Earlier this year, shortly before coronavirus was reported to have hit Irish shores, Voyteck Bialek started teaching social media skills to a group of older Polish people.
As the director of the Cork-based Together-Razem charity, he had first established a weekly support network in 2012 for older Poles who came to Ireland with limited English to help care for their grandchildren.
“We already provided English classes and information seminars to about 25 regular attendees every weekend. We then offered them training on how to use Skype and other social media just before the pandemic started and we’re so lucky we did that. Now they meet every Saturday on Zoom.”
On March 15th, Together-Razem volunteers set up a new programme called Invisible Hand to support this older Polish generation during the health crisis.
“The idea was to help the elderly and sick; a lot of them had come here to care for their children’s children. They have no English at all so cannot join any senior Irish groups.”
Like their Irish counterparts, many older Poles were worried about catching the virus and complained about the long wait for test results.
“This elderly group knew communism; if there is a rule to stay at home, they follow that rule. But they expressed anger that many others did not follow the rules,” says Bialek.
The charity also set up a phone line for Poles struggling with unemployment, health issues and general anxiety during the crisis.
Poles make up the largest group of foreign nationals living in Ireland at 112,515, followed by 103,113 UK nationals and 36,552 Lithuanians. Data from 2016 shows most Polish people in Ireland are young, with nearly 50 per cent aged between 30 and 40 years of age.
Bialek says many Poles were initially confused about the Covid-19 unemployment payment while some felt exploited by employers who laid off staff without paying salaries. Polish hairdressers and beauticians have particularly suffered during the pandemic, he adds.
Volunteers on the phone line found many Poles were ashamed to speak about having contracted the virus. “We got some funding to provide free counselling and psychotherapy sessions and the amount of people calling was overwhelming. We had to start a waiting list and are still seeking more counsellors or psychotherapists willing to donate their free time.”
Bialek, who is an addiction counsellor, also witnessed a number of former alcoholics and drug addicts returning to substance abuse during the pandemic. “With the lack of cannabis because of Covid, people started switching to different drugs. There is something new called Xanax sticks on the market which has a very dangerous ingredient. I’ve heard people have started to use that.”
Reports of domestic violence have also risen in the past few months, he adds.
Ewa Sadawska, director of Barka Ireland, which supports homeless central and eastern Europeans in Ireland and helps repatriate Poles back home, says seasonal workers who arrived just before the Covid-19 outbreak have really struggled during the crisis.
The charity has helped eight seasonal workers return home in recent months but says there are many more isolated workers with no friends or family to support them.
“Many individuals used their very last resources to buy a ticket to Ireland. Some of them were looking for an escape from substance abuse and conflict back home,” she says. “Moving to Ireland was a very big step and then they found themselves in even worse circumstances.”
When the last census was conducted, more than one-fifth of Poles in Ireland were working in retail, with another 18 per cent working in manufacturing, and 15 per cent in accommodation and food services.
Danuta Kiernan is working with a number of Polish women who lost their jobs in hospitality because of the pandemic. Kiernan, who is a member of the Midlands Polish Community, set up a mask-making project in late March with women from across Athlone, Co Westmeath, and Ballymahon, in Longford.
Known as the “helping hands” group, the women have produced thousands of masks using donated material which they then distribute around the community.
“We’re not only providing these masks for the Polish community, our mission was to show that we built our lives here and we’re not only taking. We want to give as much as possible,” says Kiernan.
Like all communities on this island, Poles have lost loved ones during the pandemic. The death in May of 36-year-old Sebastian Kulawiak, who lived in Donegal and contracted Covid-19, was a real blow to the community, says Kiernan. "It's always a little bit more painful when it's someone from your own community. But I would say we're all in this together, not only as Polish but as a nation of people.
“This virus doesn’t see our nationalities; it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re Polish or Irish.”