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Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times

The people of Poland step up

By Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough | March 19, 2022
Refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border (Małgorzata Dyrda)
Refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border (Małgorzata Dyrda)

Like a lot of my Polish compatriots, I have had no illusions about Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer turned president. Having always known what the Soviet Union is capable of, we have never bought into the rosy view of the Russian Federation. Painful historical experiences are part of Poles’ collective memory—not just for people who lived through the Second World War and recall the dire consequences of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the Katyń massacre of Polish officers, but also for those like me, who were born after the end of World War II but lived through the long and brutal Soviet rule. When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was dismantled, people in the former Soviet republics and satellite countries were somewhat optimistic about the new world order. Very quickly, though, it became clear that Russia would not be a liberal democracy and would remain the true successor of the Soviet Union. After Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999, Putin took over as acting president and ordered the destruction of the Russian city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, killing tens of thousands of civilians. By then, believing in Russia’s good intentions was tantamount to wishful thinking, yet so many Western governments chose to do just that.

The flow of refugees from Ukraine began almost immediately after the Russian attack on February 24. The direction of their flight was influenced by proximity to another country’s border, and that’s why some headed for Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, or Romania. Most refugees, however, chose to cross the Polish border, even if they had started out quite far away from it. As I’m writing this, well over 1.5 million have gone to Poland. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicts that the total may rise to five million in the next few weeks. Ultimately, the refugees want to reach a place where they have friends or family members, one that is not too distant from their native country, where many hope to return when the war is over. No wonder, then, that Poland, which already had a Ukrainian diaspora estimated at more than a million people, has become their primary destination, or that most new arrivals intend to stay. No one knows how many are in transit to other European countries.

I wondered what the reaction of the Polish authorities would be to the influx of Ukrainian refugees. Their response to the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, which began last summer, was shameful. It was instigated by the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who lured refugees and migrants from Syria and Afghanistan, promising safe passage to Europe in retaliation for EU sanctions against his autocratic administration. The refugees were taken to the Polish border by Belarusian security, but each time they crossed into Poland, the border guards pushed them back into Belarus. The right-wing populist Polish government had militarized the area to keep journalists and humanitarian agencies out, all the while maintaining that it had to protect Schengen Area countries, which have abolished internal borders, from the influx.

Some of the unwanted refugees hid in the forest, and when temperatures dropped to freezing, many suffered from hypothermia. Nineteen died, among them pregnant women and children. Despite being harassed and threatened with arrest, Polish civilians delivered food, warm clothing, and tents. Some of the refugees managed to get medical attention from doctors who came to help, even though the doctors knew what they were doing was illegal. The government-controlled Polish media practiced scare tactics, presenting the asylum seekers not as refugees from war-torn countries but as economic migrants and potential Muslim terrorists. The differing attitudes toward these refugees reflected the deep political divisions within Polish society. Some people were appalled by the official response, and some supported it. Now a wall is being built to keep asylum seekers out.

After the Russian assault on Ukraine, however, the ruling Law and Justice party didn’t resort to nationalist rhetoric, deciding instead on an open-door policy. The Polish parliament has just passed a special act meant to assist Ukrainians. Each person will get the equivalent of a Social Security number, a small amount of cash relief, and the right to stay in Poland for 18 months, which can then be extended by another 18 months. They will not need a work permit to get a job and will have free access to medical care and other public services. The act doesn’t comply with EU laws, though, because it excludes people who are non-citizens of Ukraine but had the bad luck to be there when the Russians attacked. The implicit message can be easily read: some refugees are more equal than others.

There’s no question that the government has decided to take certain steps in response to the empathy and solidarity shown by Polish society. But higher-ranking officials, like some regions’ governors, are often slow and inept. It’s ordinary people who are opening their homes and working long hours to feed and care for the refugees, as well as nongovernmental agencies, private businesses, local charities, and spontaneously organized aid groups that do everything they can to ease the adaptation of displaced people.

Living in America, I can only imagine what it’s like for the Ukrainians. As we all do, I see images on television and on my computer screen that look like scenes from a doomsday movie. I also read news reports and commentaries in English and in Polish. But what I hear from friends and family in Poland confirms what I glean from the media. People’s lives have been shattered. They’ve lost their homes, their way of life, their familiar surroundings, jobs, schools. They’ve fled with a small suitcase or a backpack. Some had to abandon their baggage to allow room on trains and buses for more people.

The moment refugees started arriving at the Polish border, people in cars packed with provisions showed up. Some were relatives and friends who came to pick them up. Many others came motivated by empathy and the desire to help by offering free rides. The drivers have to register online and wait for a phone call from another volunteer who will direct them to people needing a ride. Then comes another form that must have the names of the driver and all the passengers as well as phone numbers and destinations. As they leave the border, this form is handed to a policeman, an attempt to make the passengers feel safe, since Russian propaganda spreads fake information about kidnappings, robberies, and rapes perpetrated by Poles.

At one point there were more people wanting to help than those who needed help. Volunteers from all over the country distributed sandwiches, soup, hot tea, warm clothes, blankets, and even SIM cards. Since most of the refugees are women and children—their husbands and partners stayed behind if they are of conscription age—volunteers bring items such as diapers, baby bottles, formula, and toys. The ones who don’t get rides in cars are taken by bus to a transit center where they can rest and receive information. The Polish railway lets them travel for free wherever they want to go.

Poles who want to offer lodgings to refugees must register on a website or put their name on a list compiled by the local government. My sister and her husband live in a village of 200 residents in the Masurian Lake District and sometimes put up friends in their guesthouse. The whole village is getting ready to host 50 refugees, 10 of whom will stay with my sister. When I talked to her, she burst into tears describing the situation. Cities are more attractive to refugees, she said, as they provide more opportunities like jobs and schools, although due to the growing number of new arrivals, women with babies and small children may be happy to spend some time in a quiet place. My sister’s good friend from the region’s capital city offered the top floor of her house to two women, each of whom has a young child. One of the women was also accompanied by her 14-year-old brother. Like many other kids, the teenage boy is traumatized and needs psychological help. It took some doing, but a therapist who knows Ukrainian was finally located. Another person gave the boy a laptop.

A friend of mine, a poet who lives in Rzeszów, about a three-hour drive from Lviv, is hosting a Ukrainian family with a 14-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son from Ivano-Frankivsk. They are sleeping in an apartment over the garage but spend most of their time in the home of their hosts, who provide the food and cook their meals. My friend tells me the boy, whose name is Andrey, keeps asking, “Why don’t we go home?”

Alongside the people who arrived in Poland on their own were some 240 children, the youngest only two months old, evacuated from six Ukrainian orphanages; they’ve found a new home in western Pomerania. They were four days on the road and many needed medical and psychological help. Another group of evacuees consisted of people with severe disabilities who ended up in a small community with few resources. Thankfully their appeals were met with an outpouring of donations.

Ordinary people and all kinds of grassroots groups have taken matters into their own hands, even if many government officials rush to claim credit. The train stations are full of crowds, shelters are getting filled. Private people and businesses keep bringing donations of food and other necessary articles, restaurateurs deliver meals, doctors provide free medical care. Volunteers have their own lives, jobs, children, and other obligations, and yet many work 16 hours at a time or more. They often buy medications with their own money because there’s little top-down help and little coordination, and in many places chaos is beginning to reign. The question remains: How much longer will all these people be able to continue? More and more refugees keep entering the country, and the Polish government isn’t doing enough.

I ask myself why so many of my compatriots are helping out. They’re surely motivated by human compassion enhanced by the knowledge that Ukrainian refugees are neighbors with whom Poles share so much history. And maybe, deeper down, they also fear that Poland may become the next target in Putin’s rush to realize his imperial dreams.

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