»The Willingness to Help Is Enormous« Polish Volunteers Turn Out to Help Ukrainians Seeking Safety

More than 160,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Poland in just three days. They are showered with generosity upon crossing the border – with some locals even welcoming them into their homes.
By Jan Puhl in Lublin, Poland
Ukrainian children at the Dorohusk border crossing. Volunteers are there waiting for them to hand out soup and sweets.

Ukrainian children at the Dorohusk border crossing. Volunteers are there waiting for them to hand out soup and sweets.

Foto: Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

The cultural center in Lublin, a renovated convent from the year 1725 right in the heart of the city, is supposed to be a place of "equality, fraternity and freedom” according to its charter. These days, that aspiration is being demonstrated in real life. In the basement, beneath a huge banner on the ceiling the colors of the Ukrainian flag, the team coordinating refugee aid is hard at work.

"Loyalty to Ukraine,” is their slogan. Every few minutes, new volunteers arrive to sign up. "The willingness to help is enormous,” says Anna Dąbrowska. She is an experienced activist who attracted a fair degree of popularity in the fall. At the time, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko had lured several thousand refugees from Syria and other conflict regions to the Polish border. Warsaw, though, showed no mercy and blocked their onward journeys into the European Union. Dąbrowska spent days wandering through the forests at the border helping those who managed to make it across the border anyway.

Right now, she is walking rapidly through the rooms of the culture center, her telephone ringing constantly. She had been hoping to find some time to work on her Ph.D. dissertation this month, about "Ukrainian migrants in Poland since 2014.” She and her husband had actually been sitting in a train to Berlin on Thursday morning, looking forward to a couple of days exploring the German capital.

But they only made it to Warsaw. That is when the first rockets began exploding in Poland’s eastern neighbor. Dąbrowska and her husband had a quick coffee and headed back to Lublin. "The attack on the entire country, the invasion, is the worst imaginable scenario,” she says. "We knew that an unprecedented number of refugees would be arriving.” In just the first four days, Poland’s immigration authorities counted the arrival of 213,000 Ukrainians. And Poland will likely remain the most important reception country in the EU. Poland, of all places.

The country, after all, has been governed by a national conservative government since 2015 and has consistently stood in the way of efforts in recent years to draft a working immigration policy for the EU. In alliance with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland has blocked the introduction of a quota system for the distribution of refugees within the EU. The country is currently in the process of building a high fence to block refugees from crossing the border from the east – and surveys show that the majority of the country’s population supports the restrictive approach.

The huge wave of solidarity for Ukraine stands in marked contrast to that recent tradition.

Despite a difficult, sometimes bloody history between Poland and Ukraine, the government has clearly sided with Kyiv and authorized weapons deliveries. Warsaw is playing the role of mentor to Ukraine in the EU. Before Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki flew to Berlin for talks, he said: "There needs to be real assistance with regards to weapons. The Ukrainian soldiers are also fighting for our freedom.”

The willingness to help among private citizens is impressive. At a collection point behind the Dorohusk border crossing, volunteers are serving soup and handing out sweets to children. They have fallen way behind when it comes to sorting out the various donations they have received. In one tent, plastic bags full of noodles, diapers and blankets are stacked. In front of it stand a handful of people holding up signs: "Who wants to go to Warsaw? Who is heading for Krakow?” Such ride services are welcome since Ukrainians who aren’t arriving by car need onward transportation to friends and family who work and live in Poland.

Helpers like Katarzyna Sokołowska go even further. The call came on Friday evening, with a friend asking her: "I have a woman here with two small children and they’re cold. Can you take them in?” Two hours later, Alyona, 10-month-old Timur and two-and-a-half-year-old Aleksandra, from Kyiv, moved in with the Sokołowskas.

They live in a roomy house 20 minutes from Lublin with a large, park-like yard complete with raked gravel paths. Sokołowska has downloaded a translation app to help with the communication. "It works surprisingly well,” she says. She works as a customs agent for an import-export company and her husband is an automobile salesman. On this evening, he drives home a van from the company so that there is room for the guests as well.

Sokołowska is bursting with energy, she is involved in a kind of citizens’ initiative, collects groceries for those in need, offers training to others. "It’s obvious that we also have to help the Ukrainians,” she says. Meanwhile, her 13-year-old son Szymon is patiently rolling a ball back and forth with little Aleksandra. Almost a hundred families from her wider circle of acquaintances, she says, have agreed to take in Ukrainians. Someone rings at the door and drops off groceries and hygiene products. "We will pass these things to Polish hosts who might have space, but no money, to accommodate their guests.” At the Sokołowskis’ home, the first joint meal with Alyona and the kids is about to take place: soup, pork chops and potatoes. "Very Polish.”

"The Windows of our House Shattered”

The guests’ laundry is already in the dryer. The children have been bathed and Alyona was able to get some sleep. She is living in the room on the second floor and has repurposed the ping-pong table into a changing table. She is a slender woman in her early thirties with dyed hair who moves through the house in a terrycloth suit. Her hosts have said she can take anything that’s in the fridge.

She says she used to work for an office furniture company in Kyiv, and that her husband sent her away after the first reports of bombs and rockets. She didn’t hear or see anything, she says, but a burned, metallic smell enveloped her Kyiv neighborhood on Thursday. She had planned to only let her husband bring her to the village of Konotop. It’s in the north, where she lived as a child and where her family still has an apartment. "I don’t think there will be much fighting in such a small city,” she thought. "But right on the first day, a tank column without the Belarusian national emblem drove through the town. They seemingly were shooting around to intimidate us, the windows in our house shattered, our neighbors tell us.”

Alyona, a mother from Kyiv, and her two children found accomodation with the Sokołowski family. She is planning on heading to Spain to stay with her mother for a time.

Alyona, a mother from Kyiv, and her two children found accomodation with the Sokołowski family. She is planning on heading to Spain to stay with her mother for a time.

Foto: Rafał Milach / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

So, the family joined the traffic jam at the Polish border and her husband went back to Kyiv. "He says he is only serving in the medical service. But I think he is downplaying the danger so as not to worry me,” Alyona says. She is lucky despite everything, not only with the Sokołowskis. Her mother has been living in Valencia for the last 10 years, and Alyona plans to fly there with her children in the next days and take shelter there for now. "I have no idea what will happen after that.”

Katazyna Sokołowska says she will take in other refugees once Alyona heads off to Spain. She says it is currently important to "have a big heart.” Who knows, she says, if they themselves will have to flee next, in a few years. "Who knows what else Putin wants.”

Inside the cultural center in Lublin, the crowd is still large in the evening. Representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) were there and received an update from Anna Dąbrowska. The Poles, she says, are so hospitable because they know the Ukrainians and feel culturally close to them. "They are relieved: This time it’s white people coming, and not some Muslims.”

Dąbrowska is torn: On the one hand, she is happy about her fellow citizens’ willingness to help, but on the other hand: "What seemingly matters to the Poles is not how needy someone is – the Syrians are also coming from war – but religion and skin color.” She expects hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians to come. "Hopefully the willingness to help will last and not fizzle out in a month.”