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A Tatar restaurant cooks meals for migrants in Poland's freezing forests

GRODNO REGION, BELARUS - NOVEMBER 24: Migrants receive humanitarian aid donated and collected by Grodno people as migrants continue to wait at a closed area allocated by Belarusian government the Belarusian-Polish border in Grodno, Belarus on November 24, 2021. The migrant crisis on the border of Belarus with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia escalated on November 8. This year, Polish border guards have prevented more than 35,000 attempts to illegally cross the Polish-Belarusian border, which is 400 times more than last year. ( Sefa Karacan - Anadolu Agency )
Migrants receive humanitarian aid donated and collected by Grodno people as migrants continue to wait at a closed area allocated by Belarusian government the Belarusian-Polish border in Grodno, Belarus on November 24, 2021 [Sefa Karacan - Anadolu Agency]

Lilla Swierblewska, a minority Muslim Tatar from Eastern Poland, always wanted migrants to feel at home in her country. Now, having mobilised the kitchen of a restaurant she opened in Bialystok a year ago, she is cooking to support the cause.

That means dinners of turkey meatballs in carrot sauce and chicken with green beans, pasteurised and sealed in jars, then shipped to charities going to the forests of Poland to help migrants who have crossed from Belarus, Reuters reports.

Hundreds have been left stranded for weeks in Poland's forests. Humanitarian agencies say at least 13 migrants have died at the border, where many have suffered in the cold with little food or water.

"I have to ask myself, what would I do in this situation? Would there be someone who would help me? Because I don't know if tomorrow or, in some years, I won't be in this kind of situation," Swierblewska told Reuters.

Much of her mission is tied to her faith and her place in Poland's ethnic minority Tatar community.

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Descended from warriors who were rewarded with land by Polish kings for protecting the country's eastern border centuries ago, the Tatars have been providing food for the migrants and holding funerals for Muslims who died at the border. "As Muslims we should be helping, regardless of religion or where the person is from. We should just be helping those in need," Swierblewska said.

Swierblewska, whose meals for migrants include no pork to respect their faith, is working with a charity called the "Raft Association" which, in turn, is collaborating with an Orthodox Church in Siemiatycze near the border to drive food to migrants in the forests.

She called on Poles not to be afraid of helping, adding that support to migrants was essential amidst a worsening societal divide driven by the Polish nationalist government's policies.

Poland, a mostly Catholic, ethnically homogenous country, is run by the ruling Law and Justice party whose leader has inveighed against migration from the Middle East, saying migrants could bring diseases and parasites.

"We are creating categories of people. We shouldn't divide and mark a person based on their religion, their nationality or their orientation," Swierblewska said.

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