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Grassroots heroes – the Polish response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

Photo credits: Marek Antoni Iwańczuk

On one very gloomy winter day, Polish train stations and border crossings became overflown with people escaping the terrible and senseless war that struck Ukraine. Every missile fired meant hundreds more rushing towards the neighbouring countries. Nobody was prepared. Nobody knew what to do. But when a country with which you share so much history, no matter how troublesome, is invaded by a common enemy, you cannot stand still. So many Polish citizens also rushed to the border crossings, train stations and supermarkets to aid those in need.

Poland turned blue and yellow one day. There were shortages of supplies in supermarkets — not because of global fluctuations in the supply chains, but because people kept buying necessities to send to the donation centres. Those who had cars drove to the border to transport refugees to bigger cities. Those who had room to spare hosted them. The real estate agents waived their fees to help refugees find accommodation. Telecommunication companies provided free Internet access and SIM cards. Small businesses turned their stores into donation centres or activity rooms for refugee children. Artists started organising workshops for refugees to show support and give a glimmer of hope. The Polish government created special national identity numbers so that Ukrainians could apply for a job or open a bank account. For a few weeks, everything else slowed down.

Goodwill heroes with little support

Yet, this sudden mobilisation joined with poor humanitarian structures has also created chaos. There was a lack of information about the essential needs and a lack of organisation to distribute the supplies. The containers at the border crossings quickly became overfilled with rotting food. Łukasz Prądzyński, who was volunteering in Przemyśl and Medyka, criticises the grave lack of organisation from the political structures that should be ready to respond to such crises. “People would show up wanting to give the Ukrainian children a teddy bear to clear their conscience, but were not ready to perform mundane administrative tasks such as registering the refugees,” he tells me. As with any other crisis, there were good-willed people, but there were also some willing to exploit the human suffering. Some used the crisis as an opportunity to employ women as sex workers by promising them seemingly secure jobs in nightclubs. Others posed as volunteers only to offer unidentified drugs to women at the train stations. Those helping at the border lacked the training and the resources to properly identify and reduce the risks resulting from the uncertainty of the situation, which disproportionately affects young women. “There were definitely some people with good intentions, but we had no system to do due diligence. We would have to go with our gut because when you have thousands of people desperately in need, you take what you get.”

There were no governmental structures to respond to such a sudden disaster. Mr Prądzyński says that the most effective were the Polish Scouts (a youth group created in the interwar period and played a prominent role during the Second World War) and the fire brigades. They were the only ones trained in first-aid and ready to undertake long shifts. Amidst this organisational chaos, humanitarian aid organisations could do very little as there were no systems in place to allow them to deliver the help. Therefore, with limited resources and support from the state, various volunteers are doing the most they can. “We were told to do everything,” Mr Prądzyński recalls. Many volunteers had to use their own money to fund the humanitarian aid, says Sebastian Litner, who is working at the border. “Even the official warehouses were not made available to store the supplies. There is a lot of politics and very little action,” he comments on the involvement of the Polish government.

With time, more NGOs, both Polish and international, appeared. The aid became more organised, better directed, and adjusted to the current needs. As the initial shock settled down, Polish administration slowly became more collaborative. The train stations further from the border became the main immigration centres, and the decreased turnover of refugees became more manageable. Volunteers would offer information about transportation or resources to find accommodation. Yet, the humanitarian response still relied on individual mobilisation and NGOs with very little help from the government. “You are doing it because there will be this one person who cries from gratefulness,” Mr Prądzyński concludes. However, it sounds like they do it because they cannot rely on the system to offer effective help.

This humanitarian crisis, despite all the help offered by the citizens, has revealed the Polish administration’s underlying issues. Once the volunteers at the border offered essentials and the volunteers at the train stations directed refugees to desired destinations, all the rest was left to fate. Those who had families already living abroad were lucky — they could arrange accommodation in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris or Madrid. But the rest arrived in Polish cities with no idea where to go. Some were able to find accommodation by asking around the Ukrainian diaspora or via social media, but there are still many who did not. Even those who are now living with Polish families may have basic needs satisfied, but there is no long-term response plan in place from the government. The war is likely to go on for much longer than anticipated; what will happen to the families sharing a room or sleeping in provisional asylums?

Common narratives

The overarching humanitarian response came as a surprise to those in the country as well as those abroad. Poland, which has a reputation for its unwelcoming immigration policies, suddenly found itself on the frontiers of the biggest war in Europe in years. In the eyes of the foreigners, this was an unprecedented break from the very negative response to the crisis on the Belarusian border, which happened only last year. Thousands of Middle Eastern refugees were promised asylum in Belarus and, then, were deported to the Polish border, which refused them entry. The Western world quickly noticed the divergence in the reactions to both refugee crises and attributed it to racial prejudice. The fact that the majority of Polish society still struggles with racism is nothing new. While the discrimination toward Middle-Eastern refugees and immigrants is something that desperately requires more attention, the answers to why Poland helped Ukraine go far beyond that.

Considering the large Ukrainian diaspora in Poland, the effects of the war were much more visible. What is more, every other Polish citizen has a family history of Russian occupation and invasion. The generational trauma, the shared fear, and the neighbourly understanding unified people. Naturally, we tend to be moved much more by the catastrophes that directly relate to us. This, of course, does not justify the discrimination many non-White immigrants still, unfortunately, face in Poland, but rather it shows that the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis has much more complex implications for the neighbouring countries. For a few weeks, the heavily polarised political scene forgot about their disputes. Regardless of their views on immigration, everyone started helping. One thing became clear — Ukraine needs our help. Those who went to the border had little time to ponder the political ramifications of the humanitarian response. What mattered was the unjust suffering of thousands of people seeking shelter from missiles. Politicians were slower than social media — people started offering help before the government could present any official statement (exactly the opposite of how it happened on the Belarusian border, where the media highlighted the issue only after the entry was refused to humanitarian organisations).

There is still much to be done. The war is unpredictable. Who knows when another missile hits and trains from Ukraine start arriving again. Humanitarian aid can only offer an immediate solution. A long-term response plan from both Polish and European governments is necessary. The resources for volunteers who are working with limited supplies are still needed. Visas for Ukrainians to other countries still have to be issued. Accommodation for refugees abroad is in high demand. The volunteers may be grassroots heroes, but there is only so much that can be done with no comprehensive administrative structures and policies. Yet, the reason why the civilian help was able to achieve so much was precisely because it was not directly tied to politics. Perhaps, such a swift response was only possible because there was little time to question the ramifications of the crisis for the divisive issues such as tradition or economy. The political and administrative structures were shown to be less effective in an emergency than grassroots mobilisation. It was focused on the people in need rather than on “sad political games of sad people,” in the words of Mr. Prądzyński.

The story of the Polish humanitarian response is a bitter-sweet one. Ordinary citizens massively rushed to help in any way they could. But the government, just like in many other cases, stood still. It is a grassroots movement, with volunteers and not political leaders at its core. As a Polish woman, this was perhaps the first time in many years, that I could say I was proud of my country. The stories of solidarity I heard from my friends and family in Warsaw melted my heart. Amongst the awfully unjust war, there was a glimmer of hope. That perhaps, we are still able to stand up for our neighbours in need. At the same time, the lack of response from governments, Polish and European, broke my heart. What this showed was that in the face of human suffering academic and political debates become secondary. But it also revealed the ineffectiveness of the role of state politics in the current system. Because what it is all for when a government is unable to help a neighbouring country at war?

Julia Oberda (Dołhobyczów-Uhrynów border crossing), Julia Perendyk (Zachodnia Bus Station in Warsaw), and Dorota Uszpolewicz (Warsaw) contributed to the reporting.

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