, who gradually becomes Ewa’s life-guide.
She remembers her father, when coming to pick her up from Barka, occasionally sitting at the table with Henio, Ziuta and Franciszek. Elegantly dressed, he would look at Tomasz, the man chosen by his former wife, walking year-round in the same sweater.
When Ewa brings presents from her father – dolls, new clothes – there is no boasting; she doesn’t want to cause pain with mementos from a world inaccessible to them. Once she wore a gift from her father to school. Her friends pounced. “You’re stupid, your father is rich and you hang around the homeless.”
Following each weekend Ewa feels like Alice, bordering on madness, balancing the real world and an enchanted land. Which is which?
At 15 Ewa makes her decision. In court she tells the judge she wants to stay with her mother, take Tomasz’s last name. She cuts herself off from her father for many years.
“I wanted to mature,” says Ewa, “find the arguments to be able to explain to my father that the Wonderland is with my mother and Tomasz.”
In her final year of high school she travels to the US for a one-year scholarship, and then to Thailand, returning independent, tougher, liberated from her impassioned mother and armed with the reasoning to explain to her father why she chose Wonderland.
As we take the metro back to Barka, I ask Ewa how she explained the decision to her father.
“With a song I learned in Thailand,” she replies. She begins to sing, aloud, in the underground:
“One day life came to us,
And surprised us.
We were unprepared,
But, alas, it must be faced.”
This article is reproduced courtesy of Gazeta Wyborcza.Translated from the Polish by Robert Szmigielski