Field report from Poland: how is the Ukrainian refugee situation handled?
“If this crisis was tackled by NGOs or the government only, the situation would be much worse”
by: Anasuya Virmani
In Poland, both individual volunteers and NGO representatives work tirelessly to help the 1.3 million refugees who so far arrived from neighbouring Ukraine. A reporter of The Gaudie visited a refugee hostel in Warsaw and talked to volunteer coordinator Karolina Bekker and also approached Karolina Zlocka who volunteers as a driver at the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Hundreds of boxes full of baby wipes are stacked up in one room. In another, volunteers sort donations. In a third one, someone collects kid’s toys and women’s clothing. The old office building at Woloska 7 in Warsaw becomes a safe space and donation point for Ukrainian families; mostly women and children who play in a recently installed playroom, watch movies and make new friends. Hope is clearly visible in their eyes.
Donated goods stacked up at Woloska 7. Photo courtesy of Anasuya Virmani.
Under the auspice of the Social Welfare Organisation of the City of Warsaw, the main coordinators Bartosz Domanski and Michalina Wieczorek work with 150 volunteers a day to accomplish what seems impossible: transforming the old office building into a refugee hostel with a capacity of 600 people. As of now, around 400 people are there, however, the coordinators expect more.
Many shelters in Warsaw have been preparing themselves since way before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February. Yet, due to little government support, every hand is still needed two weeks after the first attacks.
At Woloska 7, volunteers are working tirelessly in three shifts with a well-developed registration and coordination system.
Volunteer coordinator Karolina Bekker is proud of the results which stem from the great involvement and tireless effort of dozens of volunteers and staff. “We see Woloska 7 as a well-functioning environment, which will help mainly women and children to settle down in Poland, send their children to school and find good jobs”, Bekker explains. “We are also helping our guests – she continues – by looking for work opportunities for them.” Some guests will soon be moving on to other countries, some might stay longer. This depends on whether Woloska 7 gets enough funding from the authorities.
So far, the refugee hostel has received donations both from private people and from companies, and recently, a doctor, nurse, child psychologist, and adult psychologist have joined the team.
While Karolina Bekker works closely with the Warsaw authorities, there are other volunteers who are disappointed by the late or insufficient reaction of the Polish government and therefore organise themselves independently. Amongst them is Karolina Zlocka, a 25-year-old fashion graduate working as a stylist, who helps Ukrainians reach safety in Poland. With her friends working in the film industry, they set up a messenger chat in which they share updates from the border and try to find drivers to pick up those in need of a lift. “My film friends and I are not cooperating with an NGO, we are just trying to work together, like so many others” Zlocka states.
“If this crisis was tackled by NGOs or the government only, the situation would be much worse” she adds.
Indeed, some volunteers complain that the Polish government is just presenting itself in front of the media as greatly dealing with the crisis but in fact, has “done far too little”. “The reason why we are dealing quite well with this situation is the heroism and the goodwill of regular citizens […] not that of the government” Zlocka highlights. Refugees having to sleep in grim shelters and spend their own money on toiletries could have been avoided by the earlier and directed allocation of funds – she explains. As long as there is no more governmental support, handling the crisis is extremely overwhelming and tiring for the majority of volunteers.
Zlocka and many of her friends work 12-14 hours a day. Some are volunteering at the train station, some at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Zlocka has been driving to the frontier twice a week, picking up refugees, sometimes with pets, and assisting them in finding accommodation and jobs in Warsaw. Her parents even vacated her old room, offering it as a place to stay to a mother and her two daughters.
A volunteer's badge at Woloska 7. Photo courtesy of Anasuya Virmani.
The solidarity and empathy of the volunteers is highly remarkable. “This is a really beautiful movement run by Polish citizens. It doesn’t happen so often that I am really, really proud about how my nation faces this crisis” says Zlocka. Furthermore, volunteering is helping Bekker to “cope with the sadness and anxiety all of us are feeling now”. “This is why I also volunteer in most of my free time [at Woloska 7]” she adds.
Bekker also insists that we need leaders who will coordinate, plan for the future, and support the efforts of volunteers dealing with crises.
Zlocka highlights, that there is no space for racism and discrimination and never has been. Upholding equality is vital, especially in the light of racist entry policies that discriminate against non-Ukrainian refugees. “Only if we come together in such difficult times – Bekker closes – will we be able to find smart and effective solutions.”
If you want to support Woloska 7 to provide beds and school equipment to help more Ukrainian women and children to get back on their feet, it is possible to make a donation to a foundation that supports the shelter here.