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Julia Salerno
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One of the most difficult choices in parents’ life is the school (or kindergarten) for their children. When you are abroad this choice becomes a little bit more complicated than in your homeland.

Language/system of teaching suddenly becomes a problem. When it comes to Poland, many parents find it difficult to help their kinds with language they also have to study. Sometimes they don’t want to learn language because they know that they are going to leave the country within a year or two. The necessity of safe system of education, that can be applied in any country in the world, is urgent and so that they often choose international school.

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"Oh, don't be silly - EVERYONE wants this. Everyone wants to be ‘us’".  (From the film Devil Wears Prada).

People move all the time, for many different reasons. Warsaw is not the kind of place you would move to for pleasure. Most of the people I know in Warsaw, came here for work with their whole families, sent by a company to stay for a couple of year, sometimes more, sometimes they don’t even know for how long. Such international “working-migrants” are called by companies the “expats”.

The expatriation brings a lot of benefits to the families: international schools, health insurance – privileges that are not affordable for them in the countries of origin. They get new, higher social status. However, the price they must pay is usually very high. Very often all these changes trigger off major family problems. Women find themselves in a new situation, when they used to work in their homelands. Now, their full time job is taking care of the children, usually alone as husbands are working out, and traveling very often. They have to deal with teachers, doctors, nannies who doesn’t speak their language or have a different attitude to basic issues like education of their kids. Without grandparents, uncles or any other relatives nearby, kids put all of their anxiety and feeling on their parents’ shoulders. If you add a long, dark winter you will get an explosive mixture. Many families broke apart. Women get depressed, sometimes their husbands start to cheat on them, have love affairs with local women.

In media the feminism in back – in a fashionable way. Emma Watson, Hillary Clinton, the Pussy Riot, Angela Merkel. Every day the list of the most influential women in the world extends. There are thousands of articles concerning women employed in places considered to be men’s domain. Many journalists write about gender. Sheryl Sandberg (the famous Facebook CEO) repeats all the time that “women can have it all”. That means to be young, have children and a prestigious job that brings you a lot of money. We are talking all the time about female power, women empowerment. But the key issue is still the same: men earn more money than women. So when it comes to migration, women quit their less profitable jobs. Of course, the world is full of examples of women who have no other choice, and would love to spend more time at home, with their kids. Instead, they are full time working as a supermarket cashiers or babysit someone’s else children. In theory, there’s no better life than such: wife devotes herself to home, kids and husband, while he is earning the money. But this happens because men earn more than women. So when the offer of expatriation appears on the horizon, it is very hard to say “no” – a woman has to admit that she earns less and accept the situation. I also know cases of women earning good salaries, which still remained nothing to compare with benefits the family could get living abroad.
So, the wife quits her job, and from this time she deals with classic “poison envy” image. Friends think that everything she does is shopping, parents ask why she stays the whole day at home instead of earning for a living, husband controls the credit card because he pays the bills.

 

Most of expat women I have met in Warsaw, would have agreed with this meme. Many times we have discussed all this issues (money, kids, the way marriage changes when one of the spouses stops to work outside, etc.). We have started our friendships accidently, in schools our kids attended. We all have shared the same problems: how the personal project became a family one, difficulty to adopt in Warsaw. But the largest one is loneliness.

A very close friend of mine, who has been an expat for many year, told me once: “If you do not see it as a family project, you’re dead”. Ana stayed in Warsaw for one year, then she moved to Greece. “Expatriation would be almost perfect if all members of the family would see it as a family project. The problem is: if you are someone with both feet on the ground, it’s very hard to change the attitude. Firstly, it’s difficult because of the feeling of self-sacrifice for the family, then for husband’s career and finally, your own husband does not see it as a family project. They think that what we do is less important. We are like ants, our work is not a priority because it consists of simple things – but all of them are part of life. Someone has to deal with everyday tasks (cloths, lunches, buses, clubs, etc.). Some think that nanny can take care of all these things, but not. And if you think so, I invite you to try.”

Ana is 40 years old, she has a degree in marketing and is experienced account supervisor. Before she expatriated to Poland, she worked in event company in Madrid. Her previous expatriation was in Portugal, where she did not have difficulties with language and without children, she had no problem finding a job. However, this did not applied to Poland and Greece. This is why her professional career became less important than her husband’s.

“When I left to Portugal, my first expatriation, I worked at Wanadoo. It was the era of  “dot-coms”. My career was not spectacular, but the salary was above average, just like my position in the company. At that time I was single and I did not have children. I've always joked that I found it easier at that time to find another job, another boyfriend. Those were different times and now I think it was not just a joke, it was a big truth. Now we have a huge economical crisis, I had too long break in my professional life. Now I’m 40 years old, and I have two daughters. Is much easier for me to change a husband, rather than profession!”
The family seems to be the only project that fits expatriation. All mothers I have spoke to say that: “if we had stayed in our home countries, I would have worked and probably would not have spent so much time with my children”.

We have easy motherhood, paid household help, time to help children with a homework and possibility of sending them to international schools. But at the same time our children have to rise without grandparents and uncles, away from unconditioned help.

But this project has a limit – the school age of children. Life comes to the point when kids become more independent, spend the whole day at schools ¬– mother, left behind wonders all the time what happened with her professional life.

They have quit their jobs to follow their husbands, and if they arrived for example to Poland, they encounter the difficulty of learning complex language to work in their profession. A language that perhaps they have never planned to learn. Salaries paid in Polish currency are not sufficient to pay for the baby sitter and every day bills.

The language barrier is the most difficult to overcome. Polish language schools for foreigners are full of  “expats”. Many of them speak Polish on a very high level, but they limit the use of it to shopping and solving minor problems. There is not more need to communicate. Nobody’s waiting for your emails in Polish.

“Our husbands frequently change offices, have assistants or secretaries who often speak their language, or in worst case, communicate in English – better or worse, but in the second case companies provide language courses to improve your linguistic skills”.In the meantime you are trying to say “milk” in Polish, Greek, Russian or Arabic, or trying to understand the owner’s manual of the washing machine with the help of Google translator. Ana told me: “We must learn to live in the environment that does not know a single word in our language. I laugh when people say “everyone here speaks English”. Where, in which world? Yours, or ours? The cleaning lady doesn’t speak English, salesman does not speak English, the guy who sales the bus tickets does not speak English. Multilingualism exists inside skyscrapers and in certain circles, but is not a part of housekeeper’s life”.

Ana concludes: “The good sided of expatriation? Well, I guess that I have balanced and stable family where mother is the main bond. I really hope that my daughters will have better future because of that. Although, I hope they will not do the same. If this lifestyle is so great as people say, I would like to ask those people if they want their daughters to be expats in the future. And I hope we are the last generation of expat women”.

Written by Julia Salerno

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It may be that you have only recently come to Warsaw with your family, you don’t know Polish and are wondering how to cope with all the things you have to do:  how to choose an interesting place to live; where to send your children to school; how to take out health insurance for the whole family; how to obtain a Polish driving licence so that you can drive your children to school; is it necessary to get a babysitter for your child, and if so, where to find her; where to buy fresh vegetables; where to enrol on Polish language classes, and, most importantly, how to get in touch with people who speak your language or at least English?

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