Eva Grosman: 'I know of families who have left Belfast because of racism'
The Big Interview
Campaigner Eva Grosman tells Rebecca Black about her experience growing up in Poland, concern at the growing number of racist attacks and her love/hate relationship with Belfast.
Q. How alarming is the increase in racist attacks?
A. They have been increasing since the economic downturn. People in Northern Ireland are welcoming, but these recent attacks have actually been ongoing for over a year now. It affects quality of life not only of the victims but the wider community and it damages the reputation of Northern Ireland internationally.
It is really difficult to tolerate the level of discrimination and ongoing low-key racism.
I visited the families who were attacked in north Belfast and found it really heartbreaking. These are people who are dedicated and hard-working.
One of the guys works for one of the international banks here in IT, one of the women is a finance manager.
To see a three-year-old girl point up at a broken window and say she is scared - it is not an environment that anyone wants to bring their child up in.
Q. What sort of proportion of the Polish community here are in lower-paid jobs or in the professions?
A. The profile of the Polish community in Northern Ireland has changed over the years. During the economic boom we had a lot of architects, doctors, computer programmers and bankers. Some of these people, I know for a fact, have moved on. At the same time the Polish community is becoming more established here, you notice more families and people who are here to stay rather than temporary migrant workers.
Q. It seemed strange that "Poles Out" was daubed on the shutters of Asta's Glam Factory in east Belfast when she is Lithuanian and no Polish people are employed there.
A. People don't see the difference, eastern Europeans are lumped in under one label. The attack on Asta's business - which created jobs and services for the local community - was a display of Belfast at its worst and then Belfast at its best as people rallied together, raised money and showed support.
Q. Have you ever been the victim of racism?
A. Not really, now and again you will hear some comments. It is not directed at you, but you still feel disheartened.
Q. Has the racism caused Polish people to leave Northern Ireland?
A. I know at least three or four families who have moved away. Friends of mine moved to Dublin, a few others moved to London and Edinburgh.
This is the effect of racism, people are leaving. Something needs to be done. With all the new job announcements and efforts made to attract jobs, Northern Ireland is losing out on people.
Society is very restless. It is a result of the Troubles but this is the time to draw a line and move on, just get on with it for the sake of the next generation. It is important to learn from the past, but how long can one dwell on the past?
Q. Have you ever considered leaving Northern Ireland?
A. Absolutely, because I feel it is such a relentless task here. Through the Centre for Democracy and Peacebuilding we run the United Against Hate campaign so I deal with issues around prejudice and hate on a daily basis. It is so draining, at the end of the day life is about having fun.
The frustration is there, I have a love/hate relationship with Belfast. It provides so many opportunities.
I am a very positive kind of soul and when you see attitudes being changed one by one, it is incredibly rewarding.
Q. You are originally from Silesia in Poland?
A. I was born in Zabrze, a medium-sized city. Silesia is a very industrialised part of Poland, in the region there are about five million people, there are cities next to cities.
Q. What is that part of Poland like?
A. The region is interesting. When I was growing up, older people in the streets would still address each other in German. I grew up in an environment where people dealt with different identities. Some felt more aligned with Germany, some felt strongly Silesian, others felt Polish, yet there was never any major tension.
During a recent visit to Poland in the local church, services were in Polish, Latin and German. No one there gets over-excited about language issues, it is a part of daily life.
Q. Which do or did you identify with?
A. Polish, only my grandmother was Silesia. Part of my family was repatriated from the eastern part of Poland which now belongs to Belarus. Polish borders shifted drastically after the Second World War, and many people were displaced. After the Second World War, many people from eastern Poland were repatriated to Silesia because there was so much industry and also hospitals and universities. Many from Silesia went to live in Germany after the war. It was a major population shift.
Q. Was there a sense of loss within your family at being moved away?
A. My ancestors arrived in Poland from northern Italy, they were fighters for kings, they received an aristocratic title and land in eastern Poland. They stayed there for several hundred years until they were stripped of everything and humiliated. After the Second World War, the only choice they had was to move on and they ended up in Silesia.
Q. Did you ever visit their home?
A. Yes, a few years ago, it was quite nostalgic. Only a few weeks ago there was a blue plaque unveiled to one of my ancestors who was an architect. He built cathedrals in St Petersburg. A lot of the family were in the army, different armies because at that time Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
As Europeans we have got such a rich history. I can't even start to imagine how much of a mixture I am myself, maybe Italian, Polish, Russian, German, Silesia and some Jewish roots as well. It is fascinating when you learn and understand that nothing is straight forward. We have such a mixture of identities, each one of us.
Q. You experienced the communist regime in Poland?
A. Those are early memories. You just get on with life and make the best of it. As a teenager I remember the change, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the events in Gdansk [the shipyard strikes which led to the overthrow of communism in Poland] and the promise of hope and freedom which Poles as a nation always longed for.
Even as young people we were always politically aware, the history and the values we were aspiring to. If you compare what people have access to now and the opportunities, to the environment we grew up in, it makes you realise how much there is to appreciate.
Q. Did you go on to university after school?
A. After my A-levels I studied marketing and management. After a year I went to London on a two-week holiday. I loved it so much I decided to extend my holiday and take a year off. And I am still on holiday 20 years on.
Q. So tell us what was your first job?
A. I worked as an au pair initially, because this was the best way to learn English and live in a safe and cosy environment.
After a year, I decided to stay longer and started a course in marketing, then got a job in a small boutique in west London where I lived. I ended up with a couple of entrepreneurs, two guys who had a chain of shops.
I started with them in August, by October I was moved to head office, by January I was made one of the directors.
I was lucky to have come across guys who gave me a chance. I was in my twenties and running a company with a £5m turnover and 115 employees.
Then I started studying finance as I felt I needed to develop those skills.
But I always felt I wanted to do more, I wanted to use my entrepreneurial skills and spirit to bring a change.
Q. What came next in your life?
A. In 2001 the business brought me to Northern Ireland. I worked in the private sector for a few years, sold my business and did a Masters degree in management for public services. After graduating I set up my own consultancy.
There were a number of projects, from organising trade missions to Poland and facilitating integration. This was at the time when the EU expanded and, suddenly, there were a lot of Polish people arriving in Northern Ireland.
One of the areas we noticed needed to be addressed was how to communicate with the new communities. Without any experience in publishing I set up a magazine, a free publication on communication issues about life and Northern Ireland to encourage a sense of belonging.
I also set up Polish Film Festival and Polish Cultural Week which has now been running for nine years.
I think culture and arts are a great way of developing mutual understanding between communities where people can explore each other's history. I am also chair of the Polish Electoral Commission in Belfast to enable Polish citizens living in Northern Ireland to take part in elections in Poland.
Q. Do Polish people living here find the stark divisions in local politics daunting?
A. It is definitely difficult to be in the middle of the sectarian divide which is so evident in the politics of Northern Ireland. Most Polish people come from a Catholic background but that does not necessarily mean they would support republicanism or nationalism here. It is very, very difficult.
Q. Are more Polish people starting to vote here now?
A. Yes, there are 3,000 Poles registered to vote.
Q. What is your main role in Northern Ireland?
A. I am the chief executive of the Centre for Democracy and Peacebuilding. This was set up with Lord Alderdice, Jeffrey Donaldson and Liam Maskey. An interesting combination and a joy to work with.
I am also one of the trustees of the Mac, have been on the board for the last four years and it is something I am really proud of. It is such a symbol of the new Northern Ireland.
Q. Has the Stormont cut in funding been a blow?
A. Not only for the Mac but for so many organisations across the sector. Arts was under-resourced anyway for so many years. I could not think of a better way of bringing healing to society than through culture and arts. There should be more money put into culture and arts, yes we have to be realistic about the cuts and pressures on the budget, but at the same time in the long term it will have such a knock-on effect.
We talk so much about Northern Ireland being attractive to investors and a hub of creativity, but how can Belfast became such a hub without investment in arts, culture and education?
Q. Do you feel cuts in the arts put investors off coming to Northern Ireland?
A. In the long term yes. We have seen the comments made by Game of Thrones actor Kit Harrington about Belfast. Everyone got so upset, but by cutting investment in our culture and arts, what will we have to offer? The comments caused public outrage that someone dared to make playful comments.
Yes it is great to see so many restaurants and bars but there is more to life than food and drink. If you travel across Europe, the joy of visiting a nice gallery and seeing art. To attract investment and create the atmosphere of creativity and innovation, you need to cherish arts.