Sheltering refugees with humanity

Nadia Pihovska was celebrating her birthday in Dubai with her son on the day she learnt Russia had invaded her home country. With flights to Ukraine cancelled, she flew to Warsaw, intending to travel by land to her home. But when she reached  Rzeszów, just 90 kilometres from the border, fate intervened.

“At the railway station, I saw many Ukrainian refugees arriving, frightened and exhausted, and residents there helping,” says Nadia. “When I talked to some of the volunteers they said that the next day they would be going to fight in the war. I couldn’t believe that in the meantime they were helping the refugees.”

Inspired to put her name on the list of volunteers the city had already set up, Nadia was soon working at the rapidly established reception centre at the railway station, welcoming the thousands of refugees arriving daily by train, bus and minivan with warmth, home-made food and information.

Refugee reception in Rzeszow

Nadia rented a flat for the few weeks she expected to stay in the city and worked the night shift at the reception centre. It turned out she didn’t just have the big heart of a volunteer, she also had skills and knowledge that made her contribution particularly valuable.

“My life experience helps me a lot because I speak Polish, Ukrainian and Russian and am familiar with the city as my son studied at its university,” she says. “I try to be strong and helpful and do all that I can for the refugees. I try my best.”

I try to be strong and helpful and do all that I can for the refugees.
— Nadia Pihovska

Little did Nadia, or anyone, know then that Rzeszów would become the world’s gateway out of Ukraine and that hundreds of thousands of people would pass through the city before the year was out. Or that she would still be there, doing her best.

Now, Rzeszów’s approach to refugees has been recognised for its efficiency and humanity as a shortlisted candidate for the Eurocities Awards, with the winners to be chosen at the Brussels Urban Summit this June.

Safety and trust

Not even the mayor of the city could have imagined, when Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine, that Rzeszów would become renowned for its exemplary response to the resulting humanitarian crisis.

“We didn’t have any expectation or experience of war and we were not prepared for this crisis,” says Mayor Konrad Fijołek. “On the first days it was all spontaneous, but we knew from the number of refugees already arriving that it wouldn’t be possible to have order in the city without managing things well.”

More than this, stresses Fijołek, the city’s response could never just be about practicalities. Rzeszów played a focal role in creating a peaceful and safe atmosphere. “Knowing that the city is refugees’ first encounter with Poland and that they are placing their trust in Polish people means we treat this aspect seriously.”

The people of Rzeszów earned this trust from the very first day of the conflict. Thousands of residents simply brought Ukrainian mothers and children arriving at the station back to their own homes. “We didn’t have a refugee camp”, says Fijołek with pride. “The Poles took in their neighbours with open arms.”

Within weeks, two floors of the railway station had been given over to the reception centre.  

At the help point, manned day and night by volunteers including municipal staff and guards, residents and firefighters, refugees can get answers to questions about anything from where to charge their phones to how to travel to other cities across Poland.

Scores of volunteers are also always on hand distributing personal care products, food and drink and helping with carrying luggage, finding wheelchairs and quieting distressed children.

Communication and connection

Social media came into its own to let everyone in the city know how they could help. One call for sandwiches to feed an unexpectedly high number of new arrivals at the railway station resulted in residents racing to deliver over 1,000 within minutes.

The city also realised very early on that information in refugees’ own language would play a part in helping them feel welcome and making their stay in Rzeszów easier. A brochure was produced with essential phone numbers and useful phrases and a call centre set up in the city hall where multilingual volunteers advised on the situation in Ukraine and how to get help of all kinds.

Local services and organisations stepped up too. Medical centres turned the former city mall into 500-bed emergency accommodation for those waiting to transfer to their final destination. And the city’s animal protection organisation helped families who fled with pet dogs and cats, providing food, bowls, temporary care and transporters.

Refugee cat in Rzeszow

“No city could ever be ready for a situation like this but very quickly Rzeszów prepared a lot of things for us,” says Nadia. “No-one slept in the street. Everyone was in a warm place. Everyone felt safe, protected and respected.”

Taking care of Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of war is not, however, Rzeszów’s only role.

No-one slept in the street. Everyone was in a warm place
— Nadia Pihovska

“We play a second, humanitarian aid, role because people across Europe were making donations and cities asked if we could help,” says Fijołek. “What makes it all work is that mayors talked to each other and our network of connections in Ukraine can accept all the donations and send them out to different cities.”

As donations of clothes, sleeping bags, medical supplies, toys and even power generators started arriving, a distribution hub run by volunteers was set up in the sports hall, operating 24 hours a day to sort, repackage and forward donations.

Mobilising the world

Three months after the war began, Rzeszów’s population of nearly 200,000 had swelled by 50%. The city had established an effective cross-departmental way of working within the municipality and with the international aid organisations whose experience and funds were vital to its efforts.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF, the International Organisation for Migration, Medair and CORE, US actor Sean Penn’s crisis response organisation, all worked with the city to help refugees and support volunteers. Volunteers like Nadia.

“Sean Penn came to meet volunteers at the railway station and told us that CORE was going to support us,” says Nadia. “I would have continued volunteering even if nobody paid us but his support meant I could pay for my accommodation.”

Alongside this kind of immediate support, some aid organisations also work with the city as it prepares for a future in which many refugees, predicted to be 30,000 to 40,000, decide to build new lives in the city.

We will need new homes and schools, more medical facilities and to find good jobs for them
— Konrad Fijołek

“We needed to think how we can create the first elements of integration and what refugees who stay will need,” says Fijołek. “We will need new homes and schools, more medical facilities and to find good jobs for them. Finding the money for all this is a real test ahead of us.”

Among the first steps on this path is a long-term agreement with UNICEF to run activities for children to help them integrate and increase access to healthcare plus others focusing on helping children deal with the trauma of migration and employing Ukrainian speaking teachers in the city’s schools.

Refugee children's art in Rzeszow

Rzeszów reached out to an even wider range of global NGOs, government institutions, academics and businesses by organising the 2022 World for Ukraine Summit, which looked at urgent challenges and solutions for more effective joint action.

While its leaders worked at this international level, the city mobilised to address one of the most important aspects of the integration process: common cultural elements. Hundreds of events connecting Polish and Ukrainian customs, music, dance and literature were staged, reaching thousands of refugees and residents.  

However long it takes

One year on, Nadia Pihovska is still in Rzeszów. She’s no longer technically a volunteer though: she now works for the UN Refugee Agency. So, will she be one of those who stay? 

For sure I will go back to Ukraine, but for now I need to be here.
— Nadia Pihovska

“I could go home but honestly I feel more helpful for my country when I do something useful and important here. For sure I will go back to Ukraine, but for now I need to be here.”

“I know about a lot more things now, like mental health and Polish law,” she says. “It’s not just trains and accommodation any more, we can provide very different kind of services.”

It is the commitment and efforts of thousands of people like Nadia who have, says Fijołek, meant that, “The city didn’t fall down, there was no drama, everything was under control. We turned out to be a well organised and modern society full of sensitivity.” 

Tiphanie Mellor