Sunday, May 19, 2024

Shopping complex fire inflicts tragedy on Vietnamese community in Poland

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Nguyen Van Son struggled to hold back tears as he stood outside the vast burnt carcass of a shopping complex that was engulfed in flames three days earlier in Warsaw.

The 42-year-old Vietnamese trader had his entire livelihood inside — unsold clothing in three shops, equipment in two nail salons and a large sum of cash in his office. All, he presumes, consumed in the fire that broke out before dawn on Sunday and spread fast.

The fire destroyed the Marywilska 44 shopping center, home to some 1,400 shops or services in an industrial area on Warsaw’s northern edge. Hundreds of the businesses there were run by people from Vietnam.

“It all burned, I don’t have money in my pocket,” Nguyen, who moved to Poland from Vietnam 18 years ago, said on Wednesday outside the burnt structure. He estimated his loss at 2 million Polish zlotys ($500,000).

“I don’t have work now,” he added. “I don’t know how my life will go on.”

An association of Vietnamese entrepreneurs described the blaze as a “terrible tragedy” for the Vietnamese community in Poland. The community represents the largest non-European immigrant population in Poland. The Vietnam Embassy in Warsaw told the AP that it estimates the population at between 20,000 and 30,000.

People gathered at the wreck of the shopping complex Wednesday described losing passports and other important documents in the flames in addition to huge sums of cash. They said they felt it was safer to keep them in their place of work, where they spent the majority of their time, and not their private homes due to a fear of break-ins. One woman said she and others faced obstacles opening bank accounts. Many of those affected did not want to be interviewed, or were not able to express themselves in Polish or English.

There were no reports of injuries in the fire, which began around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. Prosecutors opened an investigation on Monday. Some, including Poland’s political leaders, have raised questions about the causes of the fire.

The fire was one in a string of blazes in Poland in recent days that also included fires in an apartment building and at a landfill in Warsaw and at a chemical waste landfill in the far south of the country.

“It is difficult not to have a suspicion or fear that the series of fires that took place in Poland is not accidental, but is an attempt to destabilize the situation in Poland by external factors,” President Andrzej Duda said on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said there was “no reason to believe that any of the recent fires were the result of external forces. But this in no way reduces the threat of possible sabotage and diversion.”

Last fall a fire broke out in another center of Vietnamese trade in Wolka Kosowska, a town near Warsaw.

On Wednesday, Vietnamese merchants approached security guards seeking information about when they might be able to access the site to see if there is anything to salvage. They didn’t get answers, and were told the site remained potentially dangerous. All hoped that officials could help cover some of their losses.

Some received food donations, including big bags of rice, and hygiene products provided by charitable foundations.

One vendor who turned up at the scene of the fire on Wednesday was 28-year-old Lena Ninh, who has lived in Poland for 15 years.

Her parents called her early Sunday soon after the blaze started. She was shocked at how fast it spread.

“In a matter of a few hours we lost everything — our wealth, our life’s work. Now thousands of people are out of work,” she said. “We have no plan yet, we have no direction for how to live now to support the family.”

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