Wroclaw, Poland – On a late Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, George Mamlouk, a refugee from Syria, walked down a busy shopping street to the largest mall in Poznan when three young men approached him.
They hurled verbal abuse at Mamlouk and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave the country.
The 31-year-old chef from Raqqa had been living in Poland for the last three years. He was shopping in preparation for an upcoming visit to Lebanon, where his family is living along with more than one million other Syrians fleeing the war in their country.
The verbal assault quickly spiralled into a physical one – Mamlouk’s nose and finger were broken, his leg was injured. A crowd of onlookers gathered – some watched passively; others, Mamlouk recalls, were chanting for his attackers to “kill him”, urging them on to greater violence.
“The CCTV footage revealed they were beating George for around 10 minutes,” explained Amer Haiatleh, a Palestinian entrepreneur and a close friend of Mamlouk’s.
“If a boxing match takes three minutes, then in 10 minutes, you can kill a person,” Haiatleh said, noting that, of all the passers-by who witnessed the assault, only one woman called the police.
Jacek Jaskowiak, the mayor of Poznan, visited Mamlouk in hospital after the attack, expressing his sympathy and revulsion at it and promising any assistance necessary during his rehabilitation.
“How much hate do you have to bear in yourself in order to brutally torture another human being only because his skin is slightly darker?” asked Jaskowiak in a condemnation of the incident published on his Facebook page.
‘I don’t feel safe any more’
Mamlouk, a Christian, is one of the roughly 151 Syrians out of 424 applicants who have been granted asylum in Poland since Syria sank into armed conflict in 2011.
Compared with other European nations, few seek asylum in here, influenced perhaps by the fact that there are few existing Arab communities, the language is often considered difficult to learn and the country has shown a general reluctance to welcome them.
And, since the attacks in Paris, a wave of hatred against foreigners, particularly those of Arab origin, has steadily grown in Poland.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets and social media to promote participation in anti-refugee marches across the country, organised by far-right nationalist movements like the National Radical Camp.
“Our mosque [in Poznan] was attacked. I am constantly receiving phone calls and emails with vulgar statements, threating to burn down the mosque,” said Youssef Chadid, the imam and director of the Islamic Centre in Poznan.
The number of messages increased dramatically last week, after Poznan’s Muslim community announced that it would organise a demonstration condemning the attacks in Paris and elsewhere.
Police patrolled the area outside the mosque for three days before the event to ensure the security of the demonstrators. On the day itself, more than 300 protesters gathered in the square. But, just a few hundred metres away, a small number of anti-refugee demonstrators congregated.
“I don’t feel safe any more. My family is afraid that this wave of Islamophobia can start targeting our children and somebody could attack them,” said the imam, a Moroccan who has lived and worked in Poland for 21 years.
He believes the aggression Arab refugees face is a direct result of anti-Muslim rhetoric that is being used and manipulated for political gain.
“This hate approach has been brainwashing Poles to manipulate their opinions … for the parliamentary election that took place in October ,” Chadid said.
“Now, many Poles believe these statements are true,” he added.
“This is a very sad situation. I have a Polish citizenship and I identify as a Pole. My children know the Polish culture and are proud to be Poles – but they are also proud to be Muslims.”
According to Robert Biedron, the mayor of the small Polish city of Slupsk, the unjustified fear of refugees is increasingly being expressed in acts of physical aggression.
“Taking into account that we have no refugees in visible numbers, it is highly alarming that even people who are not always refugees are becoming victims of persecution. We organised a witch-hunt. We are targeting witches who don’t exist, and this is terrifying,” he said.
Biedron thinks that politicians should bear the responsibility for this rise in xenophobia.
In July and September, Poland agreed to take in around 6,800 refugees between 2016 and 2017 as part of the European Union and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relocation and resettlement programmes.
However, since the landslide parliamentary victory of the conservative and Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the October election, the new government has been sending mixed signals about Poland’s intention to meet these obligations.
Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, explained the concerns of the new government.
“Today we cannot confirm whether we will fulfil the refugee quota assigned to Poland,” Waszczykowski told Al Jazeera.
Before the country decides on the number that will be allowed to settle, he said, “our security services will assess our ability to implement the [security] procedures designed to verify the refugees and separate them from the large number of [economic] immigrants”.
“It is a fact that many fears are justified. The wave of immigrants that reached Europe is used by terrorist groups and the Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] and we have to be extremely careful,” Waszczykowski added.
Social awareness campaigns
Rafal Kostrzynski, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Poland, believes that a social campaign that educates Poles about the refugees could help to reduce tensions and counter stereotypes.
The European rhetoric on the refugee crisis has “raised unjustified fears”, said Kostrzynski.
“From the very beginning, the narrative on [the refugees] was going in the wrong direction,” Kostrzynski told Al Jazeera. “Nobody was talking about the fact that these people are protected under international law and have the right to apply for asylum in Europe.”
“Instead, refugees were labelled as economic migrants. It was also argued that this wave poses a threat to Europe and consequently, there is a need to protect the borders.”
An educational campaign was conducted in Slupsk, with refugees invited into classrooms to share their stories and to discuss the crisis unfolding along Europe’s shores.
“It does not lead to a situation where everyone is suddenly changing their attitudes,” said Mayor Biedron. “But it definitely helps to understand the problem.”
“The point here is to get the political courage and the decency to act.”
But in the rest of the country, the general atmosphere remains negative. Mamlouk said that he wouldn’t want his parents to move from Lebanon to Poland as part of the UNHCR’s resettlement programme.
“People could harass my parents on the streets or in the supermarkets,” he reflected. “They are very sick and should live peacefully in Lebanon until their deaths. They do not need to be confronted with a situation like I was.”