We meet Ekaterina* in Baobab – a so-called safe space in Lublin that is open for all whether local or foreign, but particularly reaching out to migrants and refugees. Run by the DRC project partner in Lublin – the Homo Faber Association – Baobab works to promote human rights, provide humanitarian aid, integrate, include and empower people in need.
Baobab appeared on the map of Lublin in early 2023, half a year ago but has already become a significant and known spot in the city. It has become even more special for Ekaterina since for her, Baobab is much more than just a place – but rather people, community, and neighborhood.
From immigrant to minority NGO founder
Ekaterina migrated from Belarus to Poland in 2018 and settled in Lublin. She was excited to start a new chapter of her life in a new country. She soon learned about the Homo Faber Association, the only local organisation providing free Polish classes for migrants in Lublin. Looking around for more possibilities to be socially involved, she joined the group of volunteers of the Little Brothers of the Poor Association and assisted elderly people in Lublin keeping them company and taking them for walks.
Ekaterina could not imagine then, that two years later, she would be organising charity collections and visiting her fellow Belarusians who were fleeing Belarus after the 2020 protests against the government. They were then sent to the Refugee Reception Centre in Biała Podlaska in Poland waiting for their asylum cases to be processed.
After the escalation of conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, Ekaterina took care of newly arrived refugee children at one of the daycare centres in Lublin. She also put herself on a standby volunteer list of the Homo Faber Association. Meanwhile, she continued supporting the increasing number of people arriving from her home country Belarus.
Soon she recognised the need to integrate people who settled in Lublin, and to create a place for them to connect around their native culture, cultivate Belarusian language and traditions.
She managed to gather a group of Belarusians around the idea of setting up their own NGO to be able to act professionally for the benefit of the Belarusian minority and immigrant community. But how to be on top of all the formalities and follow all the necessary procedures being a newcomer in the country? The task seemed to be challenging, but Homo Faber came up with a suggestion.
Empowering new community leaders
Shortly after the war in Ukraine broke out, the Homo Faber Association launched the programmes aimed at empowering those who fled the war. They also wanted to reach immigrants who came to Poland before the war and who wanted to act for the benefit of local communities, but did not yet have the necessary knowledge, experience and capacities to start their own activities.
The programme titled the Intercultural School of Leaders sounded like a dream come true for Ekaterina. It enabled her to officially establish a new NGO and eventually for her to also start a career as the Intercultural School of Leaders coordinator, the initiative that had trained her.
“The Intercultural School of Leaders changed the idea of what I could do. Before, the word leader scared me. I did not identify with that word and the notion of leadership at all. Now, I have become more active. I have also realised that I can achieve a lot based on my new knowledge of how the system works in Poland and the fact that I’m gaining the experience from running my own organisation.”
Social activism in action
The first edition of the School for Leaders was met with great interest. A total of 12 graduates implemented more than a dozen projects of their own. They organised workshops, exhibitions, trips and set up consultations. With the cooperation with DRC and UNHCR, the Homo Faber Association launched the second edition of the School in May 2023. Here, 14 refugees and immigrants from Ukraine, Syria, Zimbabwe and Belarus aged between 17 to 55 were enrolled. The programme includes a training course on the basics of social activism, ongoing support of experienced tutors, and an offsite workshop.
During the training, participants gain knowledge on legal requirements for starting and running an NGO in Poland, project method work, fundraising, advocacy and cooperation with institutions and more. Participation in the training course is free and financed through the DRC-UNHCR engagement. For non-Polish speakers, language support is offered – including access to translation intoUkrainian, Russian and English when needed - as well as childcare for the time of the training.
Oksana* is among the second class of social entrepreneurs who are new to Poland but already active in their new local communities.
“The training at the School of Leaders really opened my eyes to a lot of new knowledge. It also gave me a chance to learn about the perspective and experiences of people from other countries that were all new to me.”
Ekaterina is still investing her passion and professional skills into the development of the Intercultural School of Leaders’ programme, and at the same time planning the activities and development of her own organization. While creating her own space in the city which she chose to be her new home, Ekaterina’s heart and soul are still with her friends and family in Belarus, hoping at some point to be able to bring all the knowledge and experience gained back to the country where her real home is and where she still feels that she belongs.
*Names changed to protect the identity of the interviewee