Visiting a changing Poland

True Tales From Everyday Living

Real Life

December 17, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

When I first arrived in Warsaw in the summer of 1990, the Poles on board the Lot Polish Airlines clapped as the aircraft touched down near the warehouse-like structure that was the Polish capital's international airport.

The Poles on the Lot flight I took to Warsaw in October also clapped when we landed, a sign to me that in some ways, despite major political and economic shifts in recent years, Poland might not be such a different place after all.

But as soon as I stepped into Warsaw's much modernized Port Lotniczy im. F. Chopina -- named for Polish composer Frederic Chopin, whose heart is entombed in a downtown church -- I knew that Poland had indeed changed.

Inside the terminal, well-heeled Poles mixed with business-suited foreigners from Holland, France and Japan, a stark contrast to my first visit when, as a 22-year-old college graduate with a contract to teach English to high school students, I was greeted by surly baggage clerks and cab drivers who jockeyed for passengers with American dollars.

I discovered more changes when, after a second, shorter flight, I arrived in Poznan, the city where I spent two years explaining American concepts such as shopping malls to teenagers who were wild about Levis and MTV.

As my friends Magda and Kazik drove me away from the airport, I discovered that Poznan now not only had several malls, but numerous KFCs, McDonald's drive-throughs and automatic car washes. There were also new high-rise office buildings, and many of the older Soviet-era apartment blocks had been renovated and repainted. Funds from the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, had been used to clean pollution off historic churches and Town Hall.

"I can't believe how much things have changed," I exclaimed to my friends.

That was day one. Later, a more complex image of Poland emerged.

Despite evidence of prosperity -- new houses, designer labels and a plethora of satellite dishes -- there were also signs of social strain. Friends told me of a growing shortage of doctors and nurses -- Polish medical salaries are low, so many doctors go to Western Europe -- as well as increased drug abuse among young people and adults. Alcoholism was still a problem, friends told me, but now there were fewer safety nets.

One of my Polish friends, Luba, told me that she had volunteered with a group that helps people who have lost their jobs, are homeless, and are battling alcoholism or drug addiction. The Barka Foundation for Mutual Help had had success in recent years, Luba said, and was looking for new ways to serve Poles in need.

Luba, knowing that I was a journalist who sometimes covered social issues, suggested that we visit Barka, which means "lifeboat" in Polish. The nonprofit was founded in 1989 by Tomasz and Barbara Sadowski. The couple noticed that a growing number of Poles were being left behind as their nation's economy took off, and they decided to help. I told Luba that I'd like to see the place and meet some of the clients.

The Barka center in Poznan is in an old warehouse compound that nonprofit employees and clients themselves have turned into a thriving learning community. Luba and I toured the center with a nun named Brygida who introduced us to social workers, instructors and clients. We watched as clients, who number about 200, learned to use cash registers and credit-card machines, formed a business plan to launch a lawn-care service and used PCs to create resumes.

It was a scene that Americans, more accustomed to the competitiveness of a capitalistic economy and an entrenched drug culture, would find somewhat familiar. But for many in Poland, the concept of disenfranchised people banding together to chart a new future for themselves is still a new concept.

It is an idea that is quickly catching on. Barka is working with non-profits across Europe to expand its services and is reaching out to jobless Poles in London who are too embarrassed to return home or ask for help from family and friends. In Poland, where the unemployment rate is 20 percent in some regions, there are many in need of retraining.

For me, the trip to Barka helped to put the new Poland I was experiencing into perspective. While many of the friends I had met more than a decade ago were successful entrepreneurs and business executives, I realized that their stories were not the norm. It also saddened me to think that for some, the switch from communism had not necessarily meant a better future. As a young volunteer, I had hoped, perhaps naively so, for a better outcome.

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