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Right way for refugees with Poland's new Left

Anti-migration worries helped propel a sweeping win for Poland's conservative PiS in recent elections. Even so, left-wing activists think they still have a future, Isabelle de Pommereau reports from Wroclaw.

There's a place in this young, dynamic southwest Polish metropolis called Kamienski Street that hardly anybody sets foot in. Except, perhaps, for Olimpia Swist and her friends from the non-profit Nomada - as well as the 100 Romanian Roma families who call the cluster of makeshift sheds in this forgotten spot their home.

When the refugee debate hit Poland like an emotional bombshell this fall, dividing families and fuelling populist paroles, Swist's group felt compelled to fight back, and helped organize a 'Welcome Refugees' rally. "We're not specialists, but we are the only organization in touch with refugees," says Swist.

It was an uphill battle: Some 250 residents showed up at the rally. In contrast, a few days later, 4,000 swarmed the medieval Rynek, or marketplace, for an anti-Islamic rally. Anti-migration comments filled the air.

These feelings played a role in the country's - and the city's - recent strong swing to the right. They filled the streets Wednesday as up to 10,000 rallied for a "Patriots March" held by the radical nationalist party National Rebirth of Poland on the anniversary of the country's independence after World War I.

Against a backdrop of pervasive anti-refugee sentiments and acts of violence, left-wing activists like Swist feel like lonely warriors. But the recent parliamentary elections gave her a glimmer of hope that change may come. Down the line.

The conservative and nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) won this liberal city for the first time. The traditional left-wing parties were expelled from parliament.

Olimpia Swist stands with a Roma man and small girl at a Roma settlement in Wroclaw

Swist has won hope from the election, though right-wing populists did well

And yet for Swist, the real breakthrough was the emergence of a young, new leftist force, one with no ties to the old communist guard, and with a real social agenda to fight intolerance. Razem, or Together, the newest kid on the Polish political landscape, rose fast: It failed to win a seat in the Sejm, the lower chamber of parliament, but received enough support to bring it government funding.

"I hope that the standards set by Razem will become standards in politics," says Maciek Mandelt, another Nomada community worker.

New ally in the fight against intolerance?

"It's time for a new Left in Poland, one that is no longer associated with communism," says Katka Reszke, a Wroclaw-born documentary filmmaker working on the post-communist Jewish experience.

"Because Poland has been homogeneous for so long, the refugee crisis will always trigger extreme reactions," she says. "But what I read and hear in post-election discussions is very promising: People want to get involved, many young people who are making it a mission to fight xenophobia."

Over the past 15 years, a bitter rivalry between two largely conservative forces - Jaroslaw Kaczynski's PiS and Donald Tusk's more centrist Civic Platform - has dominated Poland's political landscape.

The Democratic Left Alliance never fully recovered from revelations that Poland had housed CIA-operated secret police prisons for terrorist suspects when Leszek Miller, a former communist, was prime minister from 2001 to 2004. In Wroclaw, a bastion of the anti-communist Solidarity protest movement, "we couldn't vote for the left until it was a post-communist left," says Pawel Rudnicki of the University of Lower Silesia.

Wroclaw's Old Town seen from above

Wroclaw has flourished in recent years

Closer to Berlin than to Warsaw, Wroclaw is far from Poland's rural, deeply Catholic eastern provinces, PiS' traditional strongholds. It is a young city born out World War II. In 1945, to compensate for the Soviet Union's gobbling some of Poland's eastern territories, the war's winners gave what was then Breslau, the capital of German Lower Silesia, to Poland.

Breslau became the Polish Wroclaw - a city that had last been under Polish rule hundreds of years earlier. The city's German residents were expelled or displaced, and Poles - mostly "pioneers" from central Poland and refugees from eastern regions that are now part of Ukraine and Belarus - were catapulted in to replace them. A unique spirit helped shape the city.

Under the last decade of Tusk's pro-Europe government, and also thanks to EU funds, Wroclaw became one of Poland's most prosperous, and stable, cities. Foreign banks popped up; the city got modern roads, and a new soccer stadium. But many residents felt left out of this economic boom.

"Ten years of Civic Platform meant that to survive we need to move to the UK," says Mateusz Novak, a student at Wroclaw University.

Young people voted for PiS in record numbers this year.

"PiS is the only party that can relieve us from the problem of immigrants and the EU, that can stand for Poland," Novak says.

Laying the groundwork

Roland Zarzycki decided to run on the Razem ticket to "offer people a positive choice." "The leading parties have used the refugee issue to build their political capital," he said. "They've inspired people to hate those refugees."

Over the past few years, Wroclaw has become a hotbed of ultranationalism, with concerts and sports events attracting a young radical scene from around central Europe. Wednesday's "Take Back Poland" march - held for the sixth time to mark the day in 1918 when Poland regained its independence from Russia, Prussia and Austria following 123 years of partitions - attracted a record number of participants. There were chants and banners that said "Down with the European Union" and "Say No to Islam."

"People felt they could come out in stronger numbers because of the results of the elections," said Matthew LaFontaine, a Razem party activist. "Law and Justice winning has put wind in the sails of the more extreme right-wing elements."

That the party of the young Wroclaw mathematician, in little time and with virtually no media coverage, passed the 3-percent threshold to receive state funding stands in contrast with the demise of the local Democratic Left Alliance. "That party did nothing to fight for a genuine leftist egalitarian, social agenda," says Adam Chmielewski, chair of social and political philosophy at the University of Wroclaw.

Renovated buildings in Wroclaw's Old Town

Wroclaw has become a place where far-right extremists come together

The current swing to the right doesn't bode well for tolerance for minorities, but "we are hoping that this period will be a time for the left wing to consolidate, and for women to become more active in the political arena," says Anna Zubrzycki, a leading theater voice here.

Wroclaw's "independent nature" could continue to be its strength, she says. Many in the new Razem party are young faces. They have little electoral political experience but years of involvement in the grassroots non-profit sector. "Perhaps we can locally retain an open voice?"

Whether Razem can turn its vision into political reality remains to be seen. For the time being Olimpia Swist isn't waiting for politicians to act. She is turning to Germany for ideas on how to welcome some of the 2,000 Syrians and Eritreans soon to arrive in Wroclaw's midst. "We could help people if we were prepared, but Poland does not want to think about it."

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