The Polish flag symbolizes assistance
"Polish aid organizations have enormous potential, and their actions are very effective, as demonstrated by feedback from recipients of aid," says Beata Kempa, Poland's minister for humanitarian aid, in an exclusive interview with Poland.pl.
Poland.pl: Minister Kempa, the office that you have taken over, that is, Minister for Humanitarian Aid, is a novelty within the Polish government administration. Why was it created?
Beata Kempa, Poland's minister for humanitarian aid: Poland has great capital in the form of various types of aid organisations. It was in fact their activity that inspired us. These organisations have already carried out projects with funds administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the situation in the world, especially the deepening conflict in the Middle East and migration waves led to the decision of the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to establish the position of Minister for Humanitarian Aid with the rank of a constitutional minister.
I am thinking here about non-governmental organizations such as: Aid to the Church in Need, UNICEF Poland, UNHCR, Caritas Poland, the Polish Red Cross, the Polish Medical Mission, the Polish Centre for International Aid, the Polish Humanitarian Action, FPH "Redemptoris Missio", the Salesian Missionary Voluntary Service - Young People of the World and others. These organisations - their leaders and volunteers - do a lot. They operate in the Middle East: in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where there are about 3 million Syrian refugees. They also operate in Africa along migration routes. However, the situation is hard.
That's why I'm currently in talks with my counterparts in other countries. The goal is to coordinate the provision of outside assistance, that is, where people expect it. And having received it, they do not make dramatic decisions about leaving. Although the conditions in which they live are really difficult.
Poland.pl: You talk about the necessity of providing assistance on the ground. Why is this so important?
When you talk to the recipients of this aid, most of them say the same thing: we want to go back to Syria. Why are they waiting in the camps? Because they have no choice. But also because they are located close to the border with Syria, and therefore close to their towns, where they want to return to. The greats of this world should listen to the voices of these people!
There should be a big discussion across Europe on how to help. We want to make the case for providing assistance "on the ground." It will be difficult, but I believe it is not impossible. The new Austrian chancellor is also beginning to talk about it. The Hungarians are also already doing the same as us.
If we do not agree on a common policy of development and humanitarian aid in Europe, the problem of migration will gain momentum. We will not solve it if we do not make well-thought-out, coordinated actions. And these may arise on the path of peaceful and substantive diplomatic talks and on the basis of cooperation with organizations that have already been working on the ground for a long time.
Poland.pl: You went to Lebanon, and then to Jordan, where you visited refugee camps. Could you tell us what the reality there is like?
I am very impressed by the actions taken by the governments of Lebanon and Jordan. Despite the internal difficulties, the local societies have taken in many refugees and now face problems with sustaining them. International organisations help to provide people with a minimum standard of living: they provide water, they pay out small benefits. They provide people with a roof over their heads, engage in the reconstruction of damaged homes and organise substitute housing. In Jordan, only about 12% of refugees live in camps - the vast majority of them live among Jordanians and only need money, for example, for rent. It is not difficult to imagine what would happen to these people if these actions stopped.
The situation is still dramatic. The camps are closed, you can only get out of them upon receiving permission. People live in tin containers - although this is rather too grand a word. All they can do is walk outside the houses and cry. This raises some psychological problems that refugees are struggling with, as well as the organisations that care for them.
Poland.pl: What are the priorities of the Polish government in the field of humanitarian aid?
As assured by the Jordanian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Imad Fakhoury, assistance provided by organisations and governments to local economies help reduce internal tensions, which as a result of the war in Syria are also on the rise in the neighbouring countries. They are waiting for humanitarian aid as well as for the development of economic contacts to build the economy, hoping that economic cooperation with Western countries will help them to overcome these problems.
That is why we intend to invest in medical help and education. The experience of various non-European countries indicates that the development of education is the key to economic and social development. Last year in Syria, with the support of the Polish government at the level of 5.5 million zlotys, one of the organisations was able to carry out medical procedures for about 6,000 victims of the war, including 13,000 patients who were diagnosed thanks to the equipment they purchased.
Education is important in the camps themselves. UNICEF is making a great effort to provide it. They are opening primary schools for children, which is not easy either because of infrastructure and cultural habits. It should be noted that people living in the camps have different levels of education, different professions, which they learned while still in Syria. In addition, however, there is also a large group, belonging to the generation which Minister Fakhoury referred to: "may they not be a lost generation". We must do everything we can so that they do not become a lost generation, let alone vulnerable to all sorts of extremism.
Poland.pl: What actions can we take?
If the system of these education centres was created by UNICEF, it is important that we go a step further and organise, for example, vocational education. The aim would be to obtain a certificate issued by the Jordanian government, which is why we would run a workshop before that. These people have different talents! By encouraging them, we are restoring their dignity. In the abyss of hopelessness, education provides hope for the future, because the profession creates the chance to leave the camps. Learning a trade can also help improve the situation in the camps themselves - tailoring and hairdressing are very popular fields of study.
Currently, the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland is involved in the UNICEF POLSKA project in the field of vocational training and social care for young people living in Za'atari and Azraq camps in Jordan. The activities offered will include – the production of school uniforms, repair and maintenance of camp infrastructure elements, furniture production. Course participants will also be able to use the mentoring and career guidance programme to support the planning and building of their professional future. UNICEF plans to provide courses in 2018 covering the acquisition of professional and life skills for 5,000 young people. There has also been an initiative to co-operate online with universities. The Wrocław University of Technology is ready to pursue this, for example, and I have spoken to rector myself. If we provide technical capabilities – and we are planning to do so – then the university will start running courses on the basis of volunteering.
Poland.pl: Visiting the camps, you became acquainted with human stories. What moved you the most?
What moved me the most, of course, were the stories of children. They are still joyful, laughing, but we - adults - see how difficult it is to predict their future. And they are the same as all other children in the world and have the same dreams, they want to become mathematicians, actors, get married to start a family. By channelling small funds from the point of view of our economies - and there are more powerful economies in the world than Poland - we are able to help them realize those dreams. Personally, I was moved by the story of a 17-year-old boy from Homs, who had an incredible desire to become a bricklayer and not waste time. In a conversation, he confessed to me that he wanted to master this profession so that he could return to Homs, rebuild his home and start a family.
Poland.pl: Speaking of funds. In the last two years, Poland has increased expenditures on humanitarian and development aid. Will this trend be maintained? Will there be more money available for raising the status of this topic to the ministerial level?
This is what we plan to do. Although it is worth noting that my office was established at the turn of the year - that is, after approval of the budget act. The MFA’s special purpose reserve in 2017 amounted to PLN 117 million. This year the amount is kept at a similar level. Furthermore, spending from the state budget on humanitarian and development aid is growing every year. In 2017, the value of this aid was three times higher than in 2015. One can apply for these funds. Last year, from the general reserve, the Prime Minister's Chancellery designated over PLN 10 million for humanitarian projects implemented by non-governmental organizations. At this point one cannot overlook the payments Poland has made for humanitarian operations to foreign agencies and funds - it was over PLN 137 million.
In addition, I held talks with the director of the National Freedom Institute, Mr Wojciech Kaczmarczyk. Some of the funds for this institution will be transferred to organisations whose mission it is to implement the idea of civil society in countries in need. We also intend to apply for financing from Norwegian funds.
Poland.pl: And how is the cooperation between your office and the main providers of assistance, non-governmental organizations?
Polish aid organizations have enormous potential, and their actions are very effective, as demonstrated by feedback from recipients of aid. They are our "eyes" on the ground, for example in Syria. They do a lot of work on their own: they organise collections, carry out operations, and create a positive atmosphere around the idea of helping in society - which is conducive to building a community. Their employees are professional and at the same time sensitive to the needs of others. They have great insight into the needs of the place and understand cultural differences. We want to ensure organisations that the government supports their activities. I have great respect for what they do and thank them for that.
Poland.pl: One final question. Wherein lies the main strength of Polish aid?
The strength lies in the people who are not afraid for their own lives, are physically present. They operate in well-organised structures - the state does not have to create any system anymore. The role of the state is through the overall coordination of activities, funding their activities and political support. In many places, the Polish flag is already associated with providing assistance. If we create an additional forum for the exchange of experiences and views, we will do even more. I think that the Syrian bishop Georges Abou Khazen, put it very beautifully when saying: "The Polish government is the only one in the world that - without being a religious organisation - helps us, Christians, stay in Syria. No strings attached, without expecting anything in return. We thank you very much for that."
Beata Kempa is Polish Minister in the Council of Ministers Responsible for Humanitarian Aid.
She is a graduate of administration at the Faculty of Law and Administration of the Wrocław University in 1990. In 1998 – 2005, she was a councilor of the city council and the municipality council of Syców. For several years she worked as case worker for adults. In 2006 - 2007 she was the secretary of state in the Ministry of Justice. She was a Member of the Sejm (Polish national Parliament) of the 5th, 6th and 7th terms. Now she is also a Member of the Sejm of the 8th term.