From Warsaw to Wembley

MARIA
My name is, Maria...
ALFRED
What you say Polish?
MARIA
Not “Polish,” my name’s Maria.

Let There Be Love

 

As in the case of African Caribbeans, London (and Britain in general) witnessed a significant surge in its Polish population with the conclusion of World War Two. However, the numbers were not enormous, and remained fairly constant until a significant wave of immigration in the ’80s and ’90s. More recently, and more noticeably, a combination of more relaxed travel regulations throughout Europe and a sharp disparity in economic circumstances between West and East led to a tremendous surge in Polish migration. Starting in about 2004, it was a rare middle-class English family who did not have, or aspire to have, a Polish cleaner or Polish builder/contractor (most of whom considered themselves in only temporary exile while they earned money to return home).

The phenomenon sparked a national debate, from those urging that borders be closed and immigration policies be tightened to those advocating a tolerant embrace of the visitors. Familiar arguments fueled debates from the local pub to the national airwaves: they were stealing native jobs, depressing wages, taking up sparse housing, diluting a rich and pure national culture, threatening everything from language to heritage; or, to the contrary, they were contributing industriously, providing needed services, salvaging entire sectors of industry and agriculture, helping to fuel robust economic growth and a boom in construction, and enriching the national culture with a new infusion of a vanishing work ethic.

As for the Poles themselves? Their observations and recollections echo those of their West Indian predecessors.

—GW

 

I think it is really important to have open minds—I mean both Polish and British people—and try to understand and get to know more about each other.
—Agnieszka, BBC interview, 2008.

Many of the new [Polish immigrants] come here and concentrate on earning money—working seven days a week.
Some have two jobs and are sending money back to their families in Poland.

Some work here for three or four months and then take time off over the summer or Christmas and go back to Poland for a few weeks and then return on the coaches.
—Jan Kosniowski, BBC interview, 2006.

Many Polish people move to a new country in search of a new life—an easier life. There are many reasons why all those people go abroad and all those people are different. Some of them are young and well educated and some are just ordinary people with families. They have one big aim—to earn money, more money than they could earn in Poland and live like normal people do, without struggling and having to choose between food or bills. [They] leave everything: bed, paid job, home, family, wife and children, friends. After a couple of months or one year they feel very lonely, because their life is not a proper life. They work overtime to send money to Poland, most of them do not speak English very well, they share accommodation with strangers to make
it cheaper.
—Agnieszka, BBC interview, 2008.

Work has brought us all we have and now we enjoy our life to the full. I want to tell every Pole that has high hopes when he or she arrives here, England will give you opportunities, you have to grab it and run with it.
—“Halina” [response to a BBC survey].

As many others I came here because, even though I’m a well educated woman, I was struggling with getting a proper job for a proper money in Poland. I do not regret my decision but also I do not feel like if I came to paradise...I have a quite ordinary life with my husband (also Polish) but this doesn’t make us feel happy. We both just feel like strangers here and I know that this won’t change no matter how long we will stay here.
—“Beata” [response to a BBC survey].

 


IN THEIR OWN WORDS: more first-hand accounts from Polish immigrants