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“We don’t want them to feel lonely”. How the Vietnamese support Polish medics

Masks, beds, and thousands of hot meals. Despite many difficulties, the Vietnamese living in Poland support Polish medics from their own funds. They do it because they feel that Poland is their home worth caring for.

In the beginning, there was uncertainty and fear. On March 4, 2020, the first case of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infection was confirmed in Poland. After that it went fast: first deaths, the more and more inefficient healthcare system. Most of us followed the instructions then and stayed home. There were also those who could not stay at home – medical staff.

The greatest responsibility rested on their shoulders. However, overnight heroes turned into cheaters getting rich through the suffering of others. Thrown out of shops, insulted, almost marooned. However, there still were some people who wanted to support medical workers in that unequal battle. The help was offered by, among others, the Vietnamese community living in Poland.

The Vietnamese PITAYA restaurant as the heart of the Sygnał campaign

It is an initiative of people with good hearts. Restaurateurs in many Polish cities came up with the idea to prepare meals and feed Polish medics. Every day the help was reaching more people. At one point, Anna Archacka-Siermińska – one of the initiators of the ‘Sygnał – Pogotowie Gastronomiczne Warszawa’ action – informed that they needed a bigger kitchen, to make more meals. A stranger from Vietnam offered her help.

“One of the Vietnamese women, whom I’ve never seen before, spoke to me and proposed to use her restaurant. She trusted me enough that her employee came, gave me the keys, and we started cooking there. I had the opportunity to meet her family and her husband.”

Anna Archacka-Siermińska, POGOTOWIE GASTRONOMICZNE WARSZAWA

The heart of the action was mainly the restaurant PITAYA, owned by Mrs Dang. Thousands of hot meals for medics were prepared there every day.

“This cooperation was such that I could cook, help and support our medics every day using her restaurant, but we also supported each other as Poles and Vietnamese. Sometimes I had more products, other times they had more. So we also were helping each other in cooking. Of course, friendships were made during that time as well.”

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The action, from the Vietnamese side, has been coordinated by Hoàng Thế Diễm from the HORAPA restaurant.

“I’ve always had trouble pronouncing the name Hoàng, so he let me call himself ‘uncle’. All the time the Vietnamese were also cooking in their premises and giving us all these meals. We, as the Polish side, took care of the entire logistics – we had lots of drivers who were travelling and picking up meals from the Vietnamese and delivering them to a given hospital,” recalls Anna Archacka-Siermińska.

Private archive of Anna Archacka-Sierminska.

#VNJesteśmyzWami*

At the beginning, they were helping 2-3 institutions. Later, meals were delivered to 52 medical facilities. The Vietnamese, together with the Polish side, were able to prepare and deliver even a few thousand meals in a day. They even created a food truck that was standing in front of one of the hospitals in Warsaw to serve a few hundred dinners for medics, who sometimes did not leave the hospital for several days and were unable to buy anything to eat. So the volunteers were taking turns feeding around 800 people.

“None of us knew what would be going to happen. We were like brothers, walking hand in hand and fighting. We, Poles, were fighting for our homeland and the Vietnamese were fighting with us, because for them Poland is the second homeland. We have a few groups on Facebook. The Vietnamese community was not only helping us, but also others – by delivering and cooking meals, collecting money or products in their community, from people who could help. On one of the Facebook groups appeals for help were published – appeals for rice, meat, donors. ‘Uncle’ was the coordinator of these activities. He was collecting information, and took care of finding an interpreter.

Most often, translations were made by another Vietnamese – Tadek (that’s what we call him in Polish), who lives in Poland and once came here to study. He has a Polish wife. The Vietnamese even set up a special bank account and were using it to collect funds to help Polish medics. I remember that one of our friends, Maks Deluga, was going from restaurant to restaurant asking for help. When he was meeting Vietnames restaurateurs, they never refused to help us. Quite the opposite – they were coming forward themselves! It was their initiative,” adds Anna Archacka-Siermińska.

*The hashtag #VNJesteśmyzWami was the hallmark of the charity work of the Vietnamese community for medical personnel in Poland. It was also an element of the logotype and marking of messages in social media.

“The Vietnamese’s support has no bounds”

How did the medics react when they saw the Vietnamese offering them free meals near the hospital?

“At first, they were surprised, some of them even insular, thinking ‘why are Asians cooking for us’. Then their approach changed and the detachment turned into great gratitude. While people were talking trash about medics, throwing them out of the shops, they [the medics] could see that our small group supported them. We were getting pictures and words of thanks even in the middle of the night,” says Anna Archacka-Siermińska.

Private archive of Anna Archacka-Sierminska.

Anna has been a professional cook for many years and specializes in Asian cuisine. What does she think we can learn from the Vietnamese?

“These people are fantastic and their support for us has no bounds. Together, we were doing lots of good: supporting the medics, the homeless, the elderly and the people in need, who lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic. We’ve created a kind of a Polish-Vietnamese corporation working for medics.

I love Asia for its food, culture, and for the fact that the people can organize themselves in different difficult situations. Here, even during the second wave [of the pandemic], while they had problems in Vietnam related to, for example, floods, they were able to support their countrymen there and at the same time fight with us, Poles, for their second homeland. We can learn many things from the Vietnamese and I think that Poles should open up to other nations and take many valuable things for themselves.”

“We cannot treat, but we can cook!”

Hoàng Thế Diễm came to Poland in the 1990s. Now he lives in Warsaw with his children and his wife, with whom he runs a restaurant. For him, Poland is the second homeland – for his children it is the first. He appreciates Poland for freedom he has not experienced in Vietnam. He is happy that he can live and work here in peace, and that his children have a decent future. This is the most important thing for him. Why did he decide to act?

Why am I helping others? It’s simple: we live here and many times we’ve had to and will have to use medics’ help. My children were born in Poland. We always got solid help from doctors and medical workers when we needed it. When the pandemic broke out, it occurred to us, seeing the medics working hard, that if we cannot fight Covid, we could support doctors by providing masks, disinfectants and hot meals. I own a restaurant myself, and so do my friends. We cannot treat, but we can cook! And the action began. We don’t expect praise or publicity. We don’t want that anyway. We just want medics not to feel lonely. We want them to know that we are also taking part in this fight, that we are with them. Day and night!” says Hoàng Thế Diễm.

The restaurateur admits that helping others gives them pleasure and that they are always ready to help when needed. He also adds that “by helping medics, he helps himself, because he just wants to live with dignity!” In Poles, he likes their openness and goodness. Not everyone has it, of course, because the bad people can be found everywhere. He also likes the order in Polish society, the Polish landscapes and the weather, which is almost perfect: not too cold, not too hot, and each season is different and beautiful.

For many Vietnamese, Poland is home

The first Vietnamese came to Poland in the 1960s to study. Then came refugees fleeing the Vietnam War. In the 1990s, when the borders were opened, Vietnamese communist authorities’ workers came here from the GDR. Currently, Poland is the third place of Vietnamese immigration in Europe after France and Germany. The greatest difficulty for the Vietnamese who settled in Poland (especially for older people) is the language barrier. They find it difficult to master a language so different from their own. Moreover, some people are afraid to speak Polish, fearing misunderstanding and, thus, ridicule. Young Vietnamese, for whom Poland is often the first homeland, have no major problem in contacts with the Polish community. Often their worldview and lifestyle are more similar to Polish than to Vietnamese. Despite this, they sometimes fall victim to racist attacks, and such cases have increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

Medics pick up prepared meals. Private archive of Anna Archacka-Sierminska.

So why do the Vietnamese want to help Poles? First of all, they see themselves as part of the Polish community. Here is their home. Despite the aforementioned incidents related to racism, they feel safe here, and their children can have a decent future. Moreover, they believe that they have a debt of gratitude to pay back to Poles for accepting people fleeing from the war. Also, Buddhism, professed by the Vietnamese, dictates not to hurt others and to help people as much as possible.

The Vietnamese community in Poland conducts charity not only during the pandemic, but, for example, on every Friday the Vietnamese together with the Daj Herbatkę Foundation prepare meals for the homeless at the Warszawa Centralna [Warsaw Central] railway station, and in Łódź they join the organization of Christmas Eve and Easter meals together with the Wolne Miejsce Foundation. Recently, they’ve also helped to transport beds for medics, so that they could sleep in break rooms during shifts. Similar actions are also taking place in other Polish towns, e.g. in Łódź. Thanks to this, the Vietnamese hope that Poles will change their attitude towards them and will open up to them more when they see how much work and effort they put into the fight for the common home – for Poland.

The Arab community also joined in helping Polish medics.

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