Taking Action With Emmaüs
Emmaus Mundo: a green, open, multi-activity sales area!
The renovation of a sales area, a key space in any Emmaus group, may represent an opportunity to launch new projects. We met with Joël from Emmaus Mundo and Nicolas from Bâtisseurs d’Instants (Builders of Moments) and they told us all about their adventure of creating a new sales area in Alsace whilst bearing in mind the challenges our world is facing.
You recently inaugurated your sales area, but it’s much more than a mere sales area, isn’t it?
In order to find a sustainable solution to the challenges of tomorrow we at Emmaus Mundo decided to develop a new site in North Eurométropole, Strasbourg, with a view to widening the scope of our activities and our missions and to have a new tool to help tackle the challenges created by a society of excessive consumption which constantly produces both consumer goods and deepening exclusion.
We believed that this new site should take into account the different challenges of the ecological transition and the transition to a more solidarity-focused society. Being cramped (too cramped) on our old site (which was 1,300m2), it became essential for us to find a new site in order to simplify and fluidify the way we work and to be able to develop new projects related to the transitions our society is facing. Our cooperative and solidarity-based recycling centre recently opened (after four years of work) in Bischheim. On this 4000m2-site (on a 1-hectare plot of land), 1900m2 will be dedicated to sales areas whilst we have also built workshops (for carpentry work, for fixing electric goods, a FabLab and a sewing area), as well as a conference room and a restaurant!
For the layout of the site we decided to get in touch with a scenographer to help us think about the division of the spaces, the movement of people around the site and the appeal of the areas, focusing on creating a fun atmosphere and having aesthetically-pleasing shops. The idea was to avoid making duplicates of things we already have and to opt for materials that have been reused or recycled wherever possible.
This new site is a lot bigger than your old site, what are your ambitions in terms of the development of your social initiatives in Bischheim?
This upscaling of Emmaus Mundo will help us to meet the dual challenges of the ecological and social transition alongside the need to balance our budget: we have doubled the size of our sales area, we have doubled the number of staff on re-integration schemes on our traditional activities and we have created new jobs (our objective for the next 5 years is to have 150 staff per year whilst we currently have 50 staff members). We will also be collecting more materials (the number of requests for collection continues to rise from both the general public and from companies), we will have greater sorting capacity and our aim is to reach a re-use rate of 50% (we are currently at 35%) as well as reducing the amount of ultimate waste at this site.
The organisation of our work to prepare for re-use (the majority of the donations we reuse arrive in our sales area) has gradually been changed in order to develop new skills and to increase the amount of re-use and repair within our group. We are currently setting up teams for different sectors, with a technical expert working as the supervisor of the staff teams of people on re-integration schemes. These ‘sector expertise’ teams will take responsibility for the objects after an initial sorting phase and will manage them until they are sold – working on repairing, recycling or reusing these materials.
We asked each staff member to identify their preferred sector (between textiles, furniture, tableware, books, etc.) and to manage the objects from their arrival at the site until they are sold. Thus each member of staff will be involved in sorting, selling and fixing objects, discovering all the different parts of the journey that these objects take within our group. The idea behind this was to build up the skills and the knowledge of the staff members within Emmaus Mundo.
How did you come up with the design and layout of this site, notably for the restaurant?
We thought about several different things. We thought about practical aspects: what are our needs in terms of sales volumes per shop when compared with our old volumes, what are our needs in terms of storage space and how will people move around within the spaces and between different spaces.
We thought about functionality: choosing the locations of our shops based on the shortest distance between the storage spaces and the sales areas. What types of specific sales tools could we use here?
We thought about visuals and aesthetics: each space will have its own ‘world’. The materials used for the walls differ for each space. The typography used for the signage in each shop have their own graphic identities and are visible from the entrance to the sales area. The layout of the space resembles that of a village – the entrance is an open space, like a public square (with the restaurant) and from here the streets branch off towards the various shops. We opted for a clutter-free look so that the eye is not overly solicited and so that the surfaces of the walls can be used in the future for exhibits. We used old doors in the construction work for some of the shops, we used corrugated iron for our electric goods shop and we used bike frames to make the curved porticos which show where the tills are.
In our sales area the main objective of our solidarity restaurant is to provide access to good quality, healthy and balanced meals to all. We intend this to be a place for living and socialising that is simple, warm and open to all, where we serve good meals at low prices. We are looking to provide a sociable, cheap option where people living in precarity and workers can meet and build relationships during a meal or over a coffee (our restaurant is open from 11am to 5pm). We also intend to use the restaurant as a place to train people and to re-integrate them thanks to the various jobs involved in cooking and catering. We have created the equivalent of 4.5 full-time jobs in the restaurant in order to achieve this goal.
Ecology is at the heart of our movement. How did you make this a sustainable design project?
Our first thought was to work with recycled materials which we have easy access to (doors, bikes, etc.).
Our second idea was to use locally-sourced wood. This helped us to create a simple, fun look which is modulable and can easily be taken down and reused elsewhere if required.
Also, the lights on the site are all LEDs (both inside and outside) and we focused a lot on the insulation of the building. We installed a heat pump which is highly efficient and uses only small amounts of geothermal energy. We do not use fossil fuels to power this site.
Furthermore, Emmaus Mundo has been leading regular, long-term environmental awareness-raising initiatives amongst various groups since 2019: amongst our staff and our volunteers, and amongst the general public, notably targeting young people. Our association decided to implement a range of activities – theory-focused sessions, practical work and creative workshops (notably using games) – in order to raise awareness amongst these different target groups about how to avoid producing waste, about consumption, about being an eco-citizen, about food waste and about various other ecology-related issues.
To find out more visit https://emmausmundo.com
Zbigniew Drazkowski from Emmaus Lublin: Poland at a Historic Crossroads
The last regional board meeting was held in Poland. At the meeting we asked our host, Zbigniew Drazkowski, founder of the Emmaus Lublin group, to give us his point of view on the political situation in Poland under a far-right regime. Here is what he said, the article is quite long but it is a reflection on the history of Europe as a whole, not just Poland.
“The current situation is the result of a long process, revolutions are always the result of a long process – a revolutionary situation must exist in order for one to occur (Marx). Over the last 7 years we have been at a crossroads in Poland.
25 years after the fall of the communist system and after years of continuous economic development we are now at a crossroads. After years of rule of liberal/centrist parties, the nationalist party, which is a far-right party, came to power in 2015. This party won the elections using the slogan, ‘Poland is falling to pieces’! How did this happen? Poland, an example of amazing economic success. Poland, the leader of transformation in Eastern Europe. Poland, with its new, modern road network, with its new cities, new airports, new stadia, new houses and new opportunities. How could the Polish people think that the slogan of ‘Poland is falling to pieces’ truly described our country? It doesn’t make sense, well, not at first…
After the fall of the communist system, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Polish government adopted a liberal political and economic programme. A few months earlier the opposition from the old regime had been discussing options for the development of the country, looking for a Third Way – in between communism and capitalism….But it was eventually the first Minister of Finance, Professor Leszek Balcerowicz, a liberal, who became the face of economic and social change in our country. I remember 1 January 1990 well and how it felt to wake up to a shocking new reality in Poland.
22 years ago I was involved in a meeting behind closed doors, without any media present, with Lech Wałęsa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki (the first Prime Minister), Leszek Balcerowicz and Harvard Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the government’s economic advisor who promoted radical economic changes for our country. At this meeting everyone reflected on the period of transformation. They talked about the mistakes they made, they tried to explain themselves, to justify themselves – only Balcerowicz said that he didn’t make any mistakes, that he wouldn’t change anything if he had to do it all over again.
What happened in the 90s and after to make the Polish people forget their own history?
I think a good example would be the liquidation of the State farms called the Kolkhoses following a single decision, a law which was voted on in 1992. In just one day, all of a sudden, over 300,000 people, including families with children, lost their jobs and their only source of income. This was done in the name of liberal laws, in order to free up economic potential, to create new opportunities, and so on and so forth.
But what opportunities could these people really have, people whose lives and whose families’ lives had been intrinsically linked to the Kolkhoses for 50 years? These families, generally based in isolated regions in the countryside, often lacked decent education, had no professions and no so-called “useful” skills? The only option remaining to them was to gather mushrooms and blueberries in the forests for 3-4 months per year…
After 25 years of transformation another liberal, Professor Marcin Król, summed up the situation in an article, which has since become famous, called ‘We Were Stupid’. The article is a bitter but honest account given by a great man.
The fall of the Civic Platform government – the liberal-centrist party and its Prime Minister, Donald Tusk – in 2015 and the victory of Jarosław Kaczyński and his nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party came in the aftermath of decisions by the liberal government to make school compulsory for children aged 6 and above and to raise the retirement age. Both decisions were taken without any public debate.
They didn’t listen to the Polish people when a young couple, the Elbanowskis, collected 1 million signatures for their petition to organise a referendum on the decision for making school compulsory for children aged 6 (in the constitution the threshold for a referendum is set at 500,000 signatures). I remember what I thought when the media announced that the government had just thrown 1 million signatures in the bin, I thought to myself, “they’ll be made to pay for this sooner or later!”
In October 2015 parliamentary elections were held and PiS won, although they did not get the support of the majority of the Polish people.
Poland has had economic success but it is the poorest that have paid the price! Maybe the slogan ‘Poland is falling to pieces’ makes more sense if you apply it to social matters here in Poland…
When the PiS won the parliamentary elections, a few months after the victory of a conservative, Andrzej Duda, in the presidential elections in May 2015, Kaczyński decided that he had the right to change everything he wanted to change, that his party was like a sovereign in our country, that he didn’t have to respect the opposition or the Polish Constitution. In truth, they implemented Putin’s concept of ‘sovereign democracy’. It seems to be an effective way of implementing an authoritarian system…
He named the public prosecutor as Justice Minister.
He started a war against the Constitutional Court and against the Polish Constitution. He placed “his” judges on the Constitutional Court, a body which is responsible for checking whether or not draft bills comply with our Constitution.
He also waged war against the other chambers: the Supreme Court and the Registration Court. He created new structures such as the Disciplinary Court – a structure aimed at limiting the influence of independent arbitration judges.
The overwhelming majority of judges have fought tooth and nail to protect the independence of our judicial system. Unfortunately the Constitutional Court now depends entirely on the PiS and it repeatedly and unashamedly violates our Constitution.
For such changes to be possible without major protests, you need to have control over the media. All public media outlets, both national and regional, are in the hands of the PiS. All public television and radio programmes, including regional media and the regional press, are in the hands of the PiS. How was this possible? They simply placed revolutionaries and ordinary but cynical career-driven people on the Media Council and on the boards of various media companies. They also nominated the new Chair of the biggest Polish oil company, Orlen. This company bought 600 regional press companies a few months ago. Major purges, targeting certain individuals, have also been carried out. Public television, which is mainly watched by people who have a lower level of education, who are from rural areas and from small provincial towns, present an alternative reality to the one we are living…Even today, during the war in Ukraine, the government-controlled media and the PiS’ politicians continue to see the EU as the main enemy, not Russia!
Their lies have no limits, lies are omnipresent. Deception has become an instrument and the method of choice for the PiS’ politicians and for journalists who are linked to the ruling party.
What is happening in Poland is that a political party is taking over the State. The PiS considers itself to be the only political party in Poland, all others are deemed to be working for Poland’s enemies.
Donald Tusk, the former PM with the Liberal Democrat party and former President of the European Council, is depicted in public media outlets as a traitor to Poland and a servant of Brussels or Berlin. Only those who vote for the PiS are considered to be ‘real Poles’ – all others are “second-rate, second-class Poles”, as Kaczynski himself put it in public.
Massive changes are being made ‘to further the grandeur and splendour of our country’, ‘to protect our sovereignty, our independence’, ‘to defend our religion, our traditional values and the traditional roles of men and women’, etc. Minorities are targeted, in particular LGBT groups as well as refugees from Africa, from the East and from Asia – only Ukrainians are welcome at the moment.
The Catholic Church in Poland and the clergy have been key supporters of the PiS.
Because a “real” Pole is a Catholic! This double identity has been present as an idea in our country since the 18th century. Over the last year, however, certain bishops have started to distance themselves from political life, becoming less involved, but this withdrawal has been gradual and rather timid. Mixing the Church with politics has created wide social divides because political commitment and religion are two major dividing forces in our civilisation.
The start of this revolution in Poland was shocking and the situation remains shocking today. But it quickly became clear that this was not a solely Polish phenomenon. The Americans chose Trump, the English voted for Brexit. In France there is Marine Le Pen, in the Netherlands they have the Freedom Party and Geert Wilders, the Italians had Matteo Salvini and now Giorgia Meloni. Viktor Orban was elected in Hungary even before the PiS came to power in Poland…
What are the underlying reasons for such situations in our societies?
One key common factor behind this situation is FEAR, created by the speed of social changes (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism in Russia), of economic changes (the globalisation of our economy), of technological changes (the Internet) and of cultural changes (migration, women’s liberation movements, recognising the rights of minorities, new debates on gender matters, etc.).
The majority of the population, who are poor and who have little education, have not benefited from these changes, they have, in fact, suffered from them either economically or because they have been unable to understand these changes. They thus turn to simple solutions and a strong central power, a power capable of fighting against all problems and of looking after the poor who are trying to find their way.
The second main cause of our current issues is linked to the ideologies of liberalism and of capitalism which have benefitted from the void following the collapse of the world of two opposite ideologies and which used this situation to further its interests. It was a scam – the workers at the Kolkhoses were tricked, our societies were tricked and poor countries were tricked. Never before has wealth been so unfairly divided so quickly.
I don’t have time to discuss all of the factors behind our current situation today but – and this won’t come as a surprise – it is a situation that we are responsible for, that we created. In Poland we say that we have “put a hand into the chamber pot”.
Emmaus Lublin: solidarity continues at the border with Ukraine
In Poland, this group located close to the Ukrainian border has been rallying round since the start of the conflict. Zbigniew, the founder of Emmaus Lublin, explains to us how the situation is developing as the conflict is becoming entrenched.
Hi, Zbigniew. Can you give us news about the current situation? How are things in Lublin and at the Ukrainian border at the present time?
The war goes on. Fighting continues and is concentrated in the East and South of Ukraine, but missiles are also hitting Kyiv, the country’s capital. Nobody can feel safe in Ukraine.
In Poland, things have changed since the start of the conflict, and initiatives to help refugees are no longer off the cuff. This stems from improved organisation with the public services. At the start of the war, we witnessed an extraordinary wave of solidarity from Polish society: spontaneous, massive support from citizens and NGOs, the value of which was estimated at over €10 billion. Thanks to this movement, over 5.5 million people from Ukraine were housed by close to 500,000 Polish people, without any government aid. Our community welcomed its first refugees on 26 February, two days after the start of the conflict.
Thanks to the efforts of the authorities, the situation stabilised after six weeks. Nowadays, the Ukrainian refugees living in Poland can access employment, healthcare and education, and receive a €100 support payment per month per person. Over half of the refugees are in work. Host families have been entitled to roughly €8 per day per person from the government. This aid – which will be stopped soon – enabled refugees to be housed during the first months of the war.
Nowadays, reception hubs managed by local councils have taken over from host families. Moreover, since May and fighting becoming concentrated in Eastern Ukraine, a number of refugees have been returning to Ukraine.
On 29 August, 30,000 people left Poland for Ukraine, and 25,000 crossed the border in the opposite direction. The flow of refugees is now controlled, and the border with Ukraine is no longer overstretched.
What is the general feeling in Poland about a war that is dragging on? And within Emmaus? Do you think that feelings have changed compared with the early days?
The only change is that provision is better organised. Support for refugees has not dropped, whether among the political class or civil society. There is no nationalist rhetoric and nobody is taking a separatist stance, even after six months of war. Full employment in Poland may be helping the situation, but this form of national unity should be applauded. Shelter and support are unconditional, just like in Emmaus!
I wish to emphasize that this situation – the support given to Ukrainian refugees – is really remarkable, and will have a lasting effect on relations between Poland and Ukraine, which had been tense due to the acts of violence committed during World War II.
Regarding our community, the companions took the easy decision to house refugees in their homes, despite the potential sacrifices: greatly increased workload and making space to double our accommodation capacity. Our companions, Emmaus and the whole of civil society have welcomed the refugees with open arms.
What is the situation of non-Ukrainian refugees?
Just like in other countries in Europe, we have sadly seen that foreign residents who were also fleeing conflict were treated differently. Some were even detained in camps in the first instance. They are now entitled to the same provision as the Ukrainians and the same government support funded by Europe, but unfortunately still not the same status. It is tragic to compare the welcome given to the Ukrainians with that afforded to refugees from Africa, the Near and Middle East, who crossed the border between Belarus and Poland as of August 2021. These refugees were used by the Belarus president to destabilise Poland and Europe. And it worked. This crisis triggered a disgraceful reaction by the Polish government: push-backs, which are banned by the Geneva Convention; introduction of a state of emergency in the border areas; building a wall along the border. Dozens of activists and public figures (actors and artistes) who helped these refugees were treated as criminals or people smugglers. While the number of arrivals from Belarus has now dropped, there are still families detained in camps.
You swung into action right from the start of the conflict; can you describe the grassroots solidarity work that you are undertaking?
We held a community meeting two days after the conflict began. We asked ourselves what we could do to help. We took several decisions: create accommodation places for refugees in each of the four community houses (25 places created), support and assist 30 Polish host families by handing out food, household linen, furniture, hygiene products; and facilitate the transfer of refugees to other European countries, to France and Belgium.
And of course, we have become a humanitarian aid storage and shipment hub for the Emmaus groups from across Europe. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the Emmaus groups who helped us in this way. In the space of two months, we sent five trucks to Ukraine and Emmaus Oselya, in addition to vans to other Ukrainian communities, and to other areas of Poland. The refugees living with us helped us to sort and load the trucks. They contributed to the collective effort and really integrated well into our community.
We are now only housing two women and four children. Most of the refugees have gone back to Ukraine, and we have kept in touch with some of them. Once again, by donating to the Ukraine Fund, the Emmaus groups have enabled us to fund proper support for these families for several months.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I wish to stress that this war affects us all: it is being waged against us, and against European civilisation. Russian imperialism is oppressing us, and will not stop until it has demonstrated and cemented its hegemonic position in the world. This is why our support for Ukrainian refugees is of key importance. Action was needed, and we still need to act.
Youth Camps : a shared and exciting adventure!
Every year, a number of Emmaus groups across Europe welcome young people – and not-so-young people – to spend time in the groups, and get involved in a solidarity initiative. Known variously as “summer camps” and “youth camps”, but with the same outcome: a great experience and meaningful interaction.
“Organising a youth camp is very simple.” From the outset, this comment provides reassurance for those wanting to embark on the adventure. The comment was made by Julio, the leader of Emmaus Peruwelz in Belgium, who has been organising summer camps for 14 years. In most cases, the young people travel from all over Europe, and stay with the group, sharing meals and their time with the companions. While room sometimes need to be made to host the young people, the companions are often happy to give up their rooms for one or two weeks. In fact, it is often the companions who keep asking how many people have registered, as they can’t wait for the camp to start.
The summer camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina has a different slant. Every year since 2006, Emmaus-IFS has been organising camps bringing together over 100 young people. The original idea? “Bring together in Srebrenica young people from all over the world, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality or faith, so that they meet each other, and help the local communities to break down prejudices and barriers (…) [with the aim of] promoting tolerance, living together, and equality for all, in a post-conflict country, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina,” says Mirela, an unparalleled summer camp organiser. Logistics are obviously more challenging because of the size of the camp, but are very well organised, with the help of a large number of volunteers. A real adventure, which gets underway many months before the young people arrive!
What are the logistics in most cases? “We primarily advertise on the Emmaus Europe website, and word of mouth also works very well” says Julio. Each group manages its own registration process, and help can be provided by Emmaus Europe and Emmaus France. The latter has created a website devoted to volunteering opportunities in the French Emmaus groups: Emmaüs Expérience. While the organisation of a camp obviously involves a long-term commitment, notably answering the young people’s questions and managing arrivals, the groups are not alone in this adventure!
And it is worth it. Welcoming new people into the group very often gives a fresh boost to community life, and creates a special ambience for the fortnight, month, and even longer. This summer breeze is a break from the daily routine, and gives a fresh boost to companions’ commitment to their work, while guaranteeing a fantastic and meaningful holiday for the young people. These work camps are also the opportunity to begin renovation work (painting, reorganising the premises), and enable the groups to start new initiatives thanks to the extra hands on deck (create a vegetable garden, environmental awareness-raising, etc.)
This open-minded approach enables the young people to discover the vibrancy of the Emmaus movement, and is often the first step towards getting involved as a volunteer or employee. Julio is one of the first examples: following several Emmaus youth camps in Spain in the early 1970s, he got involved and has been living the Emmaus adventure for close to 50 years! As participants, we cannot afford to be indifferent to this opportunity to get to know the movement. This worthwhile experience enables the young people to offer practical help, meet new people, learn new things, and also have a good time. Whatever the person’s level or skills, they are welcome, and this often makes them want to return!
Mirela, from IFS-Emmaus, agrees: “Most of the volunteers who have taken part in the camp stay connected to Emmaus in one way or another. (…) It all begins and ends with volunteering!” We could not say it any better.