oDR: Feature

Life at the centre of the Ukrainian refugee crisis in Poland

Volunteers are the backbone of relief efforts for Ukrainians, but they are let down by a government that – until two weeks ago – was set against refugees

Kaja Puto
17 March 2022, 3.33pm

A Ukrainian woman sits on her suitcase at the temporary refugee centre set up at a former Tesco in Przemysl, south-east Poland

Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

I stand in the middle of a huge hall in Korczowa, close to the border with Ukraine at Poland’s A4 highway. It used to be a duty-free shopping zone selling building materials that was later turned into storage space; a shed made of corrugated sheet metal, one of many at the borderland. When Russia attacked Ukraine, and masses of refugees fled west, the hall filled with donations, camp beds and human suffering. This is one of the provisional reception centres where refugees can find respite.

Between a medical support booth and a nappy-changing station sits Anastasiia Khilko – only yesterday, a singer and teacher at the Ukrainian National Music Academy in Kyiv. The thirty-something mother holds her head in her hands. Two boys move around by her side, ten-year-old Sasha and seven-year-old Vitia. When we talk, the boys start suggesting subjects themselves.

“Mum, show her how a tank light was shining into our window the whole night!”

“Mum, tell her how they bombed a kindergarten!”

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“Mum, there was this video of girls from Chernihiv throwing Molotov cocktails at the tanks!”

Anastasiia – Nastia, for short – explains the ‘three walls rule’ to me: the safest place to hide is where three walls divide us from the outside world. So when the air-raid sirens started (the one in Nastia’s neighbourhood was broken, but she was following updates from Kyiv city council on Telegram) she lay down with the boys in the corridor of her flat in the city’s Troyeshchina neighbourhood.

“When bombs were falling, Sasha fought them with a joystick. Then we told our mum not to cry,” says Vitia.

Fleeing Kyiv

Nastia and her children managed to board an evacuation bus leaving from the other side of the Dnipro, the river that runs through Kyiv. “It wasn’t easy, as it’s hard to cross the river, and the city lacks petrol,” she says. “When we were leaving the city, the sirens were on.”

Nastia shows me pictures from Bucha – a town near Kyiv that has become the site of horrific destruction by Russian forces. Nastia’s friend lives there and recently sent her a message. “We are in the cellar because rockets are falling on us,” it read. “They said that reinforcements will not arrive at least until tomorrow. I’m lying down on a mat, and my mum is sitting at a bench and resting or something like that. If a missile hits our building we will not get out of here because we locked ourselves in the cellar and the lock is broken. Everything is shaking: the building and our bodies.”

Refugees exit a bus arriving at the refugee centre

Ukrainian refugees get off a bus arriving at a refugee centre set up in a former Tesco in Przemysl, southeastern Poland

Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

Nastia still does not know where she will go. She cannot think about it right now. Maybe she will go to Potsdam, where her aunt lives, she says out loud. Maybe to join her mother in Israel.

“Our dad also moved to Israel,” Vitia says. “He left us but it was before the war began.”

Nastia gives him a sideways glance and turns it into a joke, even though it is true. Her sense of humour comes back again when I ask her about conditions at the reception centre.

“They are great,” Nastia laughs. “When I became hysterical, they gave me pills straight away.”

Crossing the border

More than 1.5 million people have crossed the border from Ukraine to Poland since the war began. From the reception centre – where one can eat, warm up and sleep – Nastia will continue her journey. She will be taken by coach or private car, as transport for refugees is provided by volunteers.

These volunteers are the backbone of the relief effort, but it comes with risks. “Welcome to Poland. We have free transport for you to your chosen location. Remember to take a photo of your driving licence,” reads a banner in Polish and Ukrainian. It is an initiative of local NGOs, who know pimps are already appearing at the eastern border of the European Union.

“Social solidarity has worked amazingly, but as an expert in human trafficking I think that this free riding is unacceptable,” says Anna Dąbrowska, director of human rights NGO Homo Faber. “We have already received first reports from young women who have been offered ‘well-paid jobs’ in the West.”

A volunteer seen preparing hot drinks for refugees arriving at a temporary reception centre set up at a former Tesco on the outskirts of Przemyl

A volunteer prepares hot drinks for refugees arriving at a temporary reception centre set up at the former Tesco

SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

Without the mobilisation of such NGOs, the situation would be tragic. Trains to Warsaw are being provided at railway junctions along the border, but the road crossings are still filled with people. According to the Polish border service, around 100,000 people arrive each day. Many of them walk on foot, particularly women with children. Once in Poland, they can easily find transport and accommodation in volunteers’ homes or – less comfortably – in shelters prepared by local town councils.

The situation for men is worse. Most of those who cross are citizens of other countries resident in Ukraine, and most are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Ukrainian men aren’t allowed to leave because the government has introduced conscription. The only way for them to cross the border is via illegal routes – for a bribe.

International students are highly visible at the border. According to data from 2019, over 80,000 people from overseas were studying in Ukraine. Many come from India, Nigeria and Morocco. Those who were legally resident in Ukraine and have passports are allowed to cross alongside Ukrainians. The rest – not more than a few thousand, so far – are taken by the border service to a special centre to confirm their identities and then are let go.

Racist attacks

In front of the hall, I meet Kharoun from India, who only several days ago was studying electrical engineering at Kharkiv Polytechnic. In fluent Russian, he tells me about his last few nights spent at a metro station. He shows me videos from the besieged town of Sumy, where his friends are stuck. They haven’t had access to water for the past few days and they’ve been eating snow. A woman approaches us. She is a volunteer from distant Poznan, who came to collect Kharoun and his two friends after she found their call for help on the internet.

“Leave them alone,” she tells me. “They have survived Kharkiv. It was a hard journey for them. And you know what’s worst? Nobody wants to take these students. They spit on them, saying that since they lived there, they should also go and fight.” The woman gives Kharoun a maternal hug.

A young girl draws on a table as she waits in the resting zone with destination to Czech Republic and Slovakia at the refugee centre

A child draws as people in the background lie in camp beds in the refugee centre

Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

Since the first day of war, social media has been rocked by fake news about violence from refugees. Some allege rapes and beatings that allegedly took place in the border regions on the Polish side. One refugee, according to a tweet by the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Maciej Wasik, robbed a shop. Polish nationalists shared the news – and so did dozens of suspicious, freshly created Facebook accounts.

Police denied it at first, but organised groups of far-Right activists and hooligans have taken to the streets of Przemysl, a city close to the border in south-eastern Poland. They communicate via a Telegram channel called “Engineers of Przemysl”. Local press has reported racist attacks; openDemocracy is told about a similar case in which a German volunteer of Indian descent was attacked. Poland’s Institute for Internet and Social Media Research warns that “incidents of misinformation” in the country have grown by 20,000% and police are ordered to put a stop to the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of women’ who had been behind racist attacks.

For one night, the city of 60,000 resembles a scene from a detective movie: to the sound of sirens, and a train rushing along a bridge over the San river, police are checking the trunks of vehicles.

Unity in the face of bombs

I talk about this situation with drivers at the reception centres who are waiting to give a ride to “women and children”. They echo the claims of racist fake news and express concern that the foreigners are not students from Ukraine, but Aleksandr Lukashenka’s migrants.

Let’s recap: in 2021, Belarus encouraged migrants from the Middle East and Africa to cross the Polish border from its territory. Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice government took a firm stance: no migrants allowed. They refused to accept even those who asked clearly for asylum. Border guards mercilessly pushed everyone back into the snowy, muddy forests of the Podlasie region, while Right-wing media published fake news very similar to that which they are now nominally fighting against. For example, at the time, claims that refugees were involved in the sexual harassment of animals were widely aired.

Law and Justice used the situation to encourage a siege mentality among their voters and encourage anti-refugee sentiment. But when the war in Ukraine began, the Polish government changed its tune. President Andrzej Duda declared full solidarity with Ukrainian refugees, regardless of the numbers. And he has had the public behind him. According to a poll by the Institute of Market and Social Research, one day after the war began, 90% of Poles supported accepting Ukrainian refugees. In a divided Poland, this is a rare phenomenon.

A woman looks for clothes among the stacked goods given by humanitarians at the refugee camp
Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

It is visible even in the traditionally anti-Ukrainian, ultra-conservative Podkarpacie region. While the Polish-Ukrainian quarrels in the area go back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, they have vanished in the face of Putin’s bombs. Donations filled even the smallest village clubhouses and here and there one can spot Ukrainian flags. Border guards, who only two weeks ago gave Ukrainians contemptuous glances at best, today carry Ukrainian children to buses, their faces filled with empathy. And not only when they are being filmed.

Polish solidarity

“Putin’s aggression against Ukraine triggered one of Poland’s greatest traumas – that of being abandoned by the West at the time of war against a horrific enemy,” says Olena Babakova, an expert in migration and Polish-Ukrainian relations, explaining Poland’s rush of solidarity. I would also add that it is also fear: for most Poles, war has never been so close to home.

But the overwhelming readiness to help a neighbour in need is one of the few resources that the Polish government has at its disposal. The Polish version of ‘welcome culture’ lacks the support of strong and democratic state institutions.

“Reception points are not enough. The whole burden is on the shoulders of local city councils, NGOs and an army of volunteers,” says Dąbrowska, of Homo Faber. “The government brags about their successes, which are solely the result of our work. When Homo Faber started a phone line for migrants in Lublin, the number immediately appeared on the government’s crisis response website. With no information about us, of course, because Homo Faber is a ‘bad, Left-wing organisation’.”

Dąbrowska recalls that, for the first few years of Law and Justice’s rule, the government denied migrant-focused NGOs access to grants and harassed them with endless restrictions. “How can I trust them now?” she asks.

Volunteer burnout

The impotence of the state was clear several days ago at a parking lot close to a former Tesco in Przemysl. The collective chaos has turned it into a transfer hub. There is a pile of unsorted clothes on one side, Indians from Vienna making vegetarian food on the other, and between them stands Adam – a man with a past. “Only God will judge me,” says one of the many criminal tattoos covering his body. Adam is grilling a chicken for the refugees, giving away cigarettes and sniffling loudly.

“I can’t look at the poor kids,” he says.

How did this place become a transfer hub? It began with the fact that the road to Medyka, the biggest crossing with Ukraine, is all dug up. When the first refugees appeared at the border, the police simply closed it. The people arriving in cars from all over Europe to pick up family members have, since then, been directed to the parking lot at the former Tesco. While ‘former Tesco’ is nowhere to be found on Google Maps, it doesn’t matter – it is a large and empty parking space and they didn’t have any better ideas. The police and the fire brigade organised buses to bring refugees to the parking lot. The role of the state ended there.

A Polish firefighter carries a young child off of a bus at the Tesco temporary refugee centre, 3 March 2022

A Polish firefighter carries a young child off of a bus at the Tesco temporary refugee centre, 3 March 2022

Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

Refugees get off the buses and receive sim cards from the volunteers, plus a few warm words and tips on where to find food. Questions about bureaucratic formalities can’t be answered, because the answer is still unknown.

“A bill has not been passed yet, but don’t worry, nobody is going to kick you out of here,” volunteers say. “Have you eaten? You can now go inside the hall.” In the empty booths, a miniature Europe has formed; the doors are covered with pieces of paper announcing planned destinations: Gdansk, Wroclaw, Berlin, Madrid. Would you like to go to Spain? Go to the last booth and a volunteer will try to connect you. As long as you can find each other in the crowd, where overwhelmed volunteers work day and night.

“Przemysl’s mayor came here only once, with cameras. He promised some infrastructure but in the last few days, they only managed to bring portable toilets,” a volunteer complains. “While the number of refugees is growing, the number of drivers ready to give Ukrainians a free ride is falling. A rumour has circulated on social media that they are no longer needed.”

After being criticised on social media, the mayor once again takes to the parking lot in front of Tesco and wanders around posing for pictures. Perhaps he forgets that he won the last election thanks to an anti-Ukrainian campaign. But the border is not a problem compared with what is happening in big cities. Warsaw Central train station is full of people sleeping on the floor. There are still many people willing to help, but there is not enough accommodation and coordination.

“The heartfelt response is still working, but it will burn out in a few days,” Dąbrowska says. “We already receive phone calls from people saying they can’t have people stay over forever. I am particularly worried about our Ukrainian volunteers. They are trying to help with one hand and holding a phone in the other, where they read terrible messages from their families. For them, it is a double burden.”

‘A worsening mental state’

The special bill on support for Ukrainians has not reached parliament yet, but we already know its details. Refugees who come to Poland can stay there for at least 18 months without any formalities. Ukrainians, as well as people who host them, will be eligible for financial support from the state.

“It is hard to talk about concrete numbers yet, but the majority of Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the Polish border are unlikely to travel further,” says Babakova, the migration expert. “The fact that Poland is [already] home to around 1 to 1.5 million Ukrainians plays a role here. It is close to their abandoned home and people appreciate the gestures of solidarity with Ukraine.”

Unfortunately, one parliamentary bill is not enough to build a functioning pre-school and medical system, and competition for already stretched services is only going to increase. Poland lacks an integration policy, and there is limited access to Polish language courses. The Polish Zloty is falling in value, inflation is skyrocketing, and a recession is coming – the perfect conditions for ethnic conflict. The next stages of Russia’s information war will aim to exploit these issues. On the Facebook page for my part of Warsaw, a post by a suspicious new account has appeared suggesting that, because of Ukrainians, there are no more bananas in a shop in Grzybowska street. So far, those commenting are focusing on the Russian syntax of the poster, and the majority of the reactions are mocking. But not all Kremlin trolls are so stupid. With time, they will find better triggers than the lack of bananas.

“Polish-Ukrainian friendship could be cooled by the fact that people reaching Poland are in an increasingly worse mental state,” Babakova says. “These are no longer people who escaped war, but people who have experienced it.”

In such a state it is hard to express gratitude to self-satisfied volunteers. And we know from the German experience of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016 that any interruption in supplies of gratitude can hugely affect a country’s ‘welcome culture’.

Translated by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

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