Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
STAN (STANISLAW) KIERPACZ (# 18)
Stan (Stanislaw) Kierpacz
Born in Żary, Poland
Father & Mother both born in Poland
Ethnic heritage / Father: Roma (Kalderary) / Mother: Roma (Polska Roma)
Stan’s parents were both ethnically Roma and they followed the age-old traditions of their people, travelling through Poland in their caravans and working mainly as tinkers. Baby Stanislaw was born in Żary, a small town close to the German border, but shared the nomadic lifestyle of his parents for only two years; in 1964, the Polish authorities simply outlawed the Roma tradition of being perpetually on the move. This draconian statute had a devastating effect on Poland’s Roma communities who voiced considerable opposition to it - this was hardly surprising, of course, as the very idea of having a permanent residence was anathema to Roma in that part of the world. Stan says: “Along with many others, my father decided not to take this lying down and my family continued to travel despite the monstrous new law. But this rebellion was short-lived: the Police were frequently on our trail and one day, on the basis of some trumped-up charge (‘damaging the landscape’) Father was thrown into a jail for a year and my family was left with no breadwinner.”
Of course, there were some Roma families who complied with the new rules and who applied to the authorities for houses or flats to live in, but all they were offered was property that was substandard, often empty and neglected, almost derelict. In some cases, there were hardly any services laid on and, of course, there was virtually no financial assistance to facilitate the transition of the Roma to a settled existence. The law was clearly a vindictive attempt to destroy the Roma way of life in Poland and the state clearly had no intention of providing any adequate help to assist the families and individuals who were affected by such a radical change. Those families who fought back and who continued to travel were systematically persecuted - established practice was to arrest and imprison the head of the family, the breadwinner, and then, in his absence, force the rest of the family to settle. These were usually large families with 5 or 6 children, as well as other dependents, so this strategy was not only tough but also, sadly, quite effective. Stan’s family was no exception; he was one of nine children, having four brothers and four sisters.
Though they ceased to be peripatetic, Stan’s family continued to move periodically from place to place, moving between the camps of associated families, until he was seven, that is, when they sort of settled in Nysa, close to the border with Czechoslovakia. This was the oldest town in Silesia, a town which had changed hands, having been from 1342 to 1742 amongst lands held by the Bohemian Crown. Ironically, the law which destroyed Stan’s family way of life gave him the advantage of continuous education: at the age of seven, he attended primary school in Nysa where he stayed for 8 years. Speaking mainly Roma and having only moderate Polish, Stan was unable to read or write in Polish so the first two years of his education were tough. “Roma children were often sent to ‘special schools’,” says Stan, “and these often proved to be of poor quality, badly funded and ill-equipped; their segregation from Polish children was perceived by many to be not only necessary but also desirable. I was lucky; I attended an ordinary school and so was able to mix with other children. I was also lucky in having a form teacher who recognised that though I needed help, I had eagerness to learn; she gave me additional attention, taught me after formal classes were over, and even found me a kind adult friend who gave me supplementary lessons.”
Stan continues: “As a youngster, I had naturally been fully expecting to follow the traditional Roma way of life, but once at school, I started to see that there were other options; these were available to the Polish children and might, I thought, possibly be open even to me. I started to think differently and also questioned the things which I had taken for granted until only a short while before.” Inevitably, with his dense, dark hair and swarthy complexion, Stan was labelled as a Gypsy from the outset; he was an outsider in his class and the early years of his education were hard. “When we were asked to pair up and form a ‘crocodile’, when venturing into the big, wide world outside the school - the way little children do everywhere - no-one would ever choose to walk with me, no-one even wanted to hold my hand. We Roma children were well used to this sort of experience but the rejection was always painful, nonetheless.”
“Things did change however, and slowly I started to integrate; the old preconceptions people had had about us Roma gradually lessened and I even managed to have some friends with whom I played and fooled about.” Stan had started school with a distinct disadvantage, he carried the ancient stigma of being a Gypsy; he felt that in comparison with the other children, he was likely to grow up to be nothing but a failure. However, some years later, and thanks to the additional tuition he received, he surpassed his own modest expectations, even outperforming other children in the class. For the first time, Stan started to feel that he too might be able to become part of prosperous mainstream society in modern Poland. He realised that, while respecting his traditional roots, he did not have to be bound by them, that he might be content being both included yet different, in Roma society and in Polish society too. Now able almost to embrace the ‘otherness’ within himself, Stan finished school at the age of 15, a smart, handsome and confident teenager.
Asked how he had coped with the challenges of being a teenager, Stan replied: “Well, unlike youngsters in Polish families, we were much more controlled and watched over by parents and elders and the question of discipline hardly ever arose. We also understood how difficult life was for our parents. Of course, there were temptations all around us but being pretty keen on sports, and on Karate especially, I kept clear of alcohol and this was a huge advantage. I was also a good dancer and won quite a few local competitions, as well as the hearts of some local beauties. I began to have something of a profile in the local community which had been either hostile or indifferent towards me as a growing boy. ”
Stan kept in touch with his teachers and recently, he visited and spoke with one of them, by now a rather elderly lady. She told him how she had admired his efforts and how she took pride in his success to date, especially the fact that he had managed to achieve significantly more than many of the other children in his class, children who were far more privileged than he was.
Stan continued his education in a local Technical College, learning to become a mechanic; he completed his training when he was 20. Though he didn’t excel in the college, thanks to the encouragement of his Karate instructor, he did work hard and passed all the required (A-Level type) exams with flying colours - indeed, he was the only one to do so in his class. But what proved the more significant development of his college years, certainly in the long term, was Stan’s decision, at the age of 16, to join a Karate club. “Having completed College successfully, my thoughts turned to university as a real option, an option which quite a few took up. Of course, it was a very rare thing indeed for a Roma to consider applying for a university education, even to study physical education.” Stan did go on to sit the entry exams for the university but having ascertained that Stan was a ‘Cygan’ (a Gypsy) the examiner told him: “This is not the place for you, you should be in the woods instead of taking the place of other people ... ” and that was the end of the education road for Stan. He had gone as far as a bright Roma boy could go in Poland at that time. Stan joined his father’s enterprise and worked as a tinker, his family’s trade for generations perhaps; it provided him with a reasonable living but, above all, it gave him the time to pursue his Karate interests.
Stan had always felt strongly that he would follow the age-old tradition of his people and marry a Roma girl but when it came to it, he didn’t; at the age of 25, he took a Polish wife instead. But he did bring her into his family where she willingly adopted the Roma way of life and where, along with their two daughters and one son, she was embraced and made welcome by his extended family and the Roma community at large.
Stan and his family suffered at the hands of prejudiced Poles but in spite of this, like many Roma, he remained proud of his family’s ethnicity, their way of life, beliefs and traditions. “I felt proud to be Roma,” Stan says, “but to be honest the worst discrimination and humiliation we experienced was at the hands of the Polish authorities and their officials.” Stan tells the story of his efforts to obtain an Identity Card, a compulsory document for everyone in Poland at that time. “When I was 16, I got called in by the local Police to be photographed and fingerprinted - the same way that criminals are. When I protested and expressed my dismay at this treatment, they told me that they were just following orders from the senior officers above them. So, having committed no crime whatsoever, as an absolutely law-abiding citizen, I now had a Police record. In the minds of many Poles, all Roma men were seen as potential criminals and, of course, these were still the days of the communist regime. I knew I had no option but to comply, despite the fact that everyone knew only Roma were subjected to this humiliating procedure.”
Without his police record, of course, Stan would not have been able to obtain his essential Identity Card. By now, he was only too accustomed to the behaviour of the officers of the state to be shocked or surprised when, on going to pick up his new ID Card, he found his name listed not amongst his Polish peers but unusually, in a separate, supplementary file boldly labelled ‘Cyganie’ (Gypsies). “It hurt; you felt humiliated; but what could you do? Over time, you just developed a thick skin.” Stan remembers the days when the local police would pick up a Roma family walking on the street, take them to the police station, detain them, and them drive them well out of town and drop them there, miles from anywhere, so they had a long way to go to get back home. “They did it just for the sake of it, just because they could - deliberate acts of provocation.”
Having failed to get to university, Stan’s progress in the field of Karate was impressive. Clearly talented, eager to learn, dedicated, and with almost unstoppable ambition, Stan progressed through the ‘coloured belts’ of distinction with remarkable speed and ease, culminating with his acquisition of the ultimate accolade, the black belt, at the age of 23. After this, he gradually acquired the necessary qualifications to train others. “The method and rigour of Karate training had a profound effect on my life: it changed me physically but also mentally and spiritually. I started to look at people as individuals, in a holistic, rounded way rather than from the narrow Gypsy perspective of my past. It brought into my life a sense of peace and equilibrium which characterised my outlook on life into the future.”
Asked about his experience of the upheavals in Poland’s political system in 1989, and how these changes had affected his life, Stan recalls: “I joined in the celebrations with most other people, hoping and believing that the new system would, amongst other improvements, bring about positive change for minorities like the Roma who had been belittled, oppressed and vilified under the Communist regime. We Roma had become accustomed to this treatment and, to be honest, never really blamed the local officials; we had the impression that they were just following orders and carrying out policy formulated much higher up, in the Communist bastions of power. Of course, we had seen ordinary Poles subjected to the most appalling treatment too, but the Roma always felt they received the worst treatment of all - we were always seen as outsiders despite the fact that we had lived in Poland for generations. After the fall of Communism, the Roma began to assert their voice, started to demand an acknowledgement of their history, and wanted public recognition of the fact that the majority of Polish Gypsies had been killed during World War II - something that had hardly ever been mentioned during the Communist era.”
Stan continues: “To be fair, at that time, we did not have the intelligent, well-educated and articulate spokespersons to put across our point of view and to represent the Roma as a social and political force in Poland, and that had to change. And it did begin to change, gradually, especially after the fall of the Communist regime and then with Poland joining the EU. Positive initiatives sprung up throughout Poland and these began to transform the lives of our people - it was a sort of Roma ethnic reawakening. In the past, as I had discovered for myself, university education for aspiring Roma had always been out of the question - the elaborate points system required to enter the ‘palaces of learning’ never quite seemed to add up for us; we were just never allowed to take part in higher education. I had been told to go ‘back to the woods, where I belonged‘ and my experience was typical. Roma people started to agitate for equal rights in other spheres of life too, not just in education but in work, culture, sports, the economy and in society as a whole. I had been one of the lucky ones; my own teacher had genuinely helped me to develop my potential, helped me to be independent and to think differently from many of the young men in our Roma community. Others had been less lucky: dumped in the dreadful ‘special schools’, they never developed their potential or made use of the natural talents they had. They were written off by a racist society as uncivilised and undeserving, as a people who did not belong in decent, mainstream society.”
When Poland joined the EU, some of the Roma were sceptical about the putative improvements in the lot of Poland’s Roma communities and decided to leave at the first opportunity. They went to western countries, including Britain, in search of more congenial environments, hoping for greater acceptance and a better prospect of integration for their children into the life of the host community. Poland was already part of the EU when Stan decided that England might well offer his children better opportunities in life. One of his sisters had already lived in England for a number of years and while she did not influence his decision directly, her presence here made the relocation of the whole family to the UK considerably easier. In 2006, Stan was already 45, so his relocation to his adopted new country, with hardly any command of English, was problematic: “To be honest, I recognised that such a move was never going to be easy for me but, on the other hand, I didn’t see myself spending the rest of my days here. I continue to feel a strong attachment to the place where I was brought up, my parents are buried there and I do see myself going back.”
Having chosen to bring his family to London, Stan was asked what kind of welcome they received in England, a land not exactly free from discrimination and the historic vilification of certain minorities - Jews and Gypsies in particular: “I was conscious that I was seen by others as a Roma first; ethnicity is always seen first and it takes time for one to be recognised as a person, for what one really is. In that respect, I was no different from any new arrival to Britain, but I do have to say that I was offered friendly advice by a well-established Turkish fellow Karate trainer that I should avoid describing myself as Roma. He helped me greatly to establish myself here in the London world of Karate teaching and he urged me unequivocally to dissemble, to conceal my Roma identity if I wanted to be readily accepted and to do well. He used to say to me: ‘There is nothing wrong with you being a Gypsy, but it is better that you don’t mention it to others.‘ I must say that this went rather against the grain, as I had actively participated in setting up organisations representing Roma interests in Poland and in helping to promote our culture and traditional heritage. Having now to deny all that again felt like a really retrograde step. I do recognise that in the past, the Roma themselves had almost encouraged segregation, living a separate, nomadic existence, not mixing with their host communities, but I always saw this as an understandable defence mechanism, that we had developed over centuries - a sort of protective barrier against the intense discrimination our people had lived through.”
When Stan and his family arrived in London, they got to know the Roma Support Group, based in East London, who work with East European Roma refugees and migrants. Since 1998, they have helped thousands of Roma families, offering them a variety of services. But they do more than that, they engage the Roma community in all aspects of running and managing the organisation and promoting an understanding of Roma culture in the UK. Stan says: “I was very very lucky; Sylvia, a senior member of the organisation, helped me enormously. She is one of those people who just make things happen, who find a way ... I came to her with an idea of offering Karate training lessons to Roma youngsters, to keep them off the streets, to keep them occupied, and to help keep them away from drugs, alcohol and delinquency, and within the framework of the Roma Support Group, Sylvia made it all possible. I worked there for nine months as a volunteer and then she managed to get a sponsor for this extraordinarily successful and well-attended programme which continues to this day.”
Stan is someone who understands the importance of setting targets and striving to achieve them; he tries to inculcate this approach in others too. Coming across as a charmingly modest high achiever, Stan entered the young team of five he had trained in the National Karate Competition, in the year 2008, returning home with two gold, one silver and two bronze medals - all this the result of just over two years’ training.
Stan continues his recent story: “I now teach Karate to young Muslims, recent arrivals from Africa and Asia, including Japanese boys and teenagers, and of course, I still work with Roma and Polish youngsters. I especially enjoy working with those who are described as difficult children, those who have behaviour difficulties at home and at school, because I know that Karate training is capable of changing a young person’s outlook and behaviour. It promotes respect and teaches the importance of personal discipline; indeed, one frequently receives positive feedback from parents and from teachers who recognise the changes that have taken place. Of course, one cannot demand respect; one has to earn it by example. I therefore always approach others, and especially those whom I train, in a way that shows my own respect towards them. Only then, do I have the expectation that this respect will be returned towards me and to others in the team. It is a winning formula.”
Lately, Stan and his team of youngsters took part in the European Karate Competition, held in Poland. They trained very hard indeed and he made it clear to them that he wasn’t the one who would be winning any trophies, it would have to be them. Faced with fierce competition from 500 eager contestants from 10 European countries, Stan’s young team walked away with four bronze medals - not bad for their very first international competition.
Asked how he feels about the frequently negative, often hostile, coverage in the British press and the other mass media, coverage vilifying Roma both in London and in the country at large, Stan replies: “It is not just Gypsies who roam the parks, sleep rough, walk dirty and steal from shops; they just happen to be the ones who are currently in the sharpest focus. The whole issue of the Romanians who are expected to flood into England does not help because many people, out of pure ignorance, assume that most of these Romanians will be Gypsies.” (As matter of fact, the Romanian Roma are a very small minority, being just over 3% of the total population.)
Having experienced serious discrimination in Poland, where his people were vilified and humiliated, Stan is asked how his experience in England has differed: “Of course, both my family and I have experienced hostility and discrimination in Britain too - in many ways, the struggle just continues. Discrimination against the Roma has very deep roots in Europe and it will take a long time to erase, and we, the Roma people, have to play an active part in this process. The Roma Support Group has an important role too - they help us in many ways, supporting those in difficulty but also educating others and trying to promote the positive in our community.”
Having gleaned some understanding of how Stan has felt as an outsider, both in Poland and here in Britain, and taking into account the disadvantages described in this article, he is asked what, if any, he would see as the advantages of being a Roma: “I feel that we Roma, always faced with adversity, have made sure to teach our youngsters the importance of interdependence and self-discipline which seem so often absent from the host communities; we also teach and promote family values and the importance of our traditions. Personally, I learned to strive harder; in order to succeed, I knew I simply had to be better than all the others. The fact that I succeeded in gaining an education, and later managed to become professionally involved in Karate, gave me advantages which I still benefit from every day. It gives me great satisfaction and pleasure to pass these life skills on to others, to the new generation. No-one can point a finger in my direction and say, ‘He is just a Gypsy, so he must be no good’.”
Asked if he had the option, would he choose not to be an outsider, Stan replies: “I am proud to be Roma and if that makes me an outsider, so be it. The experience made me strong and, I believe, a better and more rounded person too.”
I should like to record my thanks to Eva Blonska for generously volunteering her time to provide simultaneous translation for this interview - as Stan’s English is not quite yet fluent, it was agreed that this interview would be best conducted in Polish.
Interview Date: 19th September 2013
Updated: 15th October 2013
To learn more about and perhaps support the work of the Roma Support Group go to:
Stan’s family, like many Roma, suffered prejudice both at the hands of ordinary Poles and the Communist authorities too. Immediately labelled a Gypsy at school, Stan was an outsider from the beginning and, while he made a success of his education, he was denied a place at university. Undaunted, he pursued a parallel interest in Karate, securing his Black Belt at 23, then training to teach others. Stan now teaches Karate in the UK and enjoys motivating kids with behavioural difficulties; he believes Karate can change a youngster’s outlook. Sadly, in Britain, Stan and his family continue to suffer discrimination - the vilification of the Roma has deep roots in Europe and it will be a long time before the Roma people cease to be looked upon as ‘outsiders’.
Photography: London 19th September 2013