by Michal Siewniak*
This week my eldest daughter, Maria, had a non – uniform day. All children had an opportunity to express themselves. They all did that in many different ways. Our Maria decided to wear Polish top and Croatian scarf. Her mum comes from the Croatia whereas her dad is Polish. She was really happy to wear it and she really feels proud to be ‘British, Polish, Croatian and VERY European. I’ve asked Maria, whether she is happy to be of ‘mixed heritage’. I was really pleased when she said: ‘When I talk to my friends, I always say that my dad is from Poland, mum from Croatia & has Italian grandparents (!) and I was born in the UK’. I said: so why is it important for you? Maria replied: ‘It is because I have many opportunities to travel, learn other languages & spend holidays (without spending loads!) with my relatives in different parts of Europe’. I said to myself, this says it all.
I often ask myself whether I lost a bit of my ‘Polishness’. Life was so simple when I was growing up. Being only 10 when the Berlin Wall collapsed meant that I hadn’t really had a chance to travel, study or work abroad until 2001 when I left Poland for Croatia. Being Polish often meant – being predominantly white, Roman Catholic and Eastern European. There was no such a thing as ‘mixed heritage’ and having a foreign girlfriend sounded almost surreal. There is of course nothing wrong with the above. I actually feel that most of my ‘childhood’ was pretty special and it prepared me for my future ‘life adventures’.
I feel totally blessed, blessed in so many ways. In 2001 I received a scholarship and went to study in Zagreb. After completing my University and defending my Masters’ Degree, I moved back to Croatia where I was already seeing my future wife Ana. This period in my life was probably the most important. It most definitely shaped me and helped to see other people from a very different angle. I remember seeing a mosque for the first time in my life. I remember people from many different faiths living side by side. Each of these moments helped me to realise that we all belong to one ‘human family’. It was all so ‘natural’ to my Croatian friends however for me it was such a huge discovery. Although, as a history students I had to read quite a lot. I have not heard a lot about the Muslim community and this ‘meeting of religions and cultures’ immediately fascinated me.
This experience and our one year in Italy prepared us well for Britain. I have already seen ‘multicultural society in action’. And, despite some challenges, it did work!
So if I say that I am from Poland but I also feel Croatian, British and European, does it diminish my ‘Polish identity’? Does my children’s upbringing in a diverse society mean that they don’t have a clear (‘black & white’) sense of belonging? I think that I actually am more Polish in the UK than I would have been back home. I have tried very hard to demonstrate (and prove to myself!) that Poles are actually nice people 😉 I have stood in the local elections, I won a seat, I have been involved in countless community activities and most incredible projects. I have ‘brought home’ the Mayor of Welwyn Hatfield, Lynne Sparks, who had a fantastic opportunity to experience ‘real Eastern Europe’. I have organised the first in the East of England ‘Hatfield Polish Day’ ran an event to mark the ‘Battle of Britain’ and helped the Polish Embassy with ‘transforming’ the Hatfield Fire Station into a polling station (elections to the Polish Parliament). For me, life in the UK, is all about challenging stereotypes and stamping out assumptions! It is also all about promoting and cherishing diversity. It is about showing that we all matter. It is about demonstrating that if we want, we can change lives! Patriotism for me means that I am proud of my roots but I also recognise that I can learn loads from other cultures? Is that wrong?
There is so much negativity about diversity today. It is seen far too often in a very negative light and it almost feel like you either have to be this or that. I know that my family want to continue being residents of ‘One Big Global Family’, family which has so much to offer, family which enhances us all as human beings and enables us to enrich our lives by meeting and being with other people from different backgrounds. I am pleased that I have not ‘stagnated’ and look at life like an adventure which enables me to grow socially, culturally and spiritually. I am really happy that my family, especially my children, are thriving and loving the fact that they are SO FOREIGN! I had a fantastic childhood however I wish I could experience what they are being exposed to in such a young age.
We have layers of identity. We are want to belong however we can’t be simply ‘boxed’ to one or two categories. If there is anything I have learnt in the UK, it is not to generalise, stigmatise and label people. Not because it is ‘politically incorrect, but because we are all so UNIQUE and each one of us contributes to that uniqueness.
*Michal Siewniak is married with three children and lives in Welwyn Garden City. He works as a Services Manger for Watford CVS. Michal is a former District Councillor. Michal speaks Polish, English, Croatian and Italian.