Nearly 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled their war-torn country ever since Russian aggressions began less than a month ago. And Poland is the country that has welcomed the majority of these refugees – offering support through different means, whether from city governments or the local population.
Caught by surprise, many Polish cities are increasing their capacity to receive, house and provide basic services to Ukrainians arriving in ever-increasing flows. And the number may increase further in the coming days as the Russian army approaches Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
Rzeszow, about 100km from the border with Ukraine, “is a reception point that plays a focal role in creating a peaceful and safe atmosphere,” explains Konrad Fijołek, Mayor of the City of Rzeszow.
He adds that “Knowing that departing to our city is often the first encounter with Poland we treat this aspect seriously. We are aware that tens of millions have placed their trust in Polish people since they decided to come to our country.”
And volunteers play a critical role in helping refugees thrive in Rzeszow. At the railway station, from the first day of the war, the city has organised a help point open 24/7 with the distribution of free warm food, snacks and hot beverages.
“In the atmosphere of solidarity, plenty of citizens provide self-made food. In addition, we equip refugees with the most needed essentials, such as personal care products,” says Fijołek.
Some of the refugees have found accommodation for a few nights provided by Rzeszow’s citizens or non-governmental organisations and anyone with an interest in helping refugees is welcome to apply to be a volunteer through a special application form created by the city.
A call centre providing information in Ukrainian is available via Rzeszow City Hall, which offers details on the current situation in Ukraine and Poland, as well as, where and how to look for help. The call centre is performed by consultants speaking Polish, Ukrainian and English. They are answering calls from thousands of Ukrainians in need of assistance.
The city has also opened collection points to receive donations and humanitarian aid is collected at multiple points in the city.
Most of the Ukrainian refugees arriving are women and children and the city understands that they are extremely distressed after their families were torn apart. “We are very concerned about their psychological condition that is why we provide the help of professional therapists or lawyers organised by the local government,” explains Fijołek.
The mayor also mentioned other measures adopted by Rzeszow to welcome millions of Ukrainian refugees his city “in order to make a friendly space where refugees can feel comfortable. We have created a multilingual brochure with the basic information about Rzeszow, essential phone numbers and all useful phrases both in Ukrainian and Polish for the initial meeting. We offer free assistance for pets travelling with refugees. The Rzeszow Association for Animal Protection provides assistance such as bowls for food and transporters. We also offer assistance in looking for temporary caregivers in Poland.”
The city of Lodz is also welcoming refugees
In the city of Lodz, in central Poland, volunteers (not only from Poland but also from other parts of Europe) are helping to receive and pack supplies and humanitarian aid. In the city, volunteers help pack everything and explain their motivations.
Hanna Elżbieta Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz, believes that around 100,000 refugees have arrived in the city, and maybe 10-15,000 of them are children. “In the end, we will find [room for them] in our schools and kindergartens,” she says. The city is planning on improving its capacity to welcome refugees and provide care for children, helping them resume classes, and is opening the doors of orphanages for those who arrive without their parents.
“It’s the decision of the mothers, if they are planning to stay longer in our country, it’s up to them to decide to put their kids in Polish classes, so they can start to learn the language, if they still dream about going back to Ukraine, maybe they want to give the children a Ukrainian education. So we don’t know how many children and which type of education they want. But Ukraine is no place to come back now,” said Zdanowska.
But her idea is to do everything possible to help the refugees. “It’s not easy but we can do it,” she says.
Solidarity all over Poland
All over Poland, cities have stepped up their efforts to welcome the millions of refugees arriving from Ukraine.
A recent media trip organised by the Committee of the Regions captured the arrival of these refugees and their reception in Poland, in the city of Korczowa.
In Przemysl, Mayor Wojciech Bakun welcomes refugees at the city’s train station and for the media, he declared that “the most important thing at the moment is to organise sleeping space and areas for those who’ll stay longer. We are prepared with very fast organisation, transport to other cities and now a lot of cities in Poland and Europe have organised places for those staying for a longer time. We have just a structure for a few hours, for people to move to other areas.”
He asked for help from European institutions and countries as more refugees are expected.
“We work in two ways: One way is helping refugees here in our country and another way we send help to Ukrainian cities connected to us. We have 5 twin cities in Ukraine. In 3-4 days we sent nearly 25 trucks [of aid] to Ukraine.”
This is also a message shared by Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw where already 300,000 refugees have fled.
To help ease the integration of Ukrainians into EU cities, EU member states have activated the Temporary Protection Directive in an unprecedented unanimous vote, making it easier for Ukrainians to work and access services over the coming months, and perhaps years.