Longer story

Prehistory

When a young animal science graduate moved from Warsaw to a village near Lubartów in the middle of the 1970s, no-one suspected that it would be the beginning of one of the most colourful histories of local alternative communities. The former student from the capital wanted to live in peace and quiet. And it probably would have worked out if it had not been for the martial law. His friends, creators of the Salon Niezależnych cabaret, and students of Warsaw universities who chose freedom, musicians from Brygada Kryzys and other persons amazed by this peace and quiet came to this place. This is how an independent, non-system, musical and artistic “non-settlement” was being built.

Over the course of the following years, people came to this place, and they were amazed with the fact that it was possible to live in the country, close to nature and friends, feeling empathy towards the external world, with music in the background. Some of them stayed, some of them returned to cities in search of bread, because of their children’s education or perspectives opened by Poland after 1989.

That is where Michał Tarkowski, a director, actor famous for his roles in “Man of Marble” and “Wodzirej”, documentalist, creator of the movie “Koncert” from 1982, directed in 2000 “Ogryzek i kwiat jabłoni” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3p_1mY9ROU&t=1526s , a film which featured some families living in that area at that time.

It is where Nicolas Grospierre carried out in 2002 his artistic project, “Portraits de communautes – Portraying Communities”, co-financed by the Culture Foundation and Institut Français. In an introduction to a published book with photographs we read: “Kamionka is a small town located 25 kilometres from Lublin. Seven villages scattered around Kamionka are inhabited by a group of 100 persons, that is around 25 families. These people are considered to be a group of post-hippies, Beats or ecologists. However, we should rather say that they are urban dwellers who decided to leave large agglomerations at some point in their lives and moved to the country. This migration did not occur overnight, it happened over the course of over 20 years. Kamionka is also an “alternative” construct. Indeed, members of this group adopted some specific lifestyle resulting from their interests and beliefs as well as jobs performed by them. It is an ecological lifestyle which is close to nature, and artistic creativity has a prominent place in it. In Kamionka people play self-made drums, build tipis, renovate old country houses and cultivate their land with respect for nature. I don’t know whether they are hippies. I tried to get to know them, take photos of them. In my opinion, they create a community”.

My story in a nutshell

We got to know about Dąbrówka in 1987 from a friend from Lubartów whom we got to know in Łódź. Słoma (Jerzy Słomiński) was building there a new house. Me and my husband Tomek (Tomasz Kozdraj) went there for holidays right after my school exit exam. We were not looking for anything and didn’t expect anything special. We went to Lubartów by train, and then we got to Dąbrówka and its vicinity. We came from Łódź which was our home, although it was a gray home in which it was not easy to live. What we saw in the country amazed us to such degree that Tomek did not leave this place. I returned to Łódź for some time, but I didn’t stay for long in the Faculty of Roman Studies, longing for something which I can describe only in one word: freedom.

Me and Tomek moved to over 100-year old, hired, wooden house with a roof made of straw. At the beginning, we didn’t know what we would do for a living, how we would provide for ourselves. We did what we could already do and learnt new things. Tomek started to make musical instruments – drums (our area was then a drum hub), I knitted sweaters (with rose patterns), then I made patchwork bedspreads. We used to meet with our friends – persons from various Polish towns. We played music together, some bands were created, e.g. our female percussion band, MAMA BUM (which played many concerts within four years and in 1999 it won a prize at Mikołajki Folkowe), and SKA LECZENI, Tomek’s band which was known in alternative music circles. We played in various bands. We performed, e.g. with Jacek Kleyff at FAMA in 1989, as Słoma’s drummers at Tolerancja concert in 1991 (featuring performances of such artists as Krzysztof Penderecki, Tomasz Stańko, Czesław Niemen, Kora, Marek Grechuta, Stanisław Sojka and other well-known musicians) and during many other music events and festivals.

Our sons (Kosma, Barnaba and Ole) were born already in the country. Thanks to the fact that we had our own studio flat in Łódź, in 1992 we bought a six-hectare farm in Bratnik. We exchanged 27 m2 on the 9th floor at a busy Gagarina street for 60 000 m2 of space in a buffer zone of the Kozłówka Landscape Park. And then a problem appeared. What to do with such amount of land?

 

Beginnings of the association

In 1992 I learned at the French Management Institute in Warsaw. Full of fears concerning this huge amount of land, I called my friend who was a director of the Ursus Factory. Initially, my naïve question whether there was a possibility of buying a “worse that is cheaper tractor” caused only laughter. However, it turned out that there was a way out in this situation. It is possible to gather in the area a group of people who have land just like me and want to cultivate it in an ecological way, establish an association, and Ursus can rent us a tractor for testing for some time. An association? What is it? I started to read, learn and then go from door to door with Jagoda Kłosowska, a biologist and mother of five children (wife of well-known Wojtek Kłosowski, future revitalisation specialist, then an activist fighting against construction of a nuclear power plant in Żarnowiec). I started to encourage my neighbours, friends who were mainly artists, and nearly always persons who were the most reluctant to form any associations, to establish a non-governmental organisation. This is how the Environmental Association “For the Earth” was established on February 14, 1995 (in 2010 we changed the name to “For the Earth” Association). Literally, “for the earth”, that is for cultivation of land. Some day a new URSUS tractor came to Bratnik, and everyone was flabbergasted. Then, for a few months I regularly submitted reports concerning its use to the factory. We started to cultivate land and obtained an attestation of the Polish Organic Farming Association thanks to Mr Jerzy Szymona from the University of Life Sciences in Lublin.

We were not experienced in carrying out non-governmental activities, but we cleaned surrounding forests, making it a social event. We managed to defend a nearby village against the export of waste to the old sand mine workings. Nicole (Nicole Grospierre-Słomińska) became an editor-in-chief of “Pozytywne wiadomości” magazine published at our own expense.

The first project for which we received external financing (from the Stefan Batory Foundation) was a purchase of a CB radio network which connected us, people living in a few nearby villages. Ten persons had their own transmitters, which were placed usually on a very high pole, and radios with a special communication channel and its own dialling number. Using the other channel, one could call some help (ambulance, fire brigade, etc.). Using “our” chosen channels, children played chess with each other, exchanged information on their classes, played music. For us, it was a real communication revolution. One should remember that at that time telephones were owned only by village leaders. They had a hand wheel and a connection was established in a post office. During the conversation, sometimes one could hear a telephonist commenting on our problems and trying to solve them. Of course, if one came to a village leader to make a call, his family was most frequently present during the conversation.

 

We lost the tractor and gained the association

The period of testing the tractor ended. New URSUS director presented us with an ultimatum: you must buy the tractor or return it. So, the tractor drove away (its price was a titanic sum for us) with our dreams of organic land cultivation. There was no EU, subsidies, no support for young farmers. The Agricultural Social Insurance Fund treated our requests for help with amusement.

But the association and a crowd of children remained (nearby villages were then inhabited by 100 persons from our “non-settlement”). We started to look for what our children and their friends were missing. Then, we decided that our mission would be to give the children living in the area the same educational opportunities as the ones available to their peers from towns. We decided that we should create such conditions for the young generation so that their childhood would be unforgettable. It was our decision to move to the country and move away from cultural activities. This is how creative holidays, film and musical workshops, trips and games began. We were adequately prepared and educated, and we also had passion. We did not lack artists. Apart from that, there was the association.

Thanks to Nicole’s French contacts, the school in Kamionka started to organise youth exchanges between Poland and France. In 2006, the commune in which we lived signed a partnership agreement with Gourin, a Breton commune. The cooperation and friendship between them have lasted continuously.

Years went by and our children became youth and started to participate actively in the projects within the framework of Youth Initiatives of the EU programme, Youth in Action, and then “Equal Opportunities” programme of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation and other projects. They cooperated with the association as volunteers. A few of them have continued to work with us. The best example is Natalia, who began her cooperation as a volunteer in high school, then she was a coach in youth projects, and now she is a member of the management board of the association, graphic designer, pedagogue and animator of classes. Another example is our talented neighbour, Kacper, who have participated in all projects of the association aimed at children since his childhood, and now he is a specialist, graphic designer, filmmaker and administrator of the website of the association. Implementing the projects and exchanges, apart from Poland, we have visited France, Germany, Czech Republic and Ukraine.

 

Ecovillages, Global Ecovillage Network and Local Active Communities in Poland

Why the ecovillage planned in the 1980s was not created? Overall, this idea was something which attracted us to this place. When we came to Dąbrówka, previous political system was still alive in Poland. Then, a period of transformation followed – it was a breakthrough, a period of huge changes. After many months of undertaking various efforts, meetings, meetings in the commune, attempts to buy land belonging then to the State Agricultural Farm, it turned out that it was actually a difficult enterprise. Finally, everyone got their own independent house or a farm in one of neighbouring villages. Maybe it was too early, and we were not well-prepared to carry out such project? And maybe it was not our journey? After many years of experience and membership in GEN and WAS (Active Village Communities), it turned out that we were unusual in the global context but typical in the Polish one. That is why I named it a “non-settlement”.

In 1998 Nicole started her adventure with ecovillages. We became members of GEN (Global Ecovillage Network, a global network of ecovillages – finally!) After a few years Nicole was elected a member of the management board of the European Ecovillage Network, that is GEN Europe. At the same time, she travelled across Poland and visited similar groups of people who moved to the country from cities and were active in some way in local communities. This is how she got to know Ewa Smuk-Stratenwerth from Grzybów, Jadwiga Łopata from Stryszów, people from Pupki and Węgajty theatre as well as the community which was the closest to us – a community surrounding an old railway station and partially connected with the Puppet Clinic Theatre from Wolimierz, our sister friend Jemiołka. The beginnings of the friendship of our children with children from Wolimierz can be seen in Michał Tarkowski’s film, “Wolimierz 2001”, about the Interplanetary Festival of Art: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhVup5ddVR4&t=21s.

This is how the network of WAS (Active Village Communities) was created. It connected us (various “non-settlements” from a few parts of Poland) thanks to an exchange of experiences connected with living in the country. In 2004 in Kozłówka one of the meetings of the network and a mini-festival of WAS co-financed by the Rural Development Foundation and the Stefan Batory Foundation within the framework of the “Culture in Provincial Areas” programme took place.

In the following years the cooperation with the Global Ecovillage Network diminished in intensity. It was quite hard for us to define our “non-settlement” as an “ecovillage”. We were so unusual in comparison with other perfectly organised places in Europe. However, we are still visited by beautiful, colourful wanderers and cyclists from the whole world who look for inspiration and a peaceful stop on their way.

I always emphasise our greatest success in the context of real, easily-definable ecovillages in the world. Ecovillages often have problems with the next generation. Tamera, Zegg and other settlements known to us are left by youth who look for other kind of life. Maybe our atypical nature caused our children to build homes near us, in the vicinity. They continue our way in friendship with their peers and neighbours. They return here after studies in various Polish cities and foreign travels. And this is where our grandchildren are born 😊

 

From Lubelszczyzna to Sichuan

In 2006 we were invited as a group of drummers to the Tibetan Day in the Community Middle School at Raszyńska Street in Warsaw. This is where we met Tibetan monks who were taken care of by Donata Trapkowska, the creator of the Sam Djub Ling Foundation, lawyer and editor. It resulted in a project within the framework of which in 2006 a colourful sand mandala was created in Justyna’s (Justyna Laskowska-Otwinowska) house in Stare Pole (the whole ceremony can be seen on Michał’s film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbY5fbApohI).

Then, in 2007, we carried out a research project in the Tibetan part of Sichuan, Golok Toe, a family village of one of the monks, A-Jam. Someday I will certainly write a separate story about it. However, the most important event for us was completion of the “Health Education in Golok Toe” project in 2008. It was also when a report on the project got to Dharamsala. It was co-financed within the framework of the Polish Foreign Aid Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2007.

If we worked with Tibetan refugees, and there are around twenty of them in Warsaw, then who lives in more than twenty Polish Centres for Foreigners, of which as many as 7 are located in the area of Lubelszczyzna? For sure they are not Tibetans…

 

2008 – why refugees, how did it all begin?

Together with Justyna, a member of the journey to Tibet and an ethnologist, we came to the Centre for Foreigners in Lublin and asked who the refugees living in the centre were. Are there any non-governmental organisations in the centre and how do they support people living in them? It turned out that in Lublin, an academic city, there is a large group of volunteers and organisations which take care of children and help adult people. However, a dozen of kilometres away, in Niemce-Leonów, or 100 kilometres away, in Łuków, there are no active organisations.

We started from going to the Director General of the Office for Foreigners. When we managed to meet with him, we asked whether the Office for Foreigners was interested in undertaking partnership cooperation during implementation of the project organised by Bratnik on the premises of the centres. We were prepared that the director would smile condescendingly and advise us to undertake other activity, but he said: “of course, we must only consult the project proposed by you with our legal office (“STRANGERS? Growing closer together” project within the framework of Norway Grants). He also said that he was open to cooperation!

Then we (a few women from “For the Earth” and the Homo Faber Association to which we also proposed partnership) turned to the greatest Chechen authority, that is Mr Issa Adajew, the last Director General of the National Museum in Grozny, a painter and poet. Mr Issa hosted us in a guest room, asked us what we would like to do and why, and then criticised us in such a way that we started to feel very small. Finally, he became a source of the greatest support for us and a friend until the end of his life in 2012… He called the centres and supported us in the Council of the Elders. Our first project within the framework of which we issued a comic book “About the Dirty King” which was supposed to encourage children to wash their hands was consulted in detail with the Elders in the centres.

Then we read books – all books about Caucasus, other cultures, religions, fiction, documentaries, everything related to refugees and immigrants. We visited non-governmental organisations experienced in this type of work. The first performance was organised by Ela Rojek (former soloist at the Gardzienice Theatre and Orkiestra Świętego Mikołaja considered to be one of the best vocalists in Poland) and Tomek with Daniel Brzeziński from the Association of Culture Practitioners in Warsaw. Another projects, initially aimed at children, then, gradually, after having got to know the needs, also at adults, were created (Polish and English learning, vocational courses). The series of “STRANGERS? Growing closer together” projects lasted from 2009 to 2014. Trips, games, artistic and educational workshops, learning Polish through having fun, football, making films. We put great emphasis on integration activities in schools with participation of Polish children and children living in the centres. We followed the refugees with whom we cooperated when the centre in Niemce-Leonów was closed down and they moved to Lublin. When the centre in Lublin was closed down, we became active in Bezwola. We have always acted continuously in Łuków. Another activities were subsidies for the refugees’ apartments, exhibitions of photographs, workshops in schools in the form of “live books”, murals, theatre plays, conferences, training courses for teachers, theatre workshops, vocal, dance and instrumental groups.

 

How to reach those with whom we do not have everyday contact

We had reflected on it until 2012 when we recorded a song “Wojny za miedzą” within the framework of the project co-financed by the Education for Democracy Foundation. An idol of youth, Junior Stress, that is Marcel Galiński, a son of our friends from Lublin settled behind the forest near Bratnik. It turned out that he was a really well-known ragga and dance hall musician, sensitive human being and talented musician. Marcel wrote the lyrics to the first song about refugees, and a famous Chechen musician, Zhandar Zakaev, took part in the recording. In the music video we used fragments of photos from the first Chechen war taken by our friend, Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, a reporter and writer (at the request of the Chechen organisation, Echo of the War, Amnesty International and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights she was nominated in 2005 to the Nobel Prize). Thanks to this song, we reached completely different audience than members of non-governmental organisations dealing with human rights. The song published on two YouTube channels quickly got tens of thousands of views. Comments such as: “Big up Junior – respect for what you do for the refugees” appeared under the videos every day. It is now hard to believe, right?

We realised that art is our specialty and wealth – these are our roots. We want to convey information on the refugees through art and, above all, through music. This is how the songs recorded with refugees, immigrants and Polish musicians were created and are now being created. Tomek is responsible for a musical part of the project.

  1. “Wojny za miedzą” – based on a traditional Chechen song, our first recording about Chechnya:

  1. “Illi do mego dzieciństwa” – based on a traditional Chechen song about childhood, recorded in the Primary School No. 31 in Lublin which was attended until recently by many children of refugees:

  1. “List do świata” – song recorded by Polish and Chechen children from Primary School No. 31 in Lublin with the consent of Mr Sikorowski from the band Pod Budą:

  1. “Moja ukochana dziewczyna” – traditional Chechen song recorded in Bieszczady during a trip:

  1. “Nana” – traditional Chechen song about love for a mother:

  1. “Khawuleza” – about women from the whole world based on Miriam Makeby’s song. As a child, the musician was in prison in the Republic of South Africa with her mother:

  1. “Tuman jaram” – traditional Belarussian song:

  1. “Zelene zhyto” – traditional Ukrainian song:

  1. “Sasmangraj” – Roma song:

Voice of Women – a new mission and Active Women Clubs

Within the framework of the “Voice of Women” project financed through the Citizens for Democracy Programme (operated by Stefan Batory Foundation and present in our lives in every moment important for us), in 2014 we started undertaking activities aimed at refugee and immigrant women. Cooperation with women became our mission. We were inspired by Magdalena Kawa who cooperated with us from the beginning (in the past as a member of Homo Faber) and now, during this project she has engaged in the cooperation even more and has become our Honourable Member (Magda is active in the field of intercultural education, works at university, deals with Holocaust education and presenting the Extermination in the public debate).

The Bona Fides Local Activity Association used to create Active Women Clubs in Lubelszczyzna for some time. They were devoted to strengthening personal development of women from small towns and villages. Me and Ela met the head of the organisation, Iwona Przewor, and proposed cooperation to her. The contact person became an incredible director of the library in Łaziska, Karolina Suska. She helped us organise meetings in Women Clubs in Lubelszczyzna with the participation of women refugees from Belarus, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, Moldavia, Syria, Tajikistan and Ukraine. These meetings of women of different cultures, religions and customs turned out to be one of our most important actions. Life stories, migration, the past and the future turned out to be the things which unite them. I guess all women have similar desires and needs, although what may divide them is a situation which is not dependent on them. A Kurdish woman cooperating with us, Aliona Doloyan Karaman, received in 2017 a prize at the 9th Forum of Active Women in Bychawa. A surprise was waiting for us after the meeting – on the table near the scene there was a letter of support for Aliona in which women from Lubelszczyzna requested from the Head of the Border Guard and the Office for Foreigners that her family stayed in Poland. A long queue to sign a petition appeared…

Volunteers, artists and scientists have been coming to us for a few months. They want to help, do something for refugees and refugee women. Two fundraisers on Zrzutka.pl became a success (in 2017 we went on a three-day trip of refugee women and their children as well as organised three-week winter holidays in 2018). People with ideas for new activities come to us every week. It is a mass mobilisation.

 

The end of EU financing? Looking for new ways, unexpected support

Since January 2016 we have not received an answer to two large partnership projects submitted by us (one in partnership with the Office for Foreigners, another with the Lublin City Office). Formally, we operate only thanks to the institutional support of the Stefan Batory Foundation. However, we will receive this support only until April next year. We got the last chance to make changes in us, thinking about the organisation, becoming independent from subsidies which ended earlier than we had expected, in learning various methods of obtaining funds for operation of the organisation…

Having been analysing our situation for a few months, we can see that during all those years we carried out huge amount of activities, including the minimum amount of promotional activities. We could never do that. Neglected website, disappearing pages of minor projects made for a period of a year or two years. We tried to fix it, change something. We have energy, expertise and potential. And now we have a new Communication Team. We also met an appropriate person, a fundraising specialist. She encouraged us to write about what we had been silent about, thinking it was uninteresting or unnecessary to tell. Now I feel that maybe it is worth writing about, introducing ourselves. Am I right?

Ewa Kozdraj