POLAND: Interview with Women on the Road Foundation – Women refugees sew masks for everyone in Poland

The epidemic has put us all on the same footing

Read our interview with Khedi Alieva from the Women on the Road Foundation, one of the seven laureates from the Civic Pride Awards of 2020.

We were afraid that we were not doing enough and not helping enough people, so we were even sleeping here at school to make more masks. So far, we sewed 31’000. We distributed masks to all Poland: in Churches, hospitals, nursing homes, schools… To our neighbours, Roma people, refugees, homeless people thought associations that support them…. whomever asked us on Facebook could come and pick up the masks. […] Throughout the lockdown, I was also so full of the believe that I would not get sick, that I would be okay and that gave me a lot of energy to work. Many people said that [seeing our effort] gave them a lot of energy and strength during the lockdown”, Khedi Alieva, Fundacja Kobiety Wędrowne

The Women on the Road Foundation is the first foundation in Poland led by a refugee woman. The group meets to sew clothes and discuss feminist topics as a form of integration. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, they started producing masks to distribute to the entire community and across Poland. They sewed over 31’000 masks.

Can you tell us about the Women on the Road foundation? When was it founded, who are its members and goals?  

Kobiety Wędrowne is the only foundation organised by refugee women in Poland with the goal to cooperate and live in peace together in Poland. The foundation is led by me and sociologist and psychologist from the Gdansk University Dorota Jaworska. We also created similar groups in other cities in Poland: in Warsaw and Grupa. For migrant women, it is often difficult to spend time outside the family so we thought that sewing together would be a good pretext for them to spend time outside the house. The women involved in the foundation are from Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Russia, Ukraine… Before the COVID situation, we were designing and producing dresses. We were going to sew some for women in refugee camps in Italy. I am a woman of the world. I touched dead human bodies with my hands as I was searching for the body of my husband who lost his life in the war in Chechnya. I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. When I heard about the situation of refugees in Italy, I got afraid that it might be a similar story. But I thought: I am strong also because of my past. With the dresses, we wanted to show them that they can also have their own goals and be active, instead of spending time thinking about dark memories. We had to interrupt this project because the pandemic started, but we hope to be able to resume it soon. 

What pushed you to get organised in Poland and what is it like to be a woman refugee and an activist in the country? 

When I arrived in Gdansk, I was thinking of the speech that Lech Walesa gave to the Congress of the United States ‘We the people..’ and I thought ‘Yes, I am a human too’. I believe in that statement because I fled war in my country with the hope to find peace in Poland. I wanted to show the Polish people here in Gdansk that even though I am different – I am a woman, a refugee, a Muslim… – I have the same feelings, hopes and rights as everybody else. I wanted them all to know that. 

When I came here, I felt like a child and when I met Dorota, she was walking me as a child, holding my hand. With the help of Dorota, I found that there are about 20 organisations working with refugees in Poland and they are doing a lot of great work, but none was founded by refugees. So, with Dorota, I decided to change this and start a foundation that would be led from the beginning by a refugee. For the next years, our goal is to prepare and train the younger generation to take the lead of the foundation one day. We started an informal group called ‘Not sweet girls’, with teenage refugees from USSR countries. We helped them write a project and they got a grant for it, so they are working on it now! Also, we thought that it would be good to find them mentors in the industries they would like to succeed in. For example, one of them would like to become a fitness instructor wearing hijab, another one has physical disabilities and the other one is a very skilled designer. We are looking for mentors to help each of them in the area they want to succeed. 

Do you consider yourself and your organisation feminist? 


What initiatives did you carry out to support people in your community during the pandemic? 

When the COVID broke out, we were somehow prepared: we had sewing machines and knowledge to use them. When I learned about the lack of masks in Poland, I thought that we, women from the foundation could help. I started reading how to make masks and with the internet, it was easy to find that out. Then there was the issue of the material. Somebody brought us fleece, a material used for medical purposes, but it can only be used once. I remembered that cotton is natural; you can wash it and use it again. So, I started to search for it. I found it quite quickly, but it was three times more expensive than fleece. I told the story of my life to the owners of a store and what I wanted to do with it. They gave me the material even if I was not able to pay them and they even took material that they were keeping for other customers. They believed that I was going to use it well. They were asking me how I was going to do with such a big bill, and I told them that people would help. And that was the case. My friends organised a fundraising action and they collected the money to pay all the material. In June I paid all my debts. To whom would ask, we said that we did not want money, we preferred receiving fabric, so people started organising to bring us material.  

We started producing the masks around 15 March. I went to the Director of this school, to ask for a space to manufacture masks. Schools were closed all across Poland and teachers were doing their lessons online. She took a risk: at that point it was not clear what the rules were going to be in the next period. She allowed us to use the school library to sew the masks. I started only with my sister. We wanted to keep it in the family, to avoid spreading the virus outside the family. Even my son decided to leave his job and started helping. When we started we had no food. At one point we were scared we could starve. But this did not happen because people, friends, neighbours started to prepare food and bring it to us for free. Then people also started asking to volunteer and help us sewing the masks. At the beginning we were refusing because it was too risky. But there were so many requests… so, we decided that they could sew the masks and leave them in boxes outside the school ‘quarantining’ for some time. 15 people helped; we gave them all the resources and knowledge to sew masks in their homes. We exchanged practices with five other civic organisations. We also cooperated with other migrants’ centres in Poland to sew the masks as well as with municipal and regional health, social welfare, education and security institutions. 

We were afraid that we were not doing enough and not helping enough people, so we were even sleeping at school to make more masks. So far, we sewed 31,000. We distributed masks in all Poland: in Churches, hospitals, nursing homes, schools… To our neighbours, Roma people, refugees, homeless people through associations that support them…. whoever was asking us on Facebook, could come and pick up the masks. At the beginning, it was impossible to buy masks, even online. We even gave them for free to shops. Then, when the situation with masks improved, we started producing medical overalls, fifty so far. Now, we are still sewing masks in the school during the summer break. We want to be prepared in case there is a second wave in the Autumn. 

Throughout the lockdown, I was also so full of the belief that I would not get sick, that I would be okay and that gave me a lot of energy to work. I even danced Chechen dances for people on the social media of the foundation. Dorota offered psychological support to peopleMany people said that we gave them a lot of energy and strength during the lockdownWe reached thousands of people. They believed in us and helped us. They trusted our story and our willingness to help. Some newspapers and media also picked up on the news. at the beginning, A very prominent local journalist was questioning why we were doing it,  if not for money. So, I showed him my bank account with only 10 Euro balance and he was shocked and moved. He started believing the story. 

Do you think that this story had an impact on the perception of migrants in the public? 

There is a common view of Poles as anti-migrants. But I do not believe this is true. The warmth that I received from people, especially during this action, really tells a different story. Polish people fed me and my family for three months. I am in contact with refugees from Chechnya in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Their situation is clear; they got the documents. On the contrary, I am still waiting for my documents. I have been waiting for too long, for seven years. But here in Poland I have the freedom to be who I want. I also lived in Austria for three months. Anywhere I go I like to be active but in Austria authorities stopped me from being active. My idea is that they wanted to keep refugees less educated. The system there is also very demoralising: when you are in the camps and you are not working, you receive more money than when you have a job. Somehow it was better not to work. I did not like that system. In Poland, it is very difficult from an economic point of view, but for me freedom is more important. For example, pursuing higher education instead of sitting demoralised and doing nothing. I had the opportunity to co-author a book for the University of Katowice with Dorota on the situation of Chechen people. 

Do you think that the freedom you perceived as a refugee is also connected with Gdansk pro-immigration policies? 

Yes. Since the first moment I arrived, I felt I belonged here, but the situation was quite difficult at the beginning. One day there was a celebration and the then-Mayor Mr Adamowicz was present. When he saw us, ladies dressed in colourful clothes and hijabs, he came to greet us and welcomed us.  

Is there a desire to get organised also transnationally in Europe?  

Dorota and I have been invited to go and meet other organisations in Germany, Italy, and Spain but because of my documents it is impossible for me to travel.  

Do you think that the European Union can be an ally in your struggle? In what way? 

Since the work of the association is becoming better known also at the international level, the Polish Ombudsman started looking into my situation, because the wait for my documents is too long. Some European officials have put pressure and that is helping. So, it might be over soon. 

What lessons can be learned from this initiative that can potentially inform a post-COVID-19 institutional and societal response? 

During the lockdown, through our activities many people got the knowledge and understanding for refugees and people coming with other cultures. I think that people are now richer with the experiences in their hearts and open to cooperation. Many people learned that life is the most important value and it must be protected. We hope that this initiative will be an example so that people will not give up in difficult times and will be able to support each other and not divide themselves into good and bad, weak and strong. The epidemic has put everyone on the same level.  We must learn to live together. Nobody should have the same dark experiences that I have had, so my lesson is: be alive and cherish your life! 

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