By Bev Haigh-Jones

This month we have a story from one of our members, Margee, a British citizen originally from Poland and living in Redruth.

Margee has a double story to tell. Firstly, as a European living in the UK, she experienced the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the changes that it brought to her life. Secondly, originally from Poland, the events in Ukraine have brought back her past, a past when she herself was living under Russian occupation.

Margee was born and brought up in Poland when the divide between East and West was strictly enforced and the country was under Russian control. I must admit that speaking to Margee was a real eye-opener. Although I am old enough to remember the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the USSR, I had no idea of the full extent of the deprivation suffered by occupants of the Eastern Bloc countries.

As a result of the peace agreement reached at the end of the Second World War, Poland found itself under Russian control. Around twenty-two thousand army officers, mayors, councillors, officials and civilians died in Katyn forest in 1940, killed by the Soviets entering Poland from the East. The whole communist regime took the lives of around two million Polish residents in the years between 1946 and 1989 and there was a major impact on the Polish people for over forty years. The government were Kremlin puppets, the people were strictly controlled, food was rationed and government by fear was the order of the day. Schoolchildren had to wear red ties and they had to speak Russian, rather than their native Polish.

Life under this regime was extremely hard for Polish citizens. Food rationing was extreme, queuing for 24 hours for one item was not unusual and Margee recalls a time in her childhood when her family took turns in the queue for three days, just to try to obtain some food items for Christmas. If they had left the queue they would have lost their place and would have been unlikely to obtain the food that they needed. However, food was being produced in the country, but as with all other production, the bulk was being sent to Russia. Poland had effectively become a gigantic work camp for their Russian masters.

Despite the severe shortages of food for the locals, there were commodities available for those from the West who arrived with dollars in their pockets. There were special shops for Western visitors, accepting US dollars for things such as Coca Cola and other luxury goods. In contrast, all Poles had the same furniture, purchased from the same source on a long delivery schedule. There was an allowance of what could be acquired and there was no choice. With cars also, no choice, just whatever the government made available and, assuming that you could afford to buy one, the waiting list could be three to five years.

This state of affairs continued until the start of demonstrations and protests in the late sixties. This, as you might imagine, resulted in arrests, imprisonment, torture and Russia assisting the Polish militia to suppress revolts against communism. Nevertheless, by the 1980s huge numbers were taking part in demonstrations and despite the arrests and violence meted out by the authorities, Poland eventually gained its freedom from oppression.

Life for Margee in Poland gained some sense of normality and eventually she met the man who was to become her husband. He was from London originally, though living in Cornwall from 1989, but holidaying in Poland as he is of Polish descent. In fact, Chris’s father was one of the Polish RAF pilots who fought in the Second World War and to whom the UK owes so much. We could not have prevailed without them!

After they married, Margee joined Chris, a financial advisor, in Cornwall and has been a resident here since 2004. She works for Public Health, Healthy Cornwall, a joint project of the NHS and Cornwall Council, as a health improvement practitioner, helps people with a whole range of health issues. She helps patients to stop smoking, to improve their fitness levels, to lose weight, to ward off diabetes and much more besides, including organising healthy eating courses. She has also spent some time teaching at St Austell College.

For many years, Margee enjoyed her life in Cornwall, she loved her job, she got on well with her neighbours and people were friendly – then the idea of Brexit came along! UKIP began to gain some political ground in Cornwall, particularly in the Redruth area, and things began to change.

The first experience that Margee had of how things had changed came during a lunch to which she was invited by a neighbour. It should have been a friendly, social gathering of a number of female friends, but turned into an upsetting and hurtful event when one of the party began to ask questions.

The conversation went more, or less as follows:

Other lady: “Where is your accent from?”

Margee: “I’m Polish.”

Other: “Have you come here for the benefits?”

Margee: “No! I work hard in social care and I have never claimed benefits.”

Other: “When I go to the doctor now nobody there speaks English! They all come here, claim the benefits and rip the country off.”

As one can imagine, this was an upsetting exchange for Margee, but what made things worse was that nobody else at the lunch intervened, or challenged the comments being made. Needless to say, Margee left the gathering.

Once the Brexit vote had been cast, the instances of abuse became more common. Even at work Margee would receive comments such as “Go back where you came from! Or “You lot only come here for the benefits” and in one case, where Margee needed to do a home assessment of a patient, the person concerned stated “I won’t have any foreigners in my house!” Fortunately, in that particular case, Margee’s team stood behind her and the patient was told that if that was her decision, then she would not get an assessment. All of this took its toll, Margee was becoming unhappy and it reached the stage where she was uncomfortable even going into shops where she needed to speak, since when her accent was heard there was often an obvious change in attitude.

Margee began to believe that the whole of the UK population disliked her, but happily she came across Cornwall for Europe and realised that there are a great many people, including in Cornwall, who value other individuals whatever their origins. This helped her a great deal and she is now more comfortable with her life, but the injustice of what she has experienced cannot be overstated. We are so glad that we have been a help to her and that she knows that she is valued.

What is ironic though, is that she is actually a British citizen and, unlike those of us who hold that position by virtue of our parentage, or place of birth, she has actually had to pay for the privilege. It is not a cheap or easy process either, at a cost of nearly £2,000, providing documents as proof, taking language tests and generally jumping through hoops. This makes the abuse that she has seen all the more disgraceful. She has no relatives left in Poland, she has adopted our country as her home, having come from oppression and deprivation and is met with prejudice, for no logical reason. I really hope that the friends that Margee has now made in Cornwall provide enough support for her to live a fulfilled life in the country that she has made home.

Rather than vilifying people, we should be proud that they choose our country and welcome the contribution that they make to our society. I sincerely hope that any Ukrainians who manage to find their way here do not meet the same prejudice.

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