Belarusian faces of hope

After fleeing Belarus to escape arrest and worse, MA student Angelina Bets, psychologist Albina Stroganova and entrepreneur Stanislau Stesik tell TFN how they have rebuilt their lives in Poland. Kalbar/TFN

Albina Stroganova was an award-winning psychologist, who was teaching at the prestigious A.S. Pushkin Brest State University, when Belarus’s 2020 elections were held.

But after speaking out about the results and the behaviour of President Aleksander Lukashenko, Stroganova was hauled in by state police and interrogated. Upon returning home to her four year old son, Adrian, she realised that her house was under surveillance.

Shaken by the interrogation, Stoganova was highly concerned for her own wellbeing and that of her son. So she decided she needed to escape before the van parked outside her house wasn’t just observing her but was being used to abduct her. She packed quickly and headed to the border.

After being interrogated for questioning the 2020 election results, and concerned for her own wellbeing and that of her son, psychologist Albina Strogonova decided she needed to escape before the van parked outside her house wasn’t just observing her but was being used to abduct her.Kalbar/TFN

Stroganova’s parents had already been living in Warsaw for four years and were residents, both in successful careers, her mother also a psychologist. The three hour car ride from Brest to the Polish capital was familiar to Stroganova, who had made the journey a number of times without incident. She was relieved that the familiar journey would not only reunite her with her parents and Adrian with his grandparents, but would also ensure they were free to live a normal life.

That feeling of joy was slowly extinguished over an exhausting 10 hour delay at the border. This was on a summer’s day where the temperature exceeded 30 degrees and everyone on the road had the same nervous energy. The Polish border guards explained that while Albina’s visa was ok and she was free to enter, her son had to remain in Belarus.

Heartbroken, exhausted and still in fear of her life, Stoganova was forced to return home where the observers outside her house, and the threat they represented remained. The next day she set off on a 400 km detour and headed to the border crossing at Grodno, in northern Belarus. This time the Polish border control were more understanding with both Albina and Adrian permitted them to cross into Poland. Later that day the family reunion in Warsaw took place and they haven’t looked back since.

The Lukashenko regime has been labelled by many as the last dictatorship in Europe. While there are systematic elections, the results have been questioned by international observers and the oppressive nature of how the country has been run condemned.

Before leaving Belarus, Stroganova was an award-winning psychologist, who was teaching at the prestigious A.S. Pushkin Brest State University.Kalbar/TFN

The largest protests in the history of the country exploded following Lukashenko’s 2020 election ‘victory’ which saw him take up his sixth term in office. The day after his inauguration the EU published a statement rejecting the legitimacy of the elections and calling for new elections to be held.

In August 2020 Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared: “In a situation where the stakes are life, health, security, there is no time to lose. We therefore propose a detailed package promising freedom from visa charges, and in certain cases also freedom from the obligation to possess documents, and facilitated entry to the job market.”

Scores of students were given safe haven in Poland, their studies paid for and scholarships offered to help them survive while they studied through the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA). As well as the  ‘Solidary with Students,’ programme there were funds made available for academics through the ‘Solidary with Scientists’ and ‘Solidary with Teachers' programmes.

Workers streamed across the border, many highly skilled professionals who would add value to the Polish economy that remained robust despite the impact of COVID.

Angelina Bets was just 17 when she decided to flee Belarus.Kalbar/TFN

On September 1st the United Nations Human Rights Office cited over 450 abuses of detainees following protests, some of the claims included incidents of sexual abuse and rape as well as torture. A report published at the end of the year by Viasna Human Rights Centre saw the number of documented cases of torture rise to over 1,000.

Appearing as a speaker at the Belarusian Business Forum held at the Warsaw Stock Exchange last month, Albina Stroganova told TFN: “I would first of all like to thank Poland, its people and its government for giving us a safe place to work and live freely. I would like to thank them for offering an education system where my son can go and learn in peace, and will be free to achieve his goals based on his efforts. I urge the Belarusian people to come together and support each other like the Ukrainians do when they move to other countries.”

The psychologist noted that she treats many patients from her home country who are struggling to adjust and a common root of that problem is a lack of a strong Belarusian community.

Although there are many Belarusians spread across Poland, Stroganova says adults find it hard to adjust and thinks they need to break the habits of the old country, where they were trained to be suspicious of those they didn’t know and embrace living in a free society.

The Lukashenko regime has been labelled by many as the last dictatorship in Europe. While there are systematic elections, the results have been questioned by international observers and the oppressive nature of how the country has been run condemned. CC BY 4.0

One of the students who moved to Poland before the 2020 crisis was Angelina Bets. Currently studying for her master’s degree in International Trade Policy at Warsaw University, she was just 17 when she decided to flee Belarus.

Bets told TFN: “The turning point for me was when my friends gathered in a park in Minsk, it was the day of poetry or something like that and my friend was loudly reciting poetry in Belarusian. The police came over to us and were very aggressive, I was frightened. I started to see the reality we have there is not ok and I needed to change it.”

Bets had never planned to move abroad but that incident changed her mind. She continued: “I really love my country and miss it but no, I could never imagine moving back there. It was very hard for me when I moved here, I was never a person who dreamed of living abroad.

“It was a quick decision for me. It was hard for me to feel good here in Poland at the start. I missed my parents, my friends, my home but I didn’t have a choice so I can’t go back. I have worked hard for my degree, I will have my master’s degree but in Belarus I have nothing, they won’t recognise these qualifications.

STR/PAP/EPA

On September 1st the United Nations Human Rights Office cited over 450 abuses of detainees following protests, some of the claims included incidents of sexual abuse and rape as well as torture. A report published at the end of the year by Viasna Human Rights Centre saw the number of documented cases of torture rise to over 1,000.STR/PAP/EPA

“I won’t have a career, I won’t have opportunities and I don’t have a future there. I know in Poland that if I work I will have money, I will be able to live and in Belarus this is not true. It is not a country for people with ideas, who want to develop or for people who love freedom. ”

Moving to Lublin, due to ancestors on her father’s side of the family, she had a ‘karta Polaka’ (Polish card) which showed she belonged to the Polish nation. In Lublin she learned the Polish language and Polish history for a year before moving to Warsaw to study at University.

Like many of her compatriots Bets found living alone abroad at 17 slightly overwhelming. She thinks that Belarusians and Poles have a similar mentality, something that was echoed by all of the Belarusians that TFN spoke to, adding: “I liked Lublin, it is a very beautiful historical city and it was better for me to move there than Warsaw at first.

“It was smaller, people are in less of a rush and easier to deal with. Then it was hard to move to Warsaw after one year and start again but I met people, we became friends, they introduce me to their friends and slowly I  built up a network.”

Bets said: “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to achieve my dreams in Belarus because for certain people in society everything is blocked. In Poland I can dream.”Kalbar/TFN

Even though she moved before last year’s protests, Lukashenko and his regime is the only form of government she had known. Bets said: “I was from the opposition, I talked about my opinion freely and knew that I won’t have the education or career that I wanted, I wouldn’t have a future in Belarus.

“It was a calmer situation when I moved than last year but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to achieve my dreams in Belarus because for certain people in society everything is blocked. In Poland I can dream.”

Bets has also begun helping others from Belarus with government documents, gaining residency and starting their own companies. She said: “There are a lot of opportunities here in Poland but not everybody knows how to access them and I would like to help them. I want to help them realise their own ideas, something they couldn’t do in Belarus.”

STR/PAP/EPA

Belarusian women wearing clothes and holding umbrellas in the colours of the Belarusian flag during ongoing protests in Minsk against the Belarusian government and president Lukashenko.Jeroen Jumelet/PAP/EPA

Another speaker at the Belarusian Business Forum, Stanislau Stesik is also helping his countrymen start a new life in Poland. Stesik was forced to move to Poland in 2010 due to the political regime and the impending election.

Convinced that once he turned 18 he would be locked up, as a vocal member of the opposition youth organization, Young Front, he had already been targeted by the state police.

Stesik told TFN: “My first arrest was when I was twelve or thirteen, I was walking home from school and the police overheard me talking on my phone in Belarusian. For them this was a sign that I was a danger. They took me to the station and interrogated me. They told me I was a dissident and should speak Russian, not Belarusian. At home we only spoke Russian, my mother only speaks a few words of Belarusian.”

In August 2020 Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “In a situation where the stakes are life, health, security, there is no time to lose. We therefore propose a detailed package promising freedom from visa charges, and in certain cases also freedom from the obligation to possess documents, and facilitated entry to the job market.”Andrzej Lange/PAP

He was granted a scholarship under the government-sponsored Konstanty Kalinowski Scholarship Program which had been started after problems stemming from the 2006 election results in Belarus.

He has since established his own employment agency and employs people all around the country in the building sector as well as warehouse and production workers.

“I live in my car” he joked, “My business is in Torun but I have clients in cities all around the country. I have workers from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and all over, lots of students now come from Asia and Africa, and we employee them too.”

Already targeted by the state police and convinced that once he turned 18 he would be locked up for being a vocal member of the opposition youth organization, Young Front, Stanislau Stesik moved to Poland in 2010.Kalbar/TFN

Stesik struggled to settle into Poland at first and admitted that after his first year he longed to return to his mother and friends in his native Belarus.

He said: “Poland was a welcoming country for me and my mother, four years ago I moved my mother here, if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be able to speak at an event like this (Belarusian Business Forum). When I first arrived I had many normal problems settling into a new country. No friends, troubles with the language, how to setup an internet connection, get a bank account and get a mobile phone.

“In Poland if you don’t have a PESEL number (personal identification number) you can struggle but Poland and Belarus are similar, the people have a similar mentality.”

Stesik went on to explain that his mother had suffered problems in their native Belarus after he left, even losing her job as punishment.

Stesik said that now his mother has joined him in Poland it is safe for him to continue speaking out against the Lukashenko regime. He said: “I can speak out again and support other people from Belarus who wish to escape.”Kalbar/TFN

The entrepreneur said: “Now she (his mother) is in Poland and safe I can appear at conferences, I can speak out again and support other people from Belarus who wish to escape. Before the elections I employed ten Belarusians in my firm and today this is more than fifty.

“I can send documents to Belarus to invite people to work here in Poland. I can offer them some money so they can move and afford to eat, they can have nappies for their children and help them with somewhere to live. It might not be much but I feel I must do this and I am happy to help.”

Stesik is not alone in fearing repercussions, TFN spoke to many Belarusians who had fled the regime and while willing to talk in detail privately they still had family and friends who they were concerned would be punished if they spoke on the record.