Global kindness: Polish volunteers mount vast Ukraine relief effort
[Mar 14, 2022: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]
Volunteers provide food for refugees at Warsaw’s central train station. More than 1.6mn have crossed into Poland as they flee the war in Ukraine. (CREDIT: Marcin Obara/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Beata Borucka's social media outlets provide Polish grandmothers with advice on everything from how to use Facebook to staying fit. However, last week, she gave her more than 300,000 followers something different: information on how to become a "temporary grandmother" to Ukrainian children forced to flee to Poland after Russia invaded their country
As the self-styled "most famous grandmother on the internet", she partnered with the creators of an app designed to help the elderly stay at home during the pandemic by connecting them with others who would be able to help with tasks like shopping. Within days, the app was re-engineered to connect Polish grandmothers with Ukrainian refugees needing extra help with their children. Nearly 1,000 people have registered since the app was launched a week ago.
“Polish grandmothers are not very rich. But what we have is heart. And we have time, because generally we are retired,” said Borucka. “Now the main challenge is to reach Ukrainian mothers and tell them we are ready to help.”
Borucka's initiative is part of a huge civic mobilization occurring throughout Poland as the country struggles to provide help and housing to the flood of refugees coming from its eastern neighbor.
Mid-year estimates which include Venezuelans displaced abroad but exclude subsequent events such as the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. Where possible, data account for further movements of refugees; an additional 282,487 Ukrainian refugees have not been assigned to a host country (CREDIT: UNHCR, FT research)
In the two weeks since the Russian invasion, 2.7 million people have fled Ukraine, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. More than 1.68m people have entered Poland and with the war showing no signs of slowing down, neither the refugees nor those helping them can predict how long they will stay.
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Despite the uncertainty, Poles have responded with generosity. Tens of thousands of people have offered their homes to accommodate refugees and many have donated clothes and food to help transport them to cities and other EU countries.
However, as the crisis escalates, tensions are growing. The response, according to aid organizations, has relied heavily on the kindness of strangers due to a lack of centralised organization. As of the end of last week, Warsaw's mayor said refugees had already increased the city's population by 15 percent. In Krakow, Poland's second city, officials warned that the city was "slowly losing its capacity to accept more refugees".
“Basing the system on the goodwill of private citizens won’t be enough,” mentioned Agnieszka Kosowicz, head of the Polish Migration Discussion board. “More co-ordination is necessary immediately, because we are in a situation in which 100,000 people are arriving every day.”
Beata Borucka’s initiative to match Polish grandmothers with Ukrainian refugee families is among the wave of support offered by Poles to those fleeing the Russian invasion. (CREDIT: Monika Szalek)
Zofia Jaworowska is one of the key figures in the civil society response. She runs Grupa Zasoby, a non-governmental organization that pairs refugees with Poles willing to host them at Warsaw's Western Station. As of now, she said, the organization has received 4,500 offers of accommodation, totaling 15,000 to 20,000 beds, and has already hosted 3,500 refugees.
“We could do even more, but we felt it’s better to help fewer people in a way that is completely safe, because we feel responsible,” she said.
Lucja Skolankiewicz is an example of how spontaneously the response has been. The student from Warsaw moved out of her flat so that three refugees could move in. As a translator, she was asked to go to the border before they arrived and to leave the keys in her letterbox for the Ukrainians to find. She said, "I keep in touch with them, so I really hope we'll meet.". However, she didn't know when she would do so.
Ukrainian refugees arrive at a Warsaw railway station. Polish groups warn that the numbers fleeing the Russian invasion could outstrip Poland’s capacity to receive them. (CREDIT: Mateusz Marek/EPA/Shutterstock)
Businesses have also joined the effort. Businesses have also joined the effort. Business organizations have also been involved. Exhibition halls have been transformed into reception centers. Businesses have contributed goods. Others have donated cash. Toy chain Smyk gave its employees time off to volunteer. The founder of the Arche hotel group, Wladyslaw Grochowski, offered to put up 5,000 people for free and set aside $1.15 million for the project. In Przemysl, a town located some 15 km from the border, a Zabka grocery store offered free food and drink to refugees last week. “We’ve had so many,” said a cashier.
During the 2015 migration crisis, Poland's conservative-nationalist government opposed EU asylum quotas. Despite this, public opinion has been strongly in support of Poland, faced with an attack by one of Poland's historic enemies on a country with which Poles share close linguistic and cultural ties.
In the Polish capital, Ukrainian flags flutter on cars, while some display messages of support. In a recent poll for the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, almost 60 percent of respondents favored taking in refugees.
Where possible, data account for further movements of refugees out of the initial host country. (CREDIT: UNHCR)
The experience of the large Ukrainian diaspora already in the country - more than one million Ukrainians lived in Poland before the current influx - has also reassured many Poles that the refugees will integrate into Polish society.
According to Jaworowska, Ukrainians who cared for her grandparents were all incredible women who had no communication problems.
Despite Poland's desire to help, the sheer number of refugees and the speed at which they arrive is outpacing Poland's ability to receive them. As the crisis enters its second week, many volunteers are exhausted and cities that have been hit by the influx are running out of space.
Fundacja Brata Alberta, an aid organization in Krakow, said on Friday that the situation is "tragic", adding: "We're calling lots of places, but the answer remains the same: there are no free beds."
This situation is also evident in Warsaw. People are sleeping on the floor at the central station next to piles of donated blankets and children's toys while they wait to travel on or find accommodation.
“There are so many people who don’t know what to do, where to go, where they are coming from, who don’t know the language,” said Olga, a Ukrainian volunteer, as she took a brief cigarette break amid the crowds swirling around the station.
Polish scouts sort items donated for Ukrainian refugees at a centre near Warsaw. Aid organisations say volunteers are receiving inadequate support from the state and are exhausted (CREDIT: Alik Keplicz/AFP/Getty Images)
“They are cold and hungry. There are lots of children, and they are upset and their mums are upset . . . The Poles are very kind, they are supporting us, but there is just not enough space for people.”
Co-ordinator Joanna Niewczas, who works at Torwar, a large arena in central Warsaw that is being used for temporary accommodation for around 500 refugees, says that volunteers are receiving inadequate support from the state and are nearing the limit of their physical and mental endurance.
She said volunteers bought medicines from their own pockets and called local restaurants to ask for donations of food. Refugees had to clean the toilets and, despite cases of Covid, there was a lack of hygiene products.
In order to assist refugees, the government has proposed a law allowing Ukrainians to stay in Poland for 18 months and use the education and healthcare systems. Individuals and entities providing shelter will also receive 40 zlotys per day for up to two months, and refugees will receive 300 zlotys at the end of the two-month period.
Those involved with migration policy, however, say a much more systematic approach is needed, and local officials have started to seek international assistance. As Kosowicz pointed out, this is especially important when it comes to caring for refugees with disabilities or serious illnesses.
“The Polish health system and support system for people with disabilities is very weak, and we don’t have the human resources to look after children that have serious health problems,” she warned.
Seeing the large number of refugees still arriving in Poland and no end to the war in sight, Borucka is also concerned that the country will not be able to cope with the situation. Poland, she said, had a duty to help its neighbors.
“Before Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, so many Polish families used to have the help of Ukrainians at home,” she said. “My family has had a very strong connection with a Ukrainian family for 30 years. Now we [must] give them something back.”
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Note: Materials provided above by The Financial Times. Content may be edited for style and length.
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