She rose back from rock bottom

Author: Magdalena Olczak

 

Weronika is disabled. How do I know this? One can’t tell by just a quick glance. Even looking very hard one can’t see anything that would mark Weronika out from the crowd. I met her shopping. It happened in a jewellery shop and decorative accessories made by the blind, mute and deaf at special workshops. A magical place because you can only find such pendants here. I heard that this cosy boutique is also the seat of an institution for professional activity. Working here people with some degree of disability can earn money and, also learn how to behave on the labour market. Weronika works there as a sales assistant. I bought earrings once here – I liked them so much that I became her regular customer. The name I gave her in this essay is not the name engraved on the plastic plaque of an identity card. Why? Few of her colleagues know that for more than six months their friend has been certified as a disabled person.

 

Model’s sizes

Why should I believe that she is somehow different, ill? When I first met her she seemed very stressed out about our conversation. Perhaps everyone being asked questions by a strange woman would react in that way? She wore red sandals. A leather strap was twining her ankle tight and, thank to massive soles, she was 7-8 centimetres taller than she’d be barefoot. Plus she wore a mid-calf-length black linen dress with a wide belt of the same fabric and a skin tight fiery red, turtleneck blouse. She often used to nervously sweep her dense, blond, curly hair with her fingers as if she played the harp. She looked at me from under thick, black-rimmed glasses. She sought validation of what she was saying in this look.

‘Don’t you agree that these earrings are exceptional? Every item here has a soul, everything tells a story,’ she ensured. One could sense in her voice a lack of belief that she finds these items somewhat unique, although she behaved like a professional saleswoman. She was well prepared, knew everything about materials, allergies they may cause and how to avoid them.

‘What’s wrong with that girl?’ – I asked myself walking out from the shop.

Weronika works in a so-called ‘institution for professional activity’. This place is an entry to the real labour market, where one has to jostle for employment and fight to keep it.

‘I gave myself and my strength a try. I want to know if I could cope with all duties. Luckily enough, I don’t have to participate in the ret race,.’ Weronika concludes.

Why does she need to be in this ‘entry’? After all, her dossier consists of two diplomas from prestigious European universities. She speaks two foreign languages fluently and she knows another two well enough to sit end-of-term exams. One can also find in her CV several internships served at European Union bureaux. Meanwhile, she tells me she works on a part-time basis. ‘How much could she earn?’ – I don’t dare to ask. Not much, I suppose. With her education she could have been a manager, for instance, or stayed at the university and had an academic career. Beside Weronika, there are other people employed. Some help their customers, some advertise the firm and others do the accounting. I’d like to give you the name of this charity organisation, established fifteen years ago by several healthy, not disabled people. The Reason why they did it? Quite simply, the urge to help others.

I won’t tell you this organization’s name. I was asked not to. All I can say is that for more than ten years they prevented social exclusion. It’s hard to believe that in a country where civic society started to develop in the 1970s and 1980s, so many NGOs exist. Setting up a Workers’ Defence Committee was the milestone. Social initiative became a sparkle which later on stood up against socialism. “Solidarity” and activity in the underground taught the Polish to stick together above all divisions. This instilled in the Polish a spirit of unity towards a common goal. Maybe our national drawback is a poor memory. Thirty years after this breakthrough, social activity has decreased to one of the lowest levels for years. According to the “Klon-Jawor” Society survey, in 2006 social activity of the Polish was only 14.2% while two years earlier this figure oscillated around 23%. The number of newly established NGOs has decreased too. Have we forgotten what has liberated us? Don’t we value our sovereignty anymore? I was meditating upon this together with Weronika – an expert in this topic.

 

Young, talented, active

Volunteering for others was to her as much a part of everyday life as buying bread.

‘One doesn’t become a participant of social life at birth. It’s an attitude one has to develop for years.’ – says Weronika, a political scientist. All the years spent at school were for her a never ending organizing job. First at school it was a newspaper, then theatre and school government.

‘Every month we were doing something: we were collecting food at Christmastime, we organised dog exhibitions, young talent contests, whatever you can imagine.’ she explains passionately. She didn’t waste her time. She had straight As, so she decided to apply to the best high school in her city, which was also high up in national rankings.

‘It was a school where even students’ suicides happened. The pressure was devastating, enormous for such young people.’ – she says. All those activities were for Weronika an escape from this stressful life. Later, they helped her to survive at school without harm.

 

An effort that pays off

A graduate of one of Poland’s best high schools decides to study abroad. With her ambitions, she considers only Europe’s most acclaimed universities. She was accepted at a college at which attended current and past national leaders, ministers, scientists, people who shape the continent’s direction. Why there? Because she knew the language of lectures very well, and ‘If I managed to get there, why not?’ – later it turned out to be a bad decision.

‘I had too many subjects. I couldn’t keep up with the tempo. I had no time for a bit of fun, for friends. – she recalls. ‘I never needed to manage with household duties, like cooking or doing laundry. I missed my parents’ warmth and their support.’

 

I hate the smell of mouldy leaves

It was the month when an Indian summer turns foul. At that time the air fills with the smell of rotting leaves. Late evening, Weronika was going back home, as usual past 9 pm. Down the park lane, between the library and university campus. Puddles, laying every few yards, reflected dim streetlamps’ light. The weather wasn’t cold, it wasn’t warm. She was wearing a thick green coat, a woollen coat one should wear during the first winter frosts. She buttoned it up high or maybe not. That’s all she can recall. It takes about twenty minutes of relaxed walking to get through the park. She doesn’t hurry this evening. She’s tired and she wants to unwind. She’s happy it’s not raining today, she doesn’t have to go through dense fog, which is quite normal here.

Weronika can’t remember what happened later. She doesn’t want to remember. She can’t remember. She was shocked. Today she has a blank in memory. So much, and only that much. ‘I was raped. All my problems began on that particular day.’ Weronika told me, I don’t know what to tell her. I lowered my eyes and she kept speaking, unasked. I didn’t dare to ask her another question. She can remember herself in bed. A fluffy, red, checked blanket itched almost every inch of her body. She cried but not much. No one could know what happened. Even her parents, they were far away anyway. ‘I haven’t shared my story with anyone for two years. It was stuck inside of me and couldn’t leave my body, my mind alone. This rape poisoned me, poisoned me every day more.’

 

Good luck doesn’t last forever

‘Take a look – that’s how I looked before it happened. This picture was taken before I went abroad for studies.’ says Weronika showing a green document with the imprinted name of an elite university. ‘And here I am when I had to make a new ID card. It was half year after all those nasty events.’ she pulls out a new Polish red identity card. On the first picture I see a girl with blond hair falling over her shoulders. She might be a romantic with a habit of reading overnight Shakespeare unabridged. She stares with huge green glassless eyes. She’s girlier than one can ever imagine. Now Weronika points at the second photograph. ‘I weighed 78 kg here, while on first one I was something like 55 kg.’ Her hair is short here, not longer than 4 centimetres, dyed black, with a fringe combed to the right. And that smile... I wonder, while posing for this picture, was she saying ‘cheese’ or ‘seeex’, it was that insecure and unnaturally glued to Weronika’s face.

 

A dozen kilos of books is a problem

Studies wound slowly to an end, it was time to find a job. Firstly, over there, abroad. Nothing happened for three months. The money was shrinking, she had to eat. She slimmed down to fifty-something kilos again. ‘I had to limit food, because I had no money for it.’ After every failed job interview, Weronika lost another few sparkles of enthusiasm. She could count the number of these interviews in dozens. ‘This was a time when the labour market wasn’t open to Poles. I couldn’t simply walk into the jobcentre and register myself as unemployed.’ she concludes.

Weronika lacked self-confidence at that time. Today she knows how to write a résumé properly, what to say on a job interview, how to manage paralyzing stress. She knows this since she came across the people from the society. ‘My studies gave me theoretical knowledge but no one told me how to use this in real life.’ she confesses. Weronika received her diploma only because in the first semesters she was the best student in year. She failed her final examinations, she’d been hospitalized at that time. ‘I fainted and I couldn’t get up from bed.’ she says. Her mother packed all Weronika’s belongings and they flew back home. ‘Of all my stuff, I had loads of books. I couldn’t leave them.’ she recalls with a helpless smile.

 

A thousand CVs sent

After returning to Poland she tried to find work for the next six months. At that time she sent over a thousand CVs, she travelled around the country to job interviews. Weronika browsed the internet, scoured newspapers, visited the jobcentre regularly. She was restless.

‘My biggest problems were too high qualifications and a lack of practical experience. I was often accused of that.’ claims Weronika. At that time she often worked illegally or on trial periods. Once she clipped papers wrong, once her coffee was too sweet. ‘After a few months of such work one starts to look at oneself as if one was a pariah.’ – Weronika says sadly. Therefore she wanted simple job, which unqualified people could do.

‘I landed in a call centre, being offered the lowest rate possible in Ireland. – What should I do if nothing else was available, I thought. Once again, I found myself far away from home. I had to talk to people over the phone and type on the computer simultaneously.’

Weronika put up with this work for three months. She got insomnia.

‘I dreamt of computer screen all the time.’ – she recalls, 27-years-old then. Separated from friends, family and home she went to a psychiatric hospital by herself. ‘What’s so strange about that, no one took me there? I didn’t know how to help myself, I had no one to talk to. I knocked on the hospital’s door myself.’ The doctor kept her hospitalized for twelve weeks.

Coming back home looked the same as before – mum, airport, this time without books. She didn’t want to find a job afterwards, giving herself one year of rest. But several months later she became a volunteer at the Society. ‘They needed descriptions in two foreign languages of their items sold in their e-shop.’ she explains. Later Weronika got a certificate of disability. Reason – psychiatric problems. Later on she was employed part-time at the boutique.

 

Half a year of winning streak

Within six months she learned what she didn’t learn at the university. She needn’t pay a penny for this knowledge. Besides, she works at the boutique everyday, she teaches English to her co-workers and members of the Society.

‘The fact you were homeless once doesn’t ban you from attending my lessons. I do this because I need to be needed. It was in me always. Since I printed out my first school newspaper.’ – Weronika confesses.

She needed help once. Today she tries to be helpful. She doesn’t want to leave the Society. What for? And, she finally has a goal to achieve in her professional life. Weronika wants to be a manager. Where did this change come from? Thanks to everyone she met here, thank to being finally employed at the boutique. She is wanted by someone, this feeling is priceless.

‘She’s our sweet little angel.’ says one of the jewellery makers. ‘She’s always helpful. And now she is learning how to obtain money from the EU. Thanks to Weronika, we’ll finally spread our wings if we get these funds.’

Weronika and I agree that the essence of civic society is in being benevolent, in giving and taking without thinking of the benefits our actions might bring.

 

 

 


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