Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Speech at Hammersmith & Fulham Unity Day
My name is Wiktor Moszczynski and as you can guess from a name like that I am a Londoner.
I am a member of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain and I speak on behalf of the Polish community in West London whose historic roots go back to the Second World War when my parents and others arrived here to fight alongside the British in the struggle against Nazi Germany by land, sea and air, at a time when Poland was Britain’s most steadfast ally from the beginning to the end of the War. They remained here as refugees after the War when Poland and her neighbours were left under Soviet rule and when our community organized themselves around veterans’ organizations, parishes, social centres and Saturday schools, many of which exist to this day. There were influxes of Poles arriving here during the 60s and 70s and 90s but the largest arrival came here following Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004.
Currently there are some 950,00 Polish citizens in the UK, some 170,000 in London alone, but remember that these figures do not cover second and third generation Poles like myself who have had British citizenship from birth. You see our shops, you hire our plumbers, you will be served by Polish waitresses, be helped by Polish carers, hear Polish swear words at building sites, and commute to work with Polish bankers, lawyers and accountants. There are 10,700 Polish citizens eligible to vote in local London elections, of which one and a half thousand are in Hammersmith and 13,000 in neighbouring Ealing. Polish families are a largely integrated factor in the social and cultural fabric of London with a dynamic input into the local economy. There are 32,000 Polish-speaking children in our London schools, of which 503 are in Hammersmith and 4363 in Ealing. Those children see themselves as British as well as Polish, they speak both languages fluently and see themselves as part of London’s future.
You can imagine the shock those children felt on the night of 23rd June last year, following the Brexit referendum, when their world caved in and they felt that they were no longer wanted here. Teachers had to separate many of these Polish children and their other Eastern European classmates and console them, as other children asked them when they were going back to Poland. That was when the front of the Polish Centre in Hammersmith was smeared in graffiti, when Polish families were shouted at for speaking Polish in buses, when Poles were assaulted in race attacks in Yeovil, in St Ives, in Leeds, in Telford, in Lancaster, in Luton and most notably in Harlow where a Polish worker was killed. There were vandalised attacks on houses in Bristol, in Reading in Worcester. There were police reports on arson attacks on Polish homes, abusive messages on a war memorial in Portsmouth and on Polish shops. Police were drawn towards abusive messages on the internet, often between teenagers on the social media, which included at least one case of a Polish schoolgirl in Cornwall committing suicide and of many instances of verbal abuse including one where a patient with a heart condition had to be put on a life-saving machine in Leeds, as well as the famous incident of the anti-Polish laminated cards distributed in Huntingdon.
Of course, in the first 4 months it was not just Poles who suffered this kind of abuse. It happened to many other minorities too in that strange dark frightening period after the referendum when people haunted with the demons of unbridled racism felt that this was the time to let their prejudices run riot, hoping in this way to hound non-British, non-white minorities into frightened silence or even into leaving the country.
I am happy to say that racism did not prevail. Many people in Britain went out of their way to show solidarity with the abused and the victims. After the graffiti incident in the Polish Centre in Hammersmith the building was overwhelmed with people sending flowers, gifts and letters of support, especially from London schoolchildren. Many of those incidents are not being repeated now but racist words can still flare up in road accidents, neighbour disputes. The undercurrent of racism does still rumble on. Unfortunately, much of it is not reported to the police as Poles feel reluctant to present themselves as victims and fear retribution and legal complications.
Let us not just assume that racism exists only in one section of society. We must guard against racism in all communities. Some people feel that expressing contempt for other minorities somehow makes them more British. Well no. It doesn’t. It just makes them more racist. Let us remember that an act of racism against any minority is an act of racism against all of us.
The Brexit negotiations are about to start on Monday week, especially on the issue of EU citizens’ rights. We believe that Poles and other EU citizens should not be bargaining chips in these negotiations. The British government should guarantee our rights unilaterally and most parties now agree to this.
I would like to thank the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for organizing this happy event each year and I am delighted that the Polish community is invited to participate. We do so with gratitude and pride.
Wiktor Moszczynski 11th June 2017