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Guests not Refugees: Massive grassroots humanitarian action in Poland supporting the Ukrainian war refugees

Above: Ukrainian children fleeing Russian aggression, Przemyśl, Poland, February 27, 2022. Photo by Mirek Pruchnicki.

The article below was written by Maria Juczewska (’19), who is currently living in Poland. 

Putin launched another offensive against Ukraine on February 24. It prompted a massive flight of vulnerable Ukrainians towards the borders, mostly mothers with children and the elderly. As of March 14, 1.758 million Ukrainians crossed the Polish border (as per the data of the Polish Border Guards). This formidable number of refugees was welcomed by Poland literally with open arms, as Poles massively responded to the humanitarian crisis.

According to the polls, 75% of Poles are somehow involved in impromptu humanitarian efforts. An outpouring of donations of food, clothing, baby gear, medical supplies, and money is combined with large-scale volunteering. It entails the reception of the refugees at the border crossings and in refugee centers inside the country, transportation from the border, or even directly from Ukraine, to other destinations inside and outside Poland, as well as accommodation. The majority of refugees find shelter in private homes or reception centers organized through cooperation with the private sector, NGOs, and the local government. The state administration is the slowest to react, but the Polish populace is not fazed by it at all.

What is the most amazing is the Poles’ ability to self-organize spontaneously and immediately. In response to the sudden influx of the refugees on the Polish eastern border, Poles started to travel to the border crossings to help, out of their own initiative. They support Polish Border Guards as volunteers providing and distributing much-needed warm food, drinks, and clothing or transportation to the coming Ukrainians. Some even cross the border to pick up those from among the refugees who seem to be in the greatest need to drive them to Poland. The Polish guards are sympathetic to those efforts, encouraging the drivers to take as many passengers as possible (quoting one of them: “I don’t give a damn about the traffic regulations. Take as many people in the car as you can only fit!”). At the beginning of the offensive, some organizations and private bus owners (usually small businesses) volunteered to venture beyond the border, to Lviv, to fetch Ukrainian refugees directly from there or from the road.

Translation of the subtitles in this video: 
We left daddy in Kyiv.
And… daddy will be selling our things and helping our heroes [starts crying],
our army, he will be helping our army,
maybe he will even be fighting himself [crying again, the camera shows his mom, also crying].
We have been walking for approximately three hours and you saved us.
I had been thinking that we would be walking for two or three days, 
I had been thinking that we would be walking for the whole day,
but you saved us.

This form of help is invaluable in the case of disabled refugees. However, intensifying terror against the civilian population and worsening infrastructure in Ukraine (risk of enemy fire, damaged roads, lack of gas) may soon put a stop to such acts of bravery. Grateful as they are for the extra help, border authorities make sure nevertheless to minimize the risk of human trafficking. Every offer of a lift from the border crossing to another destination needs to be registered at the reception point with the police. They note down the license plate number and the data of the driver. Only then is the driver paired with the refugees willing to travel in the offered direction.

In a matter of days, improvised border-crossing facilities for the large numbers of travelers were set up on the Polish side of the border. They function thanks to joint efforts of the local government, local countryside organizations — notably Country Women’s circles [Kola Gospodyn Wiejskich], and volunteer fire brigades — Catholic Church, NGOs, and volunteers from all over Poland.

The border crossing in Kroscienko-Smolnica is an impressive example of an impromptu refugee admission point. People who arrive there are exhausted. They walk to the border on foot for dozens or hundreds of miles. Then, they stand for hours in many-miles-long lines in the open air on the Ukrainian side, even overnight when the temperatures drop to 20-30 degrees F. Once they have crossed the border, a line of stalls awaits them. The first one serves warm soup and the second course as well as warm drinks and food packages to those traveling by car. Then a line of large tents with the most needed items begins. At the beginning of the line, free strollers are stored for those who crossed the border with small children. Here, they can also collect blankets. Then, there is a tent with long-lasting food supplies, including formula and jars of baby food and carbohydrate-rich packed food for adults (bread, chocolate, cookies) as well as water and juice. A tent where people can dispose of empty packages follows. Then, the newcomers can proceed through the tents with beds to lie down if anybody needs to take a rest, to the last tent where all the border-crossing formalities can be arranged. All the food, beverages, blankets, and strollers come from donations and are available to the refugees for free. Information about that is on display at the entrance to every tent. The refugees arriving with no particular destination inside Poland in mind may take some respite in the reception centers in the villages a little farther away from the border. There, they can get some sleep and rest for a few days. Those facilities are also largely operated by the local government aided by NGOs and volunteers.

Other important reception points are railway stations in big cities, such as Warsaw, Cracow, or Wroclaw. A relatively cold March makes the situation more challenging for everyone than it could be in milder weather. Although the state administration is slow to react, individual Poles have come to the rescue supporting the official efforts with their own contributions — warm drinks, home-made sandwiches, clothing. Another form of support for the refugees in transit to distant destinations is hosting them for a few hours in a private home where they can sleep more comfortably or shower before they hit the road again. The main railway station in Cracow, where the police, border guards, railway guards, medical assistance, and volunteers work hand in hand, may serve as a good example of efficient organization. In Warsaw, there were some tensions between the local government and the state administration as to who should organize what. However, the volunteers took it upon themselves to provide humane conditions at the stations before the official matters have been resolved, so it worked out in the end.

 

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Providing accommodation to nearly two million people within three weeks is an awe-inspiring feat of solidarity. Realizing how dire the situation of the Ukrainian refugees is, Poles organized themselves on different levels. Individual families opened their private homes to host Ukrainian mothers with children and the elderly. They find their Ukrainian guests either through word-of-mouth recommendations or through charitable organizations, notably the Catholic Church. Another solution is to rent a flat or hotel room for the refugees. This solution is used both by individuals and businesses. Local communities quickly mobilized to prepare temporary housing facilities for larger groups in larger buildings. Polish business circles brainstormed to create a model of cooperation with the local government which would enable them to create temporary housing free of charge for as many people as possible. Short-term accommodation centers in Sniadeckich and Kopernika Streets in Cracow organized by Rafal Sonik with the Corporate Connections association are one of the instances of such cooperation. Poles realize as well that providing a temporary home is not all. Since 80% of the refugees are mothers with children, further steps are being taken to organize time and schooling for the kids. In Warsaw alone, the number of preparatory classes for children learning Polish increased from 12 to 84. Many institutions offer free entertainment for Ukrainian kids. Psychological help is also organized with therapists speaking Ukrainian.

Most of the refugees arrive with very little luggage and truly limited financial resources. Currency exchange points no longer exchange Ukrainian Hryvnia. Therefore, necessary services offered by the local government or the central government are free of charge for the Ukrainians, for instance, transportation (city buses and trams, railway). Poles massively donate not only money but also all the articles needed for the everyday functioning of a family, from food and clothing to hygienic products and medicine. Donations are distributed in an organized manner through charitable organizations or refugee aid centers whose addresses can easily be found on the Internet. A part of those gifts is destined for the displaced inside Ukraine. The city of Warsaw, for instance, has already dispatched to Ukraine a thousand tons of donations in the form of food, beverages, and hygienic and medical supplies. An important channel of support for war-torn Ukraine is the missions of the Polish Catholic Church there. They distribute much-needed material help received from Poland among the local Ukrainian population. They provide shelter, care, and spiritual support to the fleeing civilians. They also help them to reach Poland, organizing transportation and making arrangements back in Poland. Last but not least, the friars inform their brothers in Poland about the most current state of affairs in Ukraine.

Photographs from the border crossings with Ukraine, railway stations, and refugee centers picture an unending procession of women accompanied by children: 1.8 million refugees within 3 weeks. They all find care and protection mostly in the private homes of regular Poles. The scale of the Polish humanitarian help inspires awe. It also encourages reflection. Apparently, in the region which Russia would like to claim as its influence zone, there exist other energies worth backing up. The indomitable spirit of the Ukrainians and the potential for immediate spontaneous self-organization of the Poles offer much more promising prospects for the region. The United States need not recreate the stalemate of the Cold War policy there — it could try to work with more like-minded countries than the unpredictable terrorist Russia.