Kazakh repats: Back home with hope

It was 02:00, Tuesday, July 24. The five-member Soassep family waited on the platform to board the train. They were leaving their home town of Kokshetau in northern Kazakhstan, making a five-day journey to Poland, the land of their grandfathers. The family, carrying only the most sentimental of possessions and basic necessities, were embarking on a new life adventure. They arrived in the middle of the night to Astana, the country’s capital, and eventually reached Krakow the following Saturday. On October 11, 2006, the City of Krakow passed a resolution inviting four families from Kazakhstan and Georgia to be resettled back in Poland. With an official invite to repatriate from Mayor of Krakow Jacek Majchrowski, the Soassep family can finally reclaim their Polish identity.”I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to be here” smiled Irena Soassep, when she opened the door to her hotel room to let me in. Her eyes were shining and her bright smile affected the entire place. The family sat me down offering tea and coffee, claiming: “You first drink, then we talk.” The room was tiny yet space did not seem to be an obstacle. The family?s possessions were neatly arranged in various corners of the room and a general vibe of contentment was evident. The Soassep family includes Irena (maiden name Sidorska) and her husband Antol, their 27-year-old daughter Irina and their adopted daughter Maria Sidorska (Irena’s niece). There is also little Michelinka, a four and a half month old baby, Irina’s little girl. Only their son didn’t make the trip with them. He lives in Moscow, married to a Russian woman. Present in the room were also Julia Sidorska and her father, Irena?s family who were repatriated in 2002. They are there helping the Soassep family out, offering them moral support in the extreme changes they are about to face. The men quickly left the room, so the women could chat freely. The Sidorski exile began in 1936, part of the first wave of Stalin’s deportations. Jan Sidorski and his wife, Irena’s parents, were awaken in the middle of the night, handcuffed and told they were being shipped out. Their little village Siepietowka on the Polish-Ukrainian border, with its prosperous farms was being emptied out on Stalin’s orders. Thousands of Ukrainians, Poles, Chechens, Germans and Koreans met the same fate. The exiles were being sent to Kazakhstan, to the steppes of Central Asia. The sparse land of Kazakh nomadic tribes was transformed into a place of deportation by Stalin. Soviet Russia’s second Siberia. Anticipating war, Stalin needed the assurance of loyalty, hence deported anyone standing in his way. The Polish farmers practicing their agriculture for hundreds of years were a valuable source of labor required for the cultivation of the Kazakh steppes. “They threw our grandparents handcuffed into the train. They were taken to a land that was poverty stricken, where there was no food. He and grandma could take nothing with them. When they arrived they were placed in a camp and were forbidden to leave,” Julia explained. With years of forced labor, communities started to form and the Sidorski’s had little Irena. “There was no way we could keep our Polish identity. We were forbidden from speaking Polish, our way of life was monitored, there was no chance in practicing our faith,” recalled Irena. “But my parents revolted privately. They even had a book written in Polish from 1924 that was read to us in secret. They spoke to us secretly in the mother tongue behind closed doors and we prayed in Polish. Quietly we were even able to carry out some of the Polish traditions during Easter and Christmas,” she added. Stalin died and things looked up for the exiles. Sidorski retained his Polish nationality in his papers and did not change his surname like many of the exiled Poles. The 60s and 70s were decades of more tolerance. Ukrainians, Germans, Poles felt more at ease with their identity and their language. “But now the situation has changed again,” Irena said in her broken yet admirable Polish. “There is much discrimination on the streets of Kazakhstan today. Only Russian is spoken, people are again ashamed,” Irena explained of the increasingly homogenized Kazakhstan. ?Now I am here and I cannot get enough of hearing the Polish language being spoken all around me,” she beamed. The Sidorski and Soassep families began filing documents for repatriation in 1997 through the help of the Polonia House located in Kazakhstan and in Krakow. Unlike the German government who offered its citizens in Kazakhstan speedy returns to their fatherland, Poland was reluctant claiming lack of fund availability. “Later though when repatriation to Poland did become a possibility, we all had extreme problems on the Kazakhstan’s side. There were a lot of document falsifications going on. No papers were being delivered to the Polish authorities. It was a nightmare that lasted five years for us,” explained Julia. Irina and her sister Maria both completed their studies in Poland through scholarships received from the Polonia House. “I was granted 700 zloty per month to study economics at the University of Gdansk, whilst Maria studied Polish at the Marie Curie Sklodowksa University in Lublin.” Because the two were in Poland, they were able to help their family file the appropriate documents. “We had no chance of being repatriated if we’d just worked with the Kazakh authorities,” added Irina. Piotr Zborowski from the Polonia House in Krakow informed them that although they ?no longer financially assist the repatriates due to funding cuts (which left the task to the councils), we continue to support Kazakh students with scholarships. Scholarships are given on a merit basis per semester with the option of extending their stay.”With the formalities sorted out, the Soassep family had nothing but praise for Krakow’s Municipal Council staff. “We have been treated so well, so efficiently, with such respect,” smiled Irina. “They really are looking after us well.” The Council’s Mr. Pawlik, from the department of community affairs, has been assigned the role of mentor and caretaker. He will be helping the family to adjust, to look for a permanent place of residency, assist in finding jobs and generally support them in the changes they are facing. “I really want to stress how thankful we are to the Council for all that they have done for us!” underlined Irena.  The City Municipal Council maintains close contact with the repatriates in Krakow. “We regularly see how the families are doing, how they are adjusting to life in Poland. Last year we had a combined Christmas together. The Council wants their families  to feel that they have support,” says Pawel Stachowicz from the Council’s welfare department. “Out of all families that have repatriated to Krakow all are doing well. All have found employment. The only obstacle they face is the language barrier. Once that is overcome things tend to fall into place for them,” he said. Krakow continues  to run its repatriation programme with 4 to 5 families invited from Kazakhstan each year.   So what does the future hold for the Soassep family? “I want to find a job quickly,” says Irena. “I was a goods inspector back home, maybe I could do something similar, if my language improves,” she smiled. For now, the Soassep family is in a period of adjustment and is just happy to be in Krakow. “I love all the bustling, the architecture, all the greenery,” Irena enthuses, “the violinists on Rynek Glowny, all the culture everywhere.” When asked if she missed Kazakhstan, she nodded “of course, it was my home for all my life. I have left wonderful memories there. It was a good place to live, it wasn’t always bad. I have happy memories of it. I raised my family there. But my heart always belonged to Poland, to the land of my parents. My father has made it back here. He is content. I just wish my mother lived to see us all here together after all these long decades,” Irena trailed off silently, wiping a tear. “I have everything I need here now. My family is with me. That is all that matters.” Since 1999, some 19 Kazakh families have repatriated to Krakow on a formal invitation by the city’s mayor. Malgozata Wozniak from the Municipal Council has informed that “each family is given a flat to live in, some furniture and equipment required for the home, assistance in getting a job as well as social security benefits if they are applicable.” Help is also given with sorting out their official papers such as marriage certificates, passports, etc. Wozniak emphasized “these families are facing a tough new start and the city wants to do what it can to help them out. By giving them municipally owned flats to live in, they have an easier beginning.”

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