The Wretched of “the East”

In this digital exhibition we explore episodes of what we call “the East”. The stories you will see here are fragmented and unfinished, somehow connected with each other because they all talk about experiences of migration, racism, gender and exploitation, yet they remain chaotic and disorganised.

This virtual mess may be frustrating at first sight, but it was the closest thing we could possibly get to representing this mosaic of diversity and experiences that we call “the East”: trying to put some order into it will inevitably fail, yet the viewers are invited to explore the connections we are drawing and create new ones for themselves.

What we call “the East” is not a single geographical or geopolitical reality. Rather, it is a historically and politically constructed space defined by antagonisms: pre-1989 and post-1989, capital exploitation and labor struggles, migrating in the search for better opportunities and being pushed back outside of the borders of “Fortress Europe”, feminist emancipation and right wing counterrevolution. The East has, on the one hand, been forced to “catch up” with the West, yet it also penetrates the West – most significantly through the bodies of people crossing borders in the search for a better life – and thus confronts the West’s own impotence.

Yet, the East is not just an innocent spectator of its “doomed destiny”, but also a perpetrator of acts of brutality and violence. Nothing has shown this clearer than the silent pack between the East Nothing has demonstrated this clearer than the silent pact between the East and West on how to handle migrants entering from the outside, the consequences of which we have most recently seen on the Polish-Belarusian border. Their situation puts the division between East and West directly into question. After all, the East is a matter of perspective: from the perspective of Germany, Poland is in the East, but what is Poland from the perspective of the refugees dying on its borders?

Still, we refuse to give up hope. The challenge for us is to be fully aware that we are in a crack, but to also show that even so, we continue to fight back and struggle.

The episodes in this digital exhibition feature moments of despair, but also moments of solidarity, struggle and hope. The mindmap in the centre is an initial attempt to understand our own context, connect it to bigger topics and visualize it. It is unfinished and big pieces are still missing – its potential to become more elaborate and interconnected in the future is unlimited. The boxes forming a circle around the mindmap show some concrete and a few more meta examples of previous and ongoing struggles in our region and beyond. We hope this is the beginning of a political reflection, not its end.

Explore the whole exhibition in the interactive Miro platform

Explore single elements of the exhibition

The starting point for us was a political brainstorming about the East represented in this mindmap

A central point of departure for us was the unfolding situation on the Polish-Belarusian border where refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq are being pushed back by Polish authorities. As of today, at least five people have lost their lives due to hunger and hypothermia. The exhibition provides quotes from chats and conversations with the refugees and videos of the situation...

“We are sitting between the wires of Poland and Belarus. What are we supposed to do? You know in whose hands Afghanistan is. Our country was taken by the Taliban and what are we supposed to do? We are surrounded by barbed wire. We ask you very much, let Poland have mercy on us. If you won’t give us protection, at least save us from death. You know that we cannot return to our country. If we could, I wouldn’t stay here for a second.”

“Give us shelter at least for a while so that we don’t die. We ask the Polish people to ask their government to help us. You will take us away from here, then you will decide what to do with us. If we stay here 2 or 3 more days, I am sure we will die. Then you will decide if we go back to Afghanistan. Neither side wants to take us out of here. If we stay here and die, will you take care of our dead bodies?”

The discussion on the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border inspired further reflections in the group on related topics…

“there is work everyone has to do

if the east is wretched what about the west, the souths, the norths

what about places lost, erased by history or wars.






we all live beyond the borders of the describers

states are communities with more paper work

Refugees are the people,

all THE people





I come from a country whose guard and save

I leave in a country which is guarded and imagined”

We also reflected on the so-called migration crisis in 2013-2015 and the way it was played out in our context…

Balkan Refugee Trail – A pathwaY for European Solidarity

“The Schengen area has never been an area of human rights, open borders inside the EU are connected to closed external borders. But Croatia disregards even the minimum standards of European law, which are laid down in the Schengen Borders Code. And for this they receive political support from Germany and the EU,” comments Karl Kopp, head of the European Department of PRO ASYL.”

And we explored how the situation 2013-2015 was framed in the public imagination…

“Diary notes about my discussion with a neighbour – a single mother in her mid-to late 40s – in Budapest in Autumn 2015, when thousands of refugees stranded in front of the Keleti station. 

…At one point I suggested that she can visit Keleti train station herself (15 minutes walk from where we live. She said she has no courage to go to Keleti and she is very scared because there might be diseases spreading already, such as Ebola. 
I myself think that being a caring person as she is, it would be extremely hard for her to go to Keleti train station and face the suffering and abandonment of thousands of people. It would be hard to reconcile what she would see at Keleti – families, children, elderly, disabled, spending days and nights on cement pavements, with toddlers crawling  out of yoga mattresses – with what she heard and saw on media – angry young man creating immanent threat to wellbeing of Hungarian society. “

Drawings of 12-18 years’ old unaccompanied minors from Syria and Iraq, after a talk on the theme: “When I for the first time realized that violence is existing?”

The reflection on the migrant situation also led to the migration of workers from Eastern Europe to the West (and back)…

“Nina works in Austria as a care taker for elderly people. She is from the village of Armeniș, Romania.

She goes away for contract of a few months and she comes home for some weeks to take care of the household, involve in agricultural chores and to be to the husband.

She is the major bread winner of the family. She goes to Austria to make euro, to improve the situation at home.

She sometimes buys second hand house hold goods from Austria and she finds ways to bring them at home. Here we can see as examples a pot and a washing machine.

She is not afraid to take on the adventure of leaving home. She knows already the contractors. The transportation is made with certain companies that only transport caretakers of other workers.”

The migranting workers from our contexts are also often those who fought for better working conditions and decent lives…

“Bulgarian nurse on the reasons for protesting for better working conditions (2019):

“I work in a government hospital in the capital. In what conditions? Similar to the conditions of 80% of our profession, I guess. 10 doctors and two nurses on day shift or a nurse alone on night duty. The patients have one of the most severe diagnoses. Accordingly, this has had a rather detrimental effect on their psyche, sometimes leading to more peculiar behaviour. But it doesn’t matter, because since we’re “willing” nurses, we’re mostly compassionate and understanding, right? But some people’s treatment of us as servants is quite insulting. Some doctors are also treated like that. Over time, it crushed my self-esteem.””

A nurse who barricaded herselve in the Bulgarian parlament is forced by a security guard to stay for more than 40 minutes on the balcony of the building (March 2020).

When their working conditions are not changing, workers are migrating towards Western Europe. What working conditions await them there…

“I work in Germany as a carer. On a civil contract signed in Bulgaria insurance of 2h. on 60 euro to Promedica 24 do not pay and earned bonuses. The pay is determined by the knowledge of German and not appreciated work which we do around the clock. I want an employment contract signed in Germany health and pension insurance in Germany 20 days paid annual leave hourly pay fixed working hours 1 day off per week. Because the companies and families, it suits them, we are the slaves of Eastern Europe, we only have obligations and no rights.”

“For more than a year now, migrant workers from countries outside the European Union who are present in France can hardly renew their residence permits with the authorities, as the French administration requires them to make an appointment only online, as the offices have been inaccessible since the Covid 19 pandemic. As a result, many residence permits are not renewed on time and many migrant workers in the catering and cleaning industries lose their jobs because the work permit no longer exists. Faced with this, migrants, collectives, associations and NGOs decided to lead a counter-offensive, the courts were seized, and the State was condemned to reopen its services, and a huge mobilisation at national level took place last year, bringing together many collectives across the country…”

Yet, the challenge of our work and position is to make hope possible…

Essential Struggles: Pandemic Fronts
Fundacja Ocalenie
Mapping Legal Struggles: Toolkit for Legal Action Across the Balkan Routes

The ‘Wretched of the East’ workshop consisted of: Sylvain Alias, Marta Bogdanska, Mika Buljevic, Kalina Drenska, Alina Floroi, hvale, Gosia Jagiello, Cristina Pombo, Lela Rekhviashvili, Karolina Sobel, and Martina Staneva.

This project was conceived at the Berliner Gazette’s annual conference 2021 entitled BLACK BOX EAST.

All text and images: Creative Commons License 4.0 (CC-BY 4.0).

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