In late January, when a Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed like just a bad dream to many in Europe, Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wasik, declared that his country—which borders Ukraine on the opposite side of Russia—“should prepare for the worst possible scenario”: the arrival of “even a million refugees”. In just two weeks of war, Poland has already received almost 1.3 million. It is 60% of the 2.15 million Ukrainians who have crossed into neighboring countries fleeing the Russian offensive, in the fastest exodus in Europe since the end of World War II, according to the latest data from the agency of the UN for refugees, Acnur, this Tuesday.
Despite the dimensions of the human wave, the country has not become synonymous with people outdoors just when it snows and minimum temperatures reach nine degrees below zero. Virtually all Ukrainian refugees have a roof over their heads, thanks above all to relatives, friends, NGOs, volunteers, companies and local authorities, who have rushed to set up accommodation centers, organize temporary host families, spread information in Ukrainian and English, and give legal advice and psychological support, among other needs.
At the central station of the city of Lublin, in eastern Poland and with about 350,000 inhabitants, buses arrive from Ukraine every few minutes with signs of cities – written in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets – such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi , Rovno or Vinitsia. Passengers get off with suitcases, full plastic bags and a bewildered face, but soon they come across indicative signs in their language and tables where they can get free water, hot food, diapers, Kleenex or baby formula. There are also boxes with stuffed animals, clothes and even donated baby strollers. Many head straight to the train station, free these days for Ukrainians. They are almost all women and children, because men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine, with some exceptions.
The station is also filled with volunteers, several of whom speak at least Ukrainian or Russian, like Oksana Skrinnik, 29, from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. She lived in Stockholm when the war broke out and three days ago she went to Lublin to help her compatriots. “Between 1,000 and 2,000 arrive a day. Some don’t have relatives here, so they just need a roof over their heads for a day or two, get some rest and grab some food,” she says. “They usually have no idea how to act,” she adds.
That is why Nikita Nalivko moves from one side of the station to the other answering questions. He is 20 years old and wears a red armband which means that, in addition to helping, he can translate. The beginning of the Russian offensive, two weeks ago, caught him in Lublin, where he has spent three years and studies International Relations at the John Paul II Catholic University. Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, his uncle participates as a volunteer in the defense of Kiev and his father, in the Stavishche, in the capital region. His mother also refuses to leave the country.
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Lublin is not the route most refugees take, but it is a natural way out of besieged Kiev. The E373 road begins in the Ukrainian capital and ends shortly before Lublin, just two hours by car from Warsaw. The airport of the Polish capital is full of signs, recently added, with connections to numerous destinations.
Two recent polls show that 90% of Poles support receiving Ukrainian refugees and 64% are willing to help them personally, a position that seems to weigh both the fact that they are Europeans and the difficult historical relationship with Russia. In Poland, hundreds of tons of aid have been collected and in the city of Lodz, the authorities have asked to space out the blood donations of so many that have taken place in recent days. One of the main supermarket chains is also paying a bonus to its Ukrainian employees.
The Government approved on Tuesday the creation of a fund of 8,000 million slotys (about 1,670 million euros) to help Ukrainian refugees. Local governments will be compensated for the cost of providing education and healthcare to new arrivals, and Ukrainian refugees will have the same access to healthcare as Polish citizens. In addition, Poles hosting Ukrainian families will receive 40 zlotys a day (about eight euros) for up to two months. Border posts had already been enabled for pedestrians only for vehicles. The problem of employment remains. The Government wants to facilitate work permits and the collection of child allowances for Ukrainian refugees, which right now are a bureaucratic problem.
But if Poland has not been overwhelmed by the avalanche of refugees, it is largely because it is a country of passage to more popular destinations, such as Germany, Italy, Spain or the United Kingdom. Quite a few Ukrainians also have compatriots – relatives, friends or acquaintances – who host and help them these days. In Poland there are more than a million Ukrainians, mainly economic migrants attracted for years by better wages, visa facilities and a similar language. Refugees have resorted more to these informal help networks than to the reception centers deployed by the authorities, explained this Wednesday the head of UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, quoted by the Reuters agency. “It is the best way for them to feel welcome and in a family environment. Also that the burden falls less on social services, frankly, which is very important for these countries,” he added.
“90% of Ukrainians do not want to use these reception points, because they are afraid of having to stay in Poland and because it is very difficult to legalize the status in the country. Nobody wants to get involved in that process, so they just avoid contact with Polish officials,” says Karolina Wierzbinska, coordinator and co-founder of the Polish NGO Homo Faber.
Wierzbinska speaks in a macro cultural center with a cinema, library and theater converted into a refugee aid center. Only a handful sleep there, on mats and sleeping bags spread out for those with no alternative. Homo Faber manages there a call center which Ukrainian refugees can call 24 hours a day, all week. Since the Polish government published the number, they are overwhelmed. More than 5,000 people have applied as volunteers to the NGO, which is also present at four border crossings and 12 reception points.
The manager of the call answering service, Beata Siemaszko, sees a change in the pattern of calls. “We are facing more complicated problems lately, not only food and accommodation, but legal questions or questions like ‘what kind of job should I have so that my children can go to daycare’. We are the first front, trying to understand some rules on which we do not decide”, protests Siemaszko, who accuses the regional government, of the same ultra-conservative party, Law and Justice (PiS), which leads the national Executive, of lack of collaboration.
“More and more desperate people are calling, who are harder to help because it is harder to understand,” laments Rostik Sijovskii, an 18-year-old volunteer at the call center. “We also receive calls from Ukraine, but we explain to them that there is little we can do for them until they cross the border.”
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