Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The First Floor People

By Johanne Luzyn

As we approached the summer program’s halfway mark, we had a chance to get to know Magda Szarota, our coordinator, wearing her other hat, as a representative of a minority group. But let us proceed chronologically.

Today's program started with an introduction by our director, Monika Mazur-Rafal, who introduced to us representatives of Poland’s Commission for Civil Rights Protection. This workshop offered us a unique opportunity to become familiar with the tasks and challenges of the country’s most important public institution in the field of human rights. Even though the session did not proceed exactly as we had anticipated, the panel discussion afterwards was very lively and informative.

In the second session, we had an opportunity to get to know by our coordinator Magda Szarota from another angle for the first time. She spoke to us today not as coordinator but as representative of the Association of Disabled Woman, also known as one.pl. After some words of introduction, Magda led the workshop which, in my opinion, was the best we have had so far. By sharing with us her personal story and her invisible disability, Magda brought the topic of discrimination of disabled people very close to us. I was particularly touched by her story as a student living in one of the best dormitories in Warsaw. Being the outgoing and friendly person that she is, Magda befriended other students, both domestic and international, living throughout on the dormitory on different floors. Slowly, however, she noticed that there was not much mingling between the people on the first floor and the others. While everyone was nice, open and friendly, the only difference between the first floor people and the others was that they were sitting in wheel chairs. The questions here are obvious: Why were they not spending time together? Why was there such a gap between the first floor people and the others? Was it the issue of disability? And what is disability? How can it be defined or rather can it be defined? Or is it rather a cultural construct? The discussion we had in small groups after this introduction was very intensive and invaluable and will stay with me long after the program.

Next, we met HIA senior fellows who represent minority groups in Poland and are engaged in different non-governmental organizations. Thanks to the discussion about our visions and ideas as well as the problems and obstacles faced by and within NGOs, we put our idealistic expectations in dialogue with objective conditions. Some of these challenges are now more concrete for us, and we know a bit more about what to expect in our future careers in these fields.

We ended the day with a discussion lead by two of our Fellows, Justyna Byczkowska and Yulia Vasyliv. We discovered that even after such a long day, we were still able to find many important topics to discuss, and no matter how much time we dedicated to dialogues, it never seemed to be enough. With every topic addressed, we’ve learned more. These questions were among a few that we debated: Who should represent minority groups in their struggle for human rights? What do we think about the idea of “positive discrimination”? Where does integration finish and at what point does assimilation begin? Obviously, these are not questions with simple answers. Although they tired us out at the end of today, we came to realize even more how important they are and we look forward to coming closer to some form of answer with more discussions and with our growing experience.

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