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Developing Human Capital

Connor Friesen interviews Ewa Sadowska of Barka UK.

Barka UK has a compelling history. In 2007, you opened your offices in London, where you work to provide severely excluded Eastern European migrants with the opportunity for reconnection and social reintegration, but the work of the larger Barka Network began long before this, and spans multiple countries and many programmes. Could you tell us more about this history? How did Barka begin? What motivated Barka in the beginning? What motivates Barka now? What inspires Barka in the UK?

Ewa Sadowska: Barka began in Poland in 1989. Following the end of communism, we had to rebuild all—the economy, democracy, we had to create new legislation. We were in a unique position; we were able to modernize because we were not tied by the past. Everything was destroyed, so we had space to build modern programmes of support for vulnerable people.

It was founded by my parents, Barbara and Thomas Sadowska—psychologists trained under communism. Both were very sensitive to peoples’ needs; even when working within communist institutions, they tried to make activities that would work with the needs of the institutionalized, rather than the rules of the institution. They organized trips and groups for the institutionalized. They realized that, on leaving institutions which replaced bad social habits with institutional rules, inmates would return to bad habits.

Following the end of communism, these institutions became unsustainable so Barbara and Thomas found an abandoned school in western Poland and began to set up a new kind of support for vulnerable people. They began with 20 patients from hospitals and inmates from prisons. I remember the house was in ruins. There were holes in the roof. It was colder inside than outside. My mother and I began to renovate together, creating smaller rooms and cultivating the surrounding land. We grew black-currents. We had a space for carpentry and a greenhouse.

Barbara and Thomas found an abandoned school in western Poland and began to set up a new kind of support for vulnerable people

They were successful psychologists—they could have had a good living in the city. It was considered crazy what they’ve done. Taking two daughters and living with the marginalized.

The 20 people who came to this house originally—the inmates and patients—helped with the rebuilding and the cultivation. They were a diverse group; there was a woman who came from the forest where she had done sex-work; there was a grandmother from the neighbouring village who had been evicted by her family for being a burden—we opened the door and she walked in in her slippers; there was a man who had lived in a bunker for 16 years. We became a close community and lived together for 8 years. We were around one another 24 hours a day. We ate at the same table.

We were like a social enterprise; we lived off of the work of our home. We opened a little shop. There were a few problems, alcohol relapses mainly. But my father had worked for 30 years in human reintegration, so he knew how complex it could be for people to create the conditions to rebuild their lives.

They were successful psychologists—they could have had a good living in the city. It was considered crazy what they’ve done. Taking two daughters and living with the marginalized.

Over the course of the years, the people in our community began to change for the better. A man who had always put himself at the edge of the group became more integrated—he began to eat at the table. One night my two year-old sister sat on his lap. This was a breakthrough moment for him; he was always scared of children, and children were scared of him… he didn’t have an eye—he took it out in prison. He slowly became more involved in the life of the community. He took care of the horses. Our house was not like a hostel or a shelter. It was not men only or women only; life is not like that. Life is men, women, children and grandparents. The house provided a natural situation for people to feel at home.

After 8 years, our enterprise began to expand. The leaders of this house, became the leaders of the next communities. It was in the National Treasury’s interest to have people attending to the upkeep of former state farms so the Treasury sold these at small price. These abandoned farms became the next Barka communities. It was important that these communities should grow fruits and vegetables for their community—to contribute to the community. It was important that these houses were not ready made—when our communities were working to rebuild their lives it was also important that they could work to rebuild their homes, to see their homes growing secure because of their work. In this way, they could take ownership.

In this way we created a network of communities. Now, there are 30 Barka communities across Poland. Seven years ago, the Barka Foundation encouraged these communities to become independent. Many are now established as charities and social enterprises. Some have Barka in their name, and others don’t. Importantly, they all work according to the same ethos. They are all legally members of the Barka network.

Alongside the growth of these enterprises, we were also doing work in education. In the late 90s, the Sadowskas realized that the people who needed help most had very little or no education. They started an education program in western Poland. They took possession of an old barracks and started the Social Integration Centre. We worked to teach skills: sewing, book binding, gardening, educational programs.

In the first years, we weren’t subsidized by the EU. The government looked at these experiments with great suspicion. They looked at us as a group of crazy people who were doing a social experiment. I think that the underlying motivation for my parents to begin Barka was a very Christian motivation, but of course they opened their doors to everyone.

At first, we called it quasi-social enterprise. We had heard about this idea from Italy where there were enterprises that helped people to integrate. In Italy there were organizations that had not only a financial motivation. My mother went to Italy and brought back a copy of their legislation on the Law on Social Cooperatives. We translated it, and introduced it to the Polish government. We argued that there was a need in Poland for such legislation.

Shortly after this, my parents were invited to speak at a conference at Warsaw University organized by Jerzy Hausner, a professor there. He was inspired that a handful of passionate people could create something out of nothing. We needed legislation that could support such organizations and later, when Prof. Hausner became the Polish Prime Minister, these legal acts were enforced by Polish Parliament—the Law on State Support for affordable housing projects (2000-2004), the Law on Social Employment, the Law on Social Cooperatives…

These are folk universities

Now, over 70 social integration centres have been established since this legislation was passed. These are training centres that encourage people to establish their own social enterprises and cooperatives. After leaving the centres, people have established gardening shops, rickshaw enterprises, catering businesses etc. These were inspired by the model of Danish Kofoed schools. This model sees human capital. They use informal education groups, skill sharing. These are folk universities.

We were making good progress in Poland, and then there was an invitation from London. We wouldn’t have come here if there was no need. We answered the unofficial invitation from a senior official at Hammersmith and Fulham council. It was a personal letter asking for help with the dozens of people who were living on the streets near Ravenscourt Park. They had no language, no prospects, they didn’t understand the system. The official came to see the work we were doing at Barka and wrote a report comparing our different approaches to welfare. Barka made a reciprocal study-visit to the UK, and shortly after Bernadette Cassidy offered Barka a house in Islington to establish operations. This is how it started.

Migration disrupts the personal networks of migrants. How does Barka UK re-establish supportive networks?

Barka UK’s first program is called Reconnection. We work to re-establish links between Eastern European nationals and their families. Since European expansion, nearly 3 million eastern Europeans have come to western Europe. We work with people who have made this move and, as a result, have touched the bottom of human existence. We take outreach teams out to meet eastern European nationals. We work in 8 London councils. We meet with people to establish relationships and trust, and encourage them to return to vocational training within the Barka network in London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Dublin, and in Poland. 60% of these people return to their families.

Critics say that this work is merely 'cleaning the streets of London for the Olympics.'

Many migrants are very successful in London, but a minority don’t make it. For those who spent most of their life under communism, they find it quite difficult to make a transition to such a strong capitalist market. The success of the Reconnection project comes down to the project “leaders.” These are people who have experienced hardship themselves. They have covered the path from exclusion to integration. They are now successful community leaders. They come to London for brief visits to work with homeless eastern European nationals.

Leaders work with “assistants.” These assistants are translators—Polish nationals with backgrounds in psychology, sociology etc who are formally prepared to work with vulnerable individuals.

Leaders have street wisdom. Assistants have formal training. Leaders immediately find a common language with homeless people. Both leaders and assistants see vulnerable people though the path to reintegration.

It is often a complex psychological problem for people to return to their families, but Leaders can help them to reconcile themselves.

Barka also provides communities for people to return to if they cannot return to families. People in the communities can often be encouraged to contact their families once they have begun to rebuild. These places work to be a safe haven for rebuilding. One member of a community described it as a place to get your teeth back, and as  ‘a piece of sober heaven.’ A video on this theme is available here.

Critics say that this work is merely “cleaning the streets of London for the Olympics.” But we never do this with the intention to clean the streets. We do this to help people who didn’t have luck. Of course they are free citizens. They can come back with better language skills. More prepared. Migration should be encouraged.

Barka UK’s second programme works to support those who are marginalized but are not yet at the bottom of existence. These people have lost their jobs recently and are at risk of eviction. This is called the Social Economy Centre Programme

It’s funded by Oak foundation. It’s a pilot focused on helping people gain and maintain employment. This is for people who don’t have the support groups that they have at home.

This programme stays open on the weekend. We work with enterprise development workers, sociologists and psychologists to build the capacities of marginalized people.

Now, in our second year, the programme is looking to establish networks with potential employers. Last year, we worked with 60 persons and 60% of these people entered employment and maintained it. The rest are still coming to sessions.

What kind of support do you hope to see, at an EU level, for the Barka Network?

Study visits have been organized to spread the Barka network’s methods. There is a need for longer visits. We are looking for funding for exchanges or work placements.

Governments have not taken responsibility for creating safety nets for those affected by communist collapse. There has been no support from the Polish government for Barka UK, following some initial funding in 2007.

We work with Polish people, Romanians, Lithuanians, and Bulgarians, but there is no support or interest from any of these governments and there seems to be no other organizations doing what Barka is doing for these nationals.

The Reconnections model and Social Economy Centre model have shown themselves to be successful and they should be replicated across Europe but we need the capacity to train staff.

Why did you choose to connect to Social Innovation Europe? How can it help your work?

We want to participate in events and network with people who are working in innovation across sectors.

Through the initiative, I have met many inspiring people with whom we could form partnerships.

Barka UK is only 4 years old, so we are still a toddler. We are still not oriented when it comes to looking for funds. We need fundraising strategies. I need to know where to look for funds.