I wrote this article for a British newspaper whilst in Poland in 2005. Given the current debate around the need for a global partnership for sustainable development I felt it apt to re-post…
Intolerance. There is perhaps no other country than Poland where this word has greater meaning. Standing in the dark shadows of Auschwitz, where so many thousands spent their final moments, it is impossible to comprehend the insanity in the history of this country and the devastating effects of intolerance.
It is for this reason the United Nations Development Programme, in partnership with the graduate exchange programme AIESEC, launched the PEACE project to educate students about tolerance and create open-mindedness towards life in a more global community. The project also aimed to create awareness about world problems and inspire students to become active in helping eradicate them.
The project comprises 29 AIESEC trainees from 22 different nation’s worldwide working voluntarily in 50 schools all over Poland. This presents a unique opportunity to more remote areas which would not ordinarily have exposure to different cultures or indeed even have the chance to talk with foreigners.
The introductory week in the capital Warsaw was an eye-opening experience – not only engaging in such a multi-cultural environment but also in learning more about the vast history of a city which was entirely flattened by war. One building now looms on Warsaws’ skyline – a sentinel-like tower built by Stalin stands as an ominous reminder to the capitals’ darker days.
The week also involved a crash course in the incomprehensible Polish language. Just try saying sorry, prżeprasżam, a few times on a crowded bus or you are happy, ty jesteś szczęsliwy, and I guarantee you won’t be smiling afterwards.
Coming from the often suffocating heat of South Africa, where I was working before Poland, it was refreshing for me to finally breathe icy fresh air. However I was not expecting to experience Poland’s most severe winter in over 30 years. Standing knee deep in snow, at temperatures as low as -25 degrees brings the mild British climate into perspective.
After the introduction week we were seperated into smaller groups of four to travel to various regions around Poland. My first group comprised of girls from Germany, China and Kazahkstan and was based in the region of Silesia– a deeply cultural and historical area close to the mountainous Czech border. AIESEC had once again provided me with the fullest cultural experience.
Each week I stayed with a different host family enabling me to experience the real Poland beyond the tourist trail – and it is the hidden depths toPolandand its culture which really bring the nation to life.
It was an education to talk to Polish people of different generations about the current reality of Poland compared to its communist and war-torn past. However above all there is one phrase which I have found to be essential in Poland – dziękuje za gośćine which means ‘thank you for your hospitality’. There is a saying in Poland that ‘a guest in the home is a god in the home’ and the Polish people really do all they can to make you feel like just that – even if that means force feeding you seven or eight meals a day!
I had heard from many people that Poland is an ugly, industrial wasteland but this could not be further from the truth. I had the chance to visit what must surely be some of the most beautiful towns and cities in Europe with their stunning architecture, grand churches and castles. But Poland also has the very best that nature has to offer. Braving the freezing winter temperatures is small labour to behold the sight of vast forests and towering mountain ranges under a thick canopy of snow.
The second half of the project saw me traveling around the Święty Krźyź region of Poland with trainees from Romania, Ukraine and Brazil. Święty Krźyź is home to the oldest mountains in Europe containing a spectacular deep network of caves. But is known more so in Poland for being the poorest region of the country and extremely high unemployment places dark clouds on the horizon for the young people of this area. However despite this the students still maintained enthusiasm towards the messages being taught and were keen to gain an insight into the hardships faced by other cultures.
If I ever doubted whether we left a lasting impression I needed only watch the faces change as students learn that every three seconds one person dies from starvation, that each day over 5000 children die from preventable diseases and that 1.2 billion people worldwide live on less than one dollar each day. The global reality is formidable and the students were quick to realise that intolerance is an issue which cannot stand in the path of development – something that we all have the power to influence.
For a moment, I would like you to imagine yourself on a beautiful beach. Imagine the heat of the sun on your back, the warmth of the golden sand under your feet and the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. However, each wave leaves behind thousands of starfish on the sand. The whole beach is covered with thousands upon thousands of starfish.
But as you look further down the beach you see a young girl. She is slowly walking down the beach picking up one starfish and throwing it back into the ocean. The wave comes and washes up thousands more but she walks on, picks up one starfish and throws it into the ocean. Again the wave washes up thousands more.
You approach the girl and ask why she is bothering to throw the starfish back into the ocean when she will never be able to clear the beach. She bends down, picks up a starfish, throws it into the sea and replies “for that starfish, it makes a difference”.
The United Nations Development Programme is committed to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, providing universal education, improving gender equality and maternal health, reducing child mortality, combating diseases such as HIV/AIDS and ensuring environmental sustainability. However if they are to succeed in achieving these goals by 2015 then their last goal is most important – to develop a global partnership for development.
It is not just the responsibility of the United Nations or national governments to eradicate these problems but the responsibility of each and every individual. We perhaps cannot help every starfish on the beach but we can at least help one at a time.
After the lessons we conducted in schools around Poland students are planning a range of projects from a group litter-pick in their community to organising a school concert to raise funds for less privileged children around the world. From volunteering their time in a local hospital to traveling further a field and volunteering internationally.
A nationwide United Nations poster exclaims Polska jest Rajem –Poland is Paradise. Having experienced all aspects of Poland and its culture I consider it nothing but that. The country is rich in a way that the wealthiest nations could only be jealous of and above all else it is the Polish people which give it that value.
AIESEC has now granted me two life changing experiences – firstly undertaking development work in South Africa and now in Poland. Visit www.aiesec.org to discover more about the opportunities AIESEC can present.
Article first published 29 April 2005.