The Personal Defender - article by Magdalena Kicińska in Tygodnik Powszechny


The Personal Defender

Tygodnik Powszechny Author: MAGDALENA KICIŃSKA 

Soon after taking office, Commissioner for Human Rights Adam Bodnar began travelling around Poland. He’s still on the road.

On Sundays, the sun shines differently, Michał Olszewski wrote in his recently published novel, “it contains a heavy load of gloom”. In Bogatynia, it also has to contend with the shadows of power plant and coal mine smokestacks. Every spot in town it touched last Sunday afternoon was occupied by townsfolk. A family out on a stroll, some guys at a bus stop. They took off their shirts, played music on their phones. Hardly any cars drove by. It was a drowsy day in this neighborhood of communist-era concrete apartment blocks.

A refurbished community centre lies in the middle of the neighborhood. Several dozen people are seated in a circle inside.

“Hello, my name is Adam Bodnar. I’ve held the office of Commissioner for Human Rights since September 2015. I’ve come to find out about your problems, your issues, in which my office may be able to help.” He introduces his team: Dariusz Supeł of the Centre for Social Projects; Barbara Imiołczyk, head of the Centre and chairwoman of the Expert Committee on the Elderly; Agnieszka Jędrzejczyk, responsible for communications; Magdalena Wilczyńska, assistant; Cezary Walendzik, head of the Citizen Service Department.

“You can speak to him [Walendzik] in private if you don’t want to present your matter at this forum. It’s possible that we will be able to intervene in some cases.”

Those who have come to have their matters addressed usually have thick binders full of documents on their laps.

Bodnar continues to explain what the Commissioner does, what authority he has. Then it’s the locals’ turn to speak. This is how it goes each time, in all the communities he will visit until Friday. A diabetics’ association, rural houswives’ club. A retired teacher who has found a formula to cope with ageing and wants to “activate inter-generationally”. Plump People’s Club. Animal Shelter. Association of Former Cotton Plant Workers. A community activist from the Polish-German association in Zgorzelec. A librarian, a doctor. A three-person delegation from the Committee in Defense of Democracy, who came “because they like the Commissioner”. Someone from a sports association, a small business owner, several private persons – women whose addresses were changed against their will by the mayor.

“Our tiny street, Marszałka Żymirskiego, needs to have its name de-communized. We agree with that. But just as the town suggested, we proposed our own name: Jasnogórska. Because nearby there is a community called Jasna Góra, and our street leads to it. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to submit our idea, because the consultations consisted of responding whether we agree with the new name, Generała Fieldorfa-Nila. Just to be clear: we don’t have anything against the general! The point is, that someone should take our voice into account too. Many older people live here, it’s hard for them to remember such a long, new name, with a hyphen, with an additional “e”. It’s a matter of spelling, not politics. And they treated us poorly. First, the officials distributed among the street’s residents a sheet of paper to sign we agree with the change of name to Nila. The older people didn’t know what it was about, but they signed it. We went to see the local council members before they were going to vote. We told them we didn’t want that name, but they disregarded us. It’s not the street name that matters anymore, it’s changed, but it’s about the way we were treated.”

Bodnar: “Street nomenclature system does not lie within the Commissioner’s scope of responsibility, but the transparency of the procedures and the process of public consultations do.”

At the end of the meeting, a petite woman speaks up: “No doubt you know about these things. I’ve been supporting intellectually disabled children for 30 years. I think about what all parents do in this situation: What will happen to my child when I pass away? What can I do to make sure he isn’t harmed in any way? We, mothers, are helpless, essentially helpless, because the fathers leave, they can’t take it. Mothers remain. No one asks how they do it. When these children turn 25 years old, they disappear for the government. It doesn’t have anything to offer them. We run a day home, four hours a day. There’s an integration room, twice a week for a couple hours. All the rest of the day falls on us [parents].” Aniela Hreczuch has been active in the local branch of the Society of Friends of Children for 30 years. She says she has abandoned any dreams she had.

I am here because you are important

For over a year, the Commissioner and his staff have been hitting the road every month. Each time, they travel around a different province for several days. They visit public institutions, meet with NGOs and local government officials who sometimes advise local residents, unofficially, not to attend.

After returning to Warsaw, they analyze every matter reported to them. Since taking office, the Commissioner and his team have visited nearly 60 municipalities.

One of them was Zgorzelec and its Janusz Korczak Youth Sociotherapy Centre. The sorts of places they visit – social welfare institutions, live-in care homes or detention centres are often overwhelmingly hopeless. But here, according to the Centre’s employees, things are different. The Centre has been operating for 50 years, providing care and help to kids in crisis. Due to developmental disorders, these kids are at risk of social maladjustment. They require sociotherapy and methods of organizing schoolwork tailored to their needs.

A dedicated junior high school has been opened for half of the 72 kids under the Centre’s care, while the rest of them attend regular schools. The oldest ones, in exceptional cases, may stay until they begin college. The Centre has modern sports facilities, three-person rooms with bathrooms and an on-site nurse. Each member of the team of educators and psychologists looks after just three kids. There’s an anonymous suggestions box, a board stating the rules so that everything is clear. The kids have duties to perform; they are treated as the Centre’s co-managers. They have their own small parliament and a president. Everything is the way the institution’s patron originally envisioned.

County executive Urszula Ciupak, when Bodnar asks her how she is able to come up with funding for the Centre, said, “There are things that are important, and things that are more important. This is a more important one.”

“In the past, courts used to refer kids to us. Since 2012, they have been sent here at their parents’ request or have been referred by a pediatric psychological clinic,” said Ireneusz Stec, the Centre’s director. “We try to convince them that they have potential. We say, ‘Listen, the fact you wound up here is not a punishment; it could be an opportunity’. If a 12-year-old kid is brought to us because he’s already addicted to designer drugs, is it really his fault? We also have more and more kids with psychiatric disorders. We have kids from all over Poland, including from child care homes, because they don’t know how to work with them, so they pass them on to us.”

During a meeting with the Centre’s wards, one of them shows a poster he’s painted. “This is about what happens with a person when someone yells at him and is aggressive”. It shows crouched, eyeless figures drawn in cold-colored lines, while red, orange and yellow figures lean over them, dominating.

Bodnar: “I am here because you are important.”

Little staff, little time

Barbara Imiołczyk: “It seems to us that we’ve already done so much in Poland – and it’s true – but it was easy to believe the rest would take care of itself. Yet, you just have to go outside the big cities to see how many people have been left to fend for themselves. Some of them become withdrawn, they sink into inertia. Others cope because they have to. Sometimes we’ve been amazed by how they do it. And that’s also why we travel: to collect experiences and pass them on, sometimes to suggest something, but more often to learn from them.”

Bodnar: “Someone might say that since only a dozen or so people come to these meetings sometimes, maybe it’s not worth it. But it seems to me it needs to be done all the more.”

So they go and listen. In Wałbrzych – about violence against the elderly. Wanda Radłowska of the “Joy of Life” Association said, “Their kids or grandkids sometimes beat or mistreat them. They con them, take their money, mock them. But elderly people are afraid to talk about it. And they’re excluded – most programs ‘for seniors’ which could help them somehow, get them out of their homes, are limited to age 65. The same with routine examinations. As if old age ended then! And then the doctors. I know they are overloaded, but there’s a dearth of geriatric specialists, only 300 in all of Poland. And the regular doctors should always treat the elderly with all due attention and dignity.”

Social workers in Wałbrzych told the Commissioner that, in the matter of violence against women, one of the biggest problems continues to be disregard shown for such cases by law enforcement bodies and the judiciary. “Police officers downplay reported cases, do not intervene. And later, if a case makes it to court at all, the proceedings are too long. Restraining orders are meaningless. We run a hostel with 30 beds where victims of domestic violence can stay for three months – but afterwards they must go back to the home in which the perpetrator is waiting. Unpunished. Restraining him only works on paper – it’s the woman who has to flee,” a Wałbrzych social worker said.

In Jelenia Góra, a woman who helps people with intellectually disabilities told the Commissioner, “They are being talked in to taking out loans more and more often. The law does not protect them in any way. Even if their families legally incapacitate them, banks cannot check applicants’ legal capacity – especially if the disability is not readily apparent. They give such people loans. And it’s not just payday loans – sometimes they are for a hundred, two hundred thousand. The families of these people lose their life savings, sometimes their homes. And there is nothing that can be done about it for now.

An important detail comes up in Bogatynia – someone attending the meeting expresses gratitude for saying “person with a disability”: “That ‘with’ is very important, so the disability isn’t the only thing defining the person.” A little way down the road, in Zgorzelec, they hold Invalid Day. It’s a word that really ought to be retired.

Politics does not come up much. Bodnar: “I’m not a politician. People’s problems are not political and do not get solved by slogans. I will definitely always stand on guard of the constitution and its observance, I will defend democratic institutions and judicial independence, because without them it’s impossible to protect civil rights. But I know that several years ago, those rights were not respected either. What people tell us about did not begin a year or three years ago. In many cases, the neglect has been there for a very long time.”

Bodnar did not encounter political opponents during his tour of Dolnośląskie province. But when he began his visits, in Podkarpackie and Podlaskie provinces, declared followers of the government and President attended some meetings. However, no altercations occurred. Sometimes Committee in Defense of Democracy supporters came “to see the Commissioner, wish him well”. A woman who attended a meeting in Jelenia Góra said sadly, “I feel powerless, the authorities do not care about me.”

Bodnar: “It’s not true that citizens can’t do anything. A citizen is a citizen every day, not once every four years at the voting booth. You can speak to your MP’s, senators, local officials, ask them about their work. You can write petitions – the official kind, not the easy kind online. You can protest. You can also buy newspapers, also local ones, because without them there’s no supervision over the authorities.”

When a local leader of the Black Protest asked about atheists’ rights during a meeting held in Kłodzko, another woman cut her off, stating, “Poland is a Catholic country. Mieszko I [Poland’s first king] baptized the country and that’s it!”. The Commissioner reminded her that Poland is a secular country.

Talking to the young people present, Bodnar brought up reproductive rights – what they are, the laws relating to them: “I will speak up for them and react whenever they are violated.” Then a high school girl told him about a teacher in her Education for Family Life class who asked whether she is not afraid she might be raped by a Muslim. Her mother spoke about young girls’ difficulties in seeing gynecologists, and refusals of prescriptions for certain means of birth control, and said “if something happens, those who can afford it have the Czech Republic nearby, fortunately” [where abortion is legal].

People have a need to talk. “I came out of curiosity. It said in the newspaper that there’ll be a meeting with a public person. I wanted to see what that Bodnar was like. I’m even a bit surprised he came here, because nothing special is happening in this place. That is, it’s like everywhere, bad. But obviously he can’t change it,” said a retired woman in Wałbrzych.

Adam Bodnar: “We’re traveling around Poland and asking residents what is important to them. We listen to what they do in their associations or foundations. Sometimes we pass on these good practices. I speak about the issues they can report to the Commissioner. But I want to be honest and that’s why I explain that we can’t help in every case. Sometimes that’s disappointing.”

The meetings repeatedly show that people feel an unmet need for ordinary conversation. Many have ceased to believe in it. And in the government, too. But sometimes it’s the exact opposite – they don’t want help. They come to show they’ve accomplished something themselves. Like the animal rights activist in Kłodzko who wants to establish an Ombudsman for Animals and seeks allies. Or the farmer in Stronie Śląskie who, as a member of the nationwide Watchdog Network, is dedicated to ensuring public access to information and has won his share of court cases on the issue. Or the man in Świdnica, who intervened on behalf of a lonely, abandoned neighbor, because the city refused to do anything about his deteriorating apartment.

Each of these meetings provides a list of subjects for a journalist to delve in to, for articles on topics small and personal yet important for society at large – a bracing dose of realism that deserves to appear on the third or fifth page of newspapers.